By Stewart Mandel
September 19, 2009

Should this wind up being the year of the Cal Bears -- the year Jeff Tedford's program finally crashes the BCS, maybe even secures that first Rose Bowl berth since 1959 -- we may look back at Kevin Riley's two fourth-quarter passes against Minnesota as the turning point.

Riley, Cal's oft-maligned junior quarterback, was the Bears' biggest preseason question mark. During the first half of Saturday's important road game at Minnesota, he quietly took care of business while star RB Jahvid Best shredded the Gophers early for 114 yards and three touchdowns. But when Minnesota fought back to tie the game 21-21 late in the third quarter -- led by its own potential All-America, WR Eric Decker -- Riley appeared like he might be reverting to old form, forcing throws into coverage and very nearly tossing a pick-six. As Best mysteriously disappeared, Cal went three-and-out on four straight possessions (with a fumbled punt return in between), and the Bears appeared in danger of enduring a fifth straight road loss.

But all that changed in the course of two throws. With Cal facing third-and-16 from its own 21, with just over nine minutes remaining and the crowd at sparkling new TCF Bank Stadium roaring, Best picked up an incoming blitzer while Riley stood tall and fired a dart down the left sideline to receiver Jeremy Ross for a momentum-changing 35-yard completion. Three plays later, Riley found Ross again for a 31-yard pass to the Minnesota one-yard-line, setting up Best's go-ahead touchdown run.

When Cal LB Michael Mohamed picked off Gopher QB Adam Weber on the first play of Minnesota's ensuing possession, Riley (who finished 16-of-25 for 253 yards) and Best marched downfield again to put away a 35-21 win.

No. 8 Cal needed this win to be taken seriously as a BCS contender, but the way it went down -- with Riley and the Bears responding beautifully to adversity -- should be a huge confidence-booster heading into another tough road date next week at Oregon and then a potential Armageddon home date with No. 3 USC.

Meanwhile, Best surely grabbed the attention of Heisman voters Saturday with his five-touchdown performance. Though he gained all but 18 of his 132 yards in the first half, he produced enough highlight-reel runs to ensure prime SportsCenter air time throughout the day. He was already viewed as a legit contender; now, the Bears can be, too.

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