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Remembering The Kevin Riley Era Of Cal Football

Whatever Kevin Riley did for Cal football, it was never good enough for Cal fans.
Whatever Kevin Riley did for Cal football, it was never good enough for Cal fans.

Avinash: Kevin Riley wasn't a terrible quarterback, although he'd do things that made you want to shoot dolphins out of cannons. He wasn't a great quarterback, although he'd do other things that made you believe that you could construct skyscrapers with no schematics.The answer was somewhere in the suburban middle; he was simply fairly average for a college football quarterback.

He did things that a lot of average quarterbacks do, like mistime with his receivers and hit the checkdown man. He did some things that a lot of great quarterbacks do, like make big throws in big situations. He did other things bad quarterbacks do, like completely miss open guys, never take advantage of stacked boxes, etc. His career was a sine curve that abruptly stopped after three and a half periods.

I don't really begrudge him for his inconsistent performances. Sure, he could've been more dedicated in his work ethic and it might've made him a better quarterback earlier. But knowing people who knew Riley, I always knew he was trying hard to get better. He matured. He grew serious. He put it together and seemed to make 2010 different from all the other years. A lot of people suggested he regressed, and that wasn't the case at all. He definitely improved year-by-year, game-by-game.

But he also had genetics working against him. He wasn't a physically talented quarterback the way Aaron Rodgers or Kyle Boller were. He was six feet tall, and that was being generous. When he stepped back to pass, he was always having trouble seeing over the offensive line and reading the defense. It's probably why we saw a lot of shotgun the last two years, and why we saw a lot more cut-blocking to open up passing lanes for Riley to throw through. The fact that he finished 2010 with a 60% completion rate and a 140 passer rating suggested Riley was finally turning a corner and making the leap we all felt he was capable of making.

And of course, just when it seemed like he was turning the corner, Brennan Olander landed right onto his leg. His season was over, and in retrospect, so was ours.  Figures. 

It kind of feels like Riley's career never got the finality it deserved, just like it never got the start it deserved. We were left feeling teased. It's a damned shame.

How will you remember the Kevin Riley era?

TwistNHook: Where the fans decided that the reality in their head was more important than the reality on the field.  First, he was too good for Cal. Then, he wasn't good enough.  I lost a lot of respect for the Cal fans, honestly, during that period of time.

LeonPowe: Riley era: (2007) (OSU) What a comeback! Wait, what is he doing? NOOOOO!  (Air Force) What a great comeback! (2008) I want Nate/Riley/Nate/Riley/Nate/

Riley/whoever is sitting on the sidelines is who I want in the game. (2009) Ok, ok, he's calmed down and is looking better. What a great block! (2010) Well, except for the overthrows, he's ok, I guess. God, get Mansion and/or Sweeney in there. Wait, he's out for the season? NOOOOOOOO! 

Ultimately a dogged competitor who had the guts and some talent in there, but could never really get it together consistently and had a sucky end to his career. I loved his grit, but just hated the Kevin Riley randomness initiative where no one knew if they were getting a good Riley or bad Riley from game to game.

solarise: Maddening overthrows & underthrows. Riley did take care of the ball most of the time though and was a fierce competitor.

Berkelium97: Some of my fondest memories are from his brilliant 4th quarter performance against OSU in '07 and his comeback in the Armed Forces Bowl.  He never lived up to the incredible hype generated after the 2007 offseason, but no one except Aaron Rodgers could live up to that hype.  As a whole, I'll remember him as a fierce, tenacious competitor (no QB loved blocking for RBs quite like Riley).  He wasn't without his faults (bouts of inaccuracy), but he was a guy you could always root for on the field.  It's a shame his Cal career ended on such a sour note.

norcalnick: Shane deservedly got most of the plaudits for his 42 carry Big Game performance, but I'll remember that game as Riley's career high as well.  The stats aren't particularly eye catching - just 17-31 for 235 yards, but it was his command and execution of the gameplan that impressed me.  Cal had absolute control of the ball - they dominated time of possession.  Lots of that was Shane, but lots of that was Riley coming through with huge 3rd down completions.  There were even a few drops of passes that he put right on the money.  And the image I'll always remember is Kevin getting carried around by the student section with the Axe nearby as he extends his index finger towards the sky.

Ohio Bear: I'll probably remember Kevin Riley for three things: (1) wild inconsistency; (2) the final play vs. Oregon State in 2007; and (3) being undefeated in Big Games he started.

Avinash: A few other things stick out.

1) Dominant at home. Other than USC 2009, he was one of our best home performers who seemed to be much more at ease in front of Cal students and alumni. His home splits are impressive: 31 touchdowns, 8 interceptions. Riley finished his career 15-3 at Memorial, and when he got his confidence going, he could blow most teams out.

Even though the fans wrung their hands probably every time he stepped back to throw, he found a way to win games at home.

2) Atrocious on the road. Riley finished his career 5-10 in away games, with splits of 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Those five wins? 2008 Washington St. (and he was terrible in that game), 2009 Minnesota (probably the most impressive win on this list), 2009 UCLA (in front of a half-full Rose Bowl with Vereen and Best going gangbusters), 2009 Arizona St. (and again he didn't play well until the last two fourth quarter drives), and the 2009 Big Game (pretty much a 50-50 split of Cal fans). 

When the crowd was loud and/or the competition was tough? Look out. 4.5 yards per attempt against Arizona this year. A pick six against Nevada and three interceptions overall. He wasn't very good at USC this year and was even worse against Oregon and Washington the year before. Say what you want about Longshore, but he played pretty well away from Memorial in hostile environments. Riley rarely mustered it. Although two of those he played in relief and one he got knocked out early, he pretty much passed us out of most of those games.

3) Impressive comeback ability. I will say one thing Riley was good at that Longshore rarely exhibited. If the Golden Bears fell behind by a touchdown or two (nothing more), I always felt we had a chance to win because Riley has never been fazed by a deficit. Riley had the Armed Forces Bowl comeback in 2007, but he also had three come-from-behind drives against Arizona State, Arizona, and the Big Game in 2009. He made two huge throws to Jeremy Ross in Minnesota. We could've had a much worse record in 2009 if Riley hadn't maintained his mettle.

It's what made 2010 so frustrating. Cal had some close games this year they could've won if Riley was playing under center (Oregon and Washington), or if he'd displayed the clutch ability he'd shown off the year before (Arizona and Nevada).

4) Struggled to get on the same page with his receivers. There were a lot of overthrows because either (a) receivers were running the wrong routes, or (b) Riley was reading the coverage differently than the way the receivers were. They'd both get criss-crossed and hastened the offensive stalling.

5) True Golden Bear. I don't think there's been a more rah-rah quarterback in the Tedford era, save maybe Steve Levy. Here's what he wrote to Cal fans a little bit after he knew his season was over.

To Everyone,
Well, I am alive and still the same Kevin (there's some good and bad in that probably). I wanted to thank all of you for your encouragement during these tougher times in my life. I have always appreciated everybody's support through my years in California, even though I should have told you guys that more. I'm pretty sure you all knew that I knew the support was there. My knee will be ok, and as of right now it does not look like I will need surgery but I am going to get a second opinion from the Oakland Raiders doctor tomorrow morning. My doctors have told me that the injury is serious, but they keep telling me how very lucky I am and it could have been much much worse. I have a mild sprain in my ACL , MCL and LCL. They are a grade 2 sprain, which is a partial tear. The capsules in the back of my knee all exploded but they say that happens when you hyperextend your knee that badly ( I didn't know I was that flexible). The main injury is my Gastrocnemius (one of your calf muscles) where it goes up to your knee is torn around 60%. They say that it will take around 3 months, which isn't great but at least it isn't 6-10 months. To everyone that is apart of my life, I couldn't ask for better people to help raise me and just be around. Thank you to everyone who has helped me grow into a man, because there was a long while where I was just a pain in the ass (always with good intentions though). I wanted to thank all of you for your thoughts for me and my family. I will be up and running in no time. See you all soon.

Kevin Riley

No one fired up his team as much as Riley did. He was always jubilant on a successful offensive play or touchdown, he went down to sacrifice his body and block for his tailbacks on a broken run, he got the team fired up. When Riley went down, our offense lost its fire, and it never really could pick itself up the rest of the year. There was no one on the team to fire them up (Vereen is too quiet and Allen is too young), and the offense lost its confidence over the final homestretch.

But even at the end, despite all the vitriol he's endured from the fans and the criticism from the coaches and the media, a letter like that emphasizes that he still bleeds blue and gold. That's someone to root for. That was Kevin Riley at Cal.