When Oregon State last visited Berkeley two years ago, it resulted in quarterback Kevin Riley's most forgettable moment at Cal. He tried to run for a touchdown with no timeouts remaining, and the clock ran out in a 31-28 loss.
Now, Riley has come full circle. He made all the right decisions while orchestrating a flawless two-minute drive to beat Arizona State last weekend. It was the first time he had been in that position since the blunder against the Beavers.
"If I was now in that situation, I just would have thrown the ball out of bounds right away," Riley said of the game two years ago. "It's just something you learn from, and I've learned from it and gotten better."
Oregon State will see a much different quarterback Saturday than it did two years ago. Riley was forced into his first collegiate start because of an ankle injury to Nate Longshore and had an uneven performance. But he almost led the Bears back from a 31-21 deficit, first completing a 64-yard touchdown pass to Lavelle Hawkins, and then taking over at the Cal 5-yard line with 1:27 remaining and marching the team downfield before the stunning ending.
Riley made 16 starts since that game and never had the chance to lead the Bears on a potential game-winning drive with the clock winding down — until Saturday. With the Sun Devils leading 21-20, the Bears took over at their 19 with 3:16 to go. Riley went 5-for-6 for 85 yards to set up Giorgio Tavecchio's 24-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining.
"It showed Kevin's growth through the years here," Cal left tackle Mike Tepper said. "It just kind of shows he's maturing into a good quarterback."
After forgettable performances in blowout losses to Oregon and USC, Riley has bounced back with three solid outings to lead Cal on a three-game winning streak. While the first two came against Pac-10 bottom-feeders UCLA and Washington State, Riley excelled Saturday against the conference's top-ranked defense. He finished 27-for-44 for 351 yards and two touchdowns.
"Kevin has always been a great competitor. He has a lot of confidence in his abilities," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "The other day, that wasn't a complete shock. The mental part of it and the emotional part of it, I've never seen Kevin crack or succumb to the pressure of what's going on. Everyone around him hasn't always given him the best opportunity to succeed, and that's a team thing just like this was a team thing."
Riley endured criticism after the losses to Oregon and USC. He completed just 38 percent of his passes for 322 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
Much of Riley's struggles against the Ducks were out of his control, as his offensive line failed to provide adequate pass protection. But Riley had open receivers and time to throw against the Trojans. He simply misfired too often.
"I missed a lot of throws," Riley said. "We started falling behind, and I got anxious and tried to get it going. I never really calmed down. It's something I don't do very often, and it just happened. It was just a bad game for me. It was one of those days."
The back-to-back losses knocked Cal out of the race for the Pac-10 title, which many believed the Bears had a serious chance to win this season. Riley became one of the primary targets for criticism from fans and the media.
"You hear people on TV saying they don't think I can get it done," Riley said. "I think I'm a lot better player than some people think. I know the player I am and I think that's showing these past three games. You're going to have bad games. I'm starting to get more confidence and get it going."
Multiple Cal players said they weren't surprised by what Riley did Saturday. Cal emphasizes the hurry-up offense during practice, and Riley usually performs well in those situations.
"Every time I watch TV and every time I read the papers about Kevin Riley not being consistent and stuff like that, I think it's all bull," Cal receiver Nyan Boateng said. "I really think he's a good quarterback. He's learning on the job. He has a lot of young receivers around him. He's done a great job."
Notes: Nose tackle Derrick Hill (stinger) and left guard Matt Summers-Gavin (shoulder) each will miss his second straight game. ... Tailback Jahvid Best returned to practice after missing the past two with a slight concussion. He is expected to start Saturday.
How Kevin Riley ranks in the
Touchdown passes 13 1st
Interceptions 2 1st (T)
Passing yards 1,805 4th
Passing efficiency 139.4 5th
Total offense 233.0 5th