BERKELEY -- Kevin Riley was on the cusp of forging one of the great moments in the history of Cal football in his first career start. Then he served a reminder that it was indeed just that -- his first career start.
Riley almost led the No. 2 Bears to an improbable comeback from 10 points down late in the fourth quarter Saturday, but his failure to throw the ball away with the team in field-goal range helped Oregon State pull off a 31-28 upset Saturday night in front of 63,995 at Memorial Stadium.
The loss likely cost Cal (5-1, 2-1 Pac-10) a chance to become the No. 1 team in the country in the national polls after current No. 1 LSU lost to Kentucky earlier in the day.
Riley led the Bears onto the field with 1:27 remaining and drove them from their own 6-yard line to the Oregon St. 12 with just 14 seconds left. With kicker Jordan Kay preparing to attempt a game-tying field goal on the sideline, Riley took off running after avoiding some pressure but was brought down at the 10 by Beavers linebacker Joey LaRocque. The Bears were out of timeouts, and with only a few seconds remaining at the end of the play, they had no chance to get their field goal unit on to the field.
"I knew there was 14 seconds left on the clock," Riley said. "My initial read wasn't there. I saw some green field at first and I thought I could get around the guy. It's just football instincts. I thought about throwing it out of bounds but I thought I might have been over the line of scrimmage. I was trying to make a play and it didn't work out."
Riley found out he was going to start about 10 minutes before kickoff. Starter Nate Longshore tested his sprained left ankle during pregame but didn't demonstrate that he "was going to be mobile enough to protect himself and run the offense," according to coach Jeff Tedford. Riley struggled at the outset but played much better in the second half, finishing 20-for-34 for 294 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another score.
Yvenson Bernard's touchdown run on fourth down from inside the Cal 1-yard line, along with a two-point conversion, gave Oregon St. a 28-21 lead with 8:30 to go. Jahvid Best fumbled the ensuing kickoff, setting up Alexis Serna's 33-yard field goal with 6:13 to play. But Riley threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Lavelle Hawkins to trim the deficit to three with 2:31 remaining. Cal failed on an onside kick, but forced a three-and-out to get the ball back for a final chance at a scoring drive.
Riley kept hope alive with a 19-yard completion to Hawkins on 4th-and-17 from the Cal 17, then threw a beautiful pass to Robert Jordan for a 37-yard gain to the Beavers' 27. A pass interference penalty on OSU cornerback Tim Clark moved the ball to the 12, setting up the fateful final play.
"He was trying to make a play," Tedford said. "Maybe he thought he could get to the end zone. I don't know exactly. But it's not his fault whatsoever. He played his heart out down the stretch there to even get us in that situation. We didn't lose the game because of that play. There are a lot of plays in the game that we could have played better and we didn't."
Indeed, on a night when the Bears could have put themselves in position to become the top-ranked team in the land, they didn't play like that. Cal, which entered the game with just four turnovers on the season, committed three against the Beavers (4-3, 2-2). The Bears also made a questionable decision to squib a kickoff with 43 seconds left in the first half. It was recovered by the Beavers' Isaiah Cook at their 41 and set up Serna's 52-yard field goal with one second left before the half.
Cal also failed to score on 1st-and-goal from the OSU 2-yard line. Justin Forsett ran it four consecutive times and was stopped short of the goal line on fourth down.
"It's not (Riley's) fault," said Forsett, who finished with 150 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. "He did a great job the whole game. We turned the ball over and shot ourselves in the foot."
Cal may also have lost a chance to earn the No. 1 ranking in the first Bowl Championship Series standings, which will be revealed today. But the Bears are encouraged by the uncertainty that is plaguing top teams all across the country -- three more unbeatens went down Saturday, and the makeup of today's polls and BCS standings are really anybody's guess.
"It's disappointing, but we got lessons to learn from it," Cal middle linebacker Worrell Williams said. "Now we can really forget about the rankings. The season is not over. We're not out of it."