September 11, 2009

BERKELEY, Calif. -- This colorful college town -- situated just north of Oakland, just east of San Francisco and just left of, well, everywhere -- has long been a lightning rod, creating and attracting all kinds of excitement. Elections spring uprisings and protests morph into maelstroms, whipping both student newcomers and hippie holdovers into a hyper-active frenzy.

Yes, Berkeley is constantly buzzed. But Cal football usually has little to do with it.

That is, until now.

"There's an excitement surrounding this team -- the kind of excitement we haven't often had," said Joe Starkey, Cal's radio announcer since 1975. "There's a feeling that this group could be special."

The Bears certainly looked the part in a 52-13 mauling of Maryland last Saturday that avenged last year's 35-27 loss in College Park. The victory propelled Cal to No. 10 in this week's Associated Press poll and, more importantly, went a long way toward quelling many of the doubts that have surrounded this year's team.

All offseason, fans and critics identified inconsistent passing as the chief roadblock on Cal's quest to unseat seven-time defending Pac-10 champ USC. But junior quarterback Kevin Riley shredded the Terrapins defense, completing 17-of-26 passes for 298 yards and a career-high four touchdowns.

"That's the kind of production we need from him," running back Jahvid Best said. "If we keep having production like that we're going to be unstoppable."

It was certainly an improvement over last season, when Riley completed 51 percent of his passes for 1,360 yards and 14 touchdowns (against six interceptions) in part-time duty. The Oregon native earned the starting nod after last year's preseason camp as well, but ended up splitting snaps with Nate Longshore. Now, there's no quarterback controversy, and the keys to the offense rest in Riley's hands.

"In the summer, I went about it like this was my team and just continued from there," Riley said after he beat out sophomore Brock Mansion for the starting job. "Now they're telling me that I'm the guy. I am ready to play."

The Bears' passing offense ranked seventh in the conference last season, averaging 190 yards per game. Riley and Longshore were both inconsistent, but coach Jeff Tedford insists everyone shoulders the blame for the team's passing woes.

"The passing game was not all on Kevin last year," said Tedford. "Whether it was pass protection, balls dropped or errant throws, it all kind of goes together. ... It's not just Kevin that was the problem, and it's not just Kevin that's the solution."

Season-ending injuries plagued both the offensive line and the receiving corps. But with both units now more experienced, and with contributors such as sophomore wideout Marvin Jones (who caught three passes for 74 yards and a touchdown against Maryland) and senior tackle Mike Tepper now healthy, significant improvements are expected.

"As a group -- quarterbacks and receivers -- we don't want to be the laughingstock of the team," said senior receiver Nyan Boateng. "We can't have that again."

Best, though, stands to gain the most from an improved passing game. The sneaky-strong speedster -- as a high school senior he ran the 100-meter in 10.31 seconds to win the California state championship -- dashed, darted and sometimes bullied his way to 8.1 yards per carry in 2008, totaling 1,580 yards and 15 touchdowns. He topped 185 rushing yards in four games and ran for 311 yards in less than three quarters against Washington. But Best disappeared in the Bears' biggest game of the year, gaining only 30 yards on 13 carries in a 17-3 loss to USC.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound waterbug of a Hesiman candidate lights up when asked about the benefits of a potent passing game.

"It will make my job a world of a lot easier," he said. "With teams not being able to buckle down on the run game, we'll be able to do a lot more things."

It showed against Maryland, when Best carried the ball 10 times for 137 yards and two touchdowns (one of two yards, the other of 73) in the game's first six minutes.

With a consistent passing attack and performance like that from Best, the Bears think they can play their way into a BCS bowl -- possibly the Rose, where they haven't been since 1959.

"For this fan base, that would be like the Cubs or the Red Sox winning the World Series," said Starkey.

Some Bears, though, are thinking bigger.

"We're ready to have a great season," said Boateng, "and win a national championship."

Now that would give Berkeley a new kind of buzz.

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