AS NIGHT FELL on the first full weekend of Pac-10 football, Cal fans cruised into Labor Day with two conclusions inextricably linked to each other.
The first is that their team has a chance to achieve everything it has not had, ever, from the conference championship to the Rose Bowl to the Top-10 ranking and all the accompanying prestige.
The second is that there is no sign any of this will happen without a complete and unimpaired season from junior tailback Jahvid Best. If Cal's 52-13 victory over Maryland Saturday before 62,367 at Memorial Stadium is to be considered a preview, 2009 is going to be a thrill ride for those who follow the Golden Bears. There will be times when you will want to close your eyes, times when your heart will dance with joy, times when you hold your breath without even realizing it.
The trick to getting to that long-anticipated delightful ending is whether the defense can be as stingy in conference play as it was against a team that flew in from the East coast — and whether the Bears can summon enough besides Best.
In other words, in addition to having Jahvid The Great suit up for all 12 games, Cal also needs junior quarterback Kevin Riley to evolve as majestically over the season as he did during this game.
Riley early wasn't very good throwing downfield, underthrowing a couple receivers who had beaten defenders. He was, however, fairly proficient in the area most critical to a quarterback.
He made plays when he needed to, such as ducking to avoid Maryland defensive end Jared Harrell and zipping a 3-yard touchdown pass to Skylar Curran to give the Bears a 24-6 lead in the second quarter. Riley came back two minutes later to nail wideout Nyan Boateng with a 39-yard strike, pushing it to 31-6 and putting the game in rout mode just before halftime.
Riley's halftime statistics — 12-of-19 passing, 189 yards, two touchdowns — were a bit more impressive than he was, but not by much.
And he made up for his earlier misses with his third TD pass, making a beautiful throw to hit Marvin Jones in stride for a 42-yard touchdown on a pass midway through the third quarter.
It looked as if the young man from Portland had gotten his feet beneath him, so to speak.
Which speaks well of Cal's immediate future, not so much next week against Eastern Washington but the following weeks at Minnesota, at Oregon and at home against USC.
After all, several hours before three-touchdown favorite Bears buried the Terrapins in Berkeley, five-touchdown favorite USC already had eviscerated San Jose State 56-3 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. So neither Cal nor SC did less than expected and, well, each may have done a little more.
Elsewhere, Stanford won big at Washington State, UCLA won big over San Diego State, Oregon State won big over Portland State, Arizona State mashed Idaho State, Arizona subdued Central Michigan and Washington acquitted itself quite well against powerhouse LSU.
Oregon, perceived by some as a dark horse, lost big at Boise State on Thursday. The Ducks lost their top running back, LaGarrette Blount, for the season after he threw a post-game tirade for the ages.
So general consensus, that the only legitimate contenders for the Pac-10 title are Cal and the almighty Trojans, remained in place. All others still have more to prove.
Yet neither Cal nor SC has a reason to presume anything close to an undefeated season. The Trojans will lean on the running game because that's the surest way to incubate freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. The Bears will lean on Best because, frankly, they need to see a bit more of Riley and his receivers.
Best got his, running for 137 yards on 10 carries, with two touchdowns, one of which was a 73-yard bolt of lightning to jump-start the offense in the first quarter. He sat out most of the second half because it made sense for coach Jeff Tedford to sit his best player.
But the Bears and their fans also saw quite a bit of Riley and his crew. The longer they looked, the better it got. At this rate, well, hope has every reason to be very much alive.
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.