If discovering a productive passing game is the final piece to the Cal's Rose Bowl puzzle, the Bears took a substantial step forward Saturday night.
Quarterback Kevin Riley was an efficient 17-for-26 for 298 yards with a career-high four touchdowns, and Cal's wide receivers demonstrated an improved ability to get open during a 52-13 rout of Maryland in front of 62,367 at Memorial Stadium.
The hypothesis is that the Bears have a championship-caliber running game and defense and just need their passing game to match that level.
"We took a great step forward," said sophomore wide receiver Marvin Jones, who had three catches for 74 yards and a touchdown in his first career start. "We always want to show that we're dynamic. Obviously, we have the most explosive player in the nation right now. We want to show that we can also pass."
The Bears showed it against Maryland, complementing Heisman Trophy candidate Jahvid Best's 137-yard, two-touchdown performance on the ground. Riley, now Cal's undisputed leader after sharing time with the departed Nate Longshore last season, overcame a 1-for-5 start and had the game in his hands by halftime.
"That's the kind of production we need from him," Best said. "If he keeps having production like that, we're going to be unstoppable."
Riley made a perfect pass to Jones for a 42-yard touchdown in the third quarter and demonstrated escapability and command of the offense on a 3-yard touchdown throw to tight end Skylar Curran in the second quarter. On the play, Riley avoided a sack by ducking under Maryland defensive end Jared Harrell, then made a quick read to find Curran in the end zone.
Riley also completed a 39-yard touchdown pass to Nyan Boateng, who was wide open down the middle of the field.
"I thought Kevin was really sharp," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "Kevin made good decisions. He made some people miss in the pocket. I thought Kevin played really solid tonight and ran the offense really, really well."
Riley had no trouble dealing with Maryland's aggressive defensive schemes, which were supposed to be confusing. The Bears entered the game with some uncertainty, because the Terrapins have a first-year defensive coordinator and didn't have any game film for Cal to study. But Cal knew Maryland would be a blitzing, pursuing defense and hoped to counter it with some big strikes.
"When you're going to live by the blitz, if you break it, you're going to go a long way," Tedford said. "I thought our offensive line did a nice job and then our backs are pretty good at finding creases."
Cal's offense registered five plays that went for at least 39 yards, including Best's 73-yard touchdown run on his second carry of the game. Best added a 40-yard run later.
Because of Maryland's blitzing ways, Cal's receivers consistently found themselves up against man coverage.
"We were put into a situation where we could make plays," Jones said. "We prepared so hard for this, some long, hard hours. I think it translated into the game."
Time will tell if Cal's success in the passing game was due more to Maryland's risky defensive schemes or more effective play by the principals involved on offense. But for one night, the Bears were feeling pretty good about their balance.
"Everybody knows we can run the ball with the backs we have and the line we have," Riley said. "Tonight we did some good things."