There are exactly 33 words Cal quarterback Kevin Riley will never forget.
All from Versus play-by-play announcer Ted Robinson, all coming on October 13, 2007.
“Months and months of preparation and training, and one mistake by a freshman, a redshirt freshman trying to make something happen, and the mistake has cost his team a shot at sure overtime.”
On that fateful night, Kevin Riley gained perhaps the most haunting two yards of his career in a 31-28 loss to visiting Oregon State, running out the clock on a brilliant comeback for the second-ranked Bears—and more importantly the program’s bid for its first No. 1 ranking in 56 years.
It’s a decision—to run, rather than pass with time ticking down—that has thus far defined the Portland native’s career in the Strawberry Canyon.
One that has left the blue and gold faithful wondering less about whether the Bears can win with Riley, and more about whether they can win in spite of him.
In 2008, Riley’s first season as a starting quarterback, he finished with only 1,360 passing yards on the season while semi-splitting duties with his back-up (Riley started nine games in ’08).
He finished with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions and totaled 123.6 passing yards per game—slightly better yardage numbers than win-less Washington’s Ronnie Fouch (121.7).
In the end, Riley couldn’t seize the moment.
In fact, he couldn’t even keep starter-turned-backup Nate Longshore on the sideline—the Cal senior started the Bears’ final two games of the season including a 24-17 Emerald Bowl win against Miami in which Riley didn’t see the field.
Entering a Longshore-less 2009, Riley appears to be the clear-cut starter with 277 career pass attempts to redshirt soph Brock Mansion's six. And there’s at least of handful of pundits who believe quarterback guru Jeff Tedford still has some magic left for the former Gatorade High School Player of the Year.
Riley is listed among the “possibilities” for Heisman Trophy winners by Phil Steele in his college football preview. He’s a third-team preseason All Pac-10 quarterback according to Athlon and listed as the nation's No. 22 draft eligible quarterback by Steele.
But if Tedford has learned anything since his 2002 arrival, it’s that third-teamers don’t get you to the Rose Bowl, much less a Pac-10 title.
Since 2002, just one Pac-10 champion quarterback finished with less than 3,000 passing yards (John David Booty, 2007), coincidentally one of three shared conference crowns for the Trojans during the Tedford era.
In the past seven years, Washington State’s Jason Gesser remains the lone QB to win a Pac-10 title (again shared with USC) and complete less than 60 percent of his passes (58.7 in 2002).
And not a single signal caller since '02 threw less than 20 touchdowns and won a Pac-10 title. In fact, four of the 10 trophy winners tossed 30-plus.
Riley, meanwhile, has yet to break the 2,000-yard plateau for career passing. He hovered just above a 50 percent completion percentage in 2008 and has 19 career scores.
If he doesn’t improve immensely, will a serviceable quarterback be enough to compliment eight returning starters on defense and a Heisman hopeful in the backfield? Or will Riley cost his team another shot at greatness?
Whether with him, or in spite of him, the Bears are stuck with Riley.
Follow Grant Marek on Twitter: @Grant_Marek