Best, Vereen Carry the Load as Bears Win Season Opener Over Spartans

Photo: Jahvid Best rushes for a 1-yard touchdown in the 1st half.
Nathan Yan/Staff
Jahvid Best rushes for a 1-yard touchdown in the 1st half.

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Lately it seems like the Cal football team has been a tale of two quarterbacks.

Against Michigan State in the Bears' season opener Friday night, it was a pair of running backs who stole the show.

Jahvid Best had 24 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown, Shane Vereen broke 100 yards on the ground as well with an 81-yard touchdown scamper late in the fourth quarter, and Cal opened its season with a 38-31 win over the Spartans at Memorial Stadium.

With the Bears showing little reliance on their inexperienced receiving corps, Best and Vereen shouldered most of the load on offense, accounting for 291 of the team's 468 total yards on offense. Best was back to his old self in his first game since a hip injury sidelined him late last season, piling up 277 all-purpose yards on his own.

"As an offense, it's important for us to establish the run, dominate the running game," Best said. "With me and Shane, I feel like we can do that against any team."

Best's touchdown came on a two-yard run to the corner of the endzone that gave Cal a 17-7 lead going into halftime.

"Jahvid, he's a special player," coach Jeff Tedford said. "Like the touchdown that he ran around the edge, it looked like it was going nowhere. He just beat everyone with speed."

Michigan State kept things close in the second half, pulling to within seven points on a 34-yard field goal by Brett Swenson with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter.

But 17 seconds and one carry later, the lead was back to 14, as the Cal offensive line opened a huge hole for Vereen on the right side and the redshirt freshman won an 81-yard footrace down the sideline into the end zone.

"(The offensive line) made my job really easy," Vereen said. "Will Ta'ufo'ou blasted the corner out of the way and it was just a clear shot. I saw an opportunity to score and I just didn't want to let it go."

Vereen's touchdown made the score 38-24. Still, the Spartans refused to go quietly, as quarterback Brian Hoyer hit wideout Mark Dell on a 29-yard touchdown pass with 3:09 remaining to cut the deficit to a touchdown.

But Hoyer couldn't quite complete the comeback in the final minute. Michigan State got the ball back at the 29 with 40 seconds left in the game and made it as far as midfield, but Hoyer threw three straight incompletions and-on fourth and 10-his attempt to Dell was knocked down in traffic to seal the win.

"Overall, for the first game against a tough opponent, I thought we played well," said Cal quarterback Kevin Riley, who played all but two series. "We passed the ball well and blocked the ball well It was a good first game to improve on."

The block that Riley was referring to came in a scoreless game midway through the first quarter, when Bears safety Brett Johnson came around the left end to bat down an Aaron Bates punt attempt at the Spartans' five-yard line. Cal's Bryant Nnabuife picked up the loose ball and dove into the end zone for the touchdown, scoring the first points of the season for the Bears.

But it was Riley who made what was probably the play of the game.

With just under 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer pulled off a 10-yard touchdown run to cut Cal's lead to 24-21. On third down and 13 of the ensuing drive, Riley completed a 26-yard pass to tight end Cameron Morrah as he was being sacked by two Spartans linemen. The drive culminated in a five-yard touchdown pass to Ta'ufo'ou that protected the Bears' grasp on the game, and the play showcased the arm strength and playmaking ability that garnered Riley the starting position in the first place.

"Cam had him beat and I was trying to throw and a couple guys grabbed me at the same time," Riley said. "It was one-on-one and the guy's back was turned. I thought Cam did a good job of making the play."

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio acknowledged that-with his team gaining momentum out of halftime-Riley's play was a game-changer.

"One of the key plays in the game was Riley's throw to Cameron Morrah when we had him trapped," Dantonio said. "He just fluttered it up there and the guy made the catch."

Riley completed 17 of his 24 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Five of those passes went to Morrah, who was Cal's leading receiver on the night with 93 yards and a score. Sean Young was the only wideout to see significant touches, hauling in four catches for 81 yards, including a 42-yard bomb from Riley in the third quarter.

But the tailbacks carried the team on offense, and the Bears' defense-in its new 3-4 look-effectively shut down Michigan State's hard-nosed rushing attack. Heralded running back Javon Ringer gained just 81 yards on 27 carries-though he did find the end zone twice-and Hoyer was unable to pick up the slack, completing just 42 percent of his passes.

"Our main focus was to stop the run," linebacker Anthony Felder said. "We watched a lot of film, and we knew that that was their style of play. We knew the only returners they had on offense were the running backs and the offensive line, so we prepared pretty heavily for that."

Felder led the team with 12 tackles, while fellow senior and outside linebacker Zack Follett added eight of his own. Felder also batted down Hoyer's final pass attempt to seal the win for Cal.

"It's the first one, we're 1-0, but we have a lot to improve on," Tedford said. "We'll watch the tape, just try to get better every week."

Game notes:

Cal was the beneficiary of several key penalties by the Spartans. An offensive pass interference call on tight end Fred Smith nullified a potential touchdown in the first quarter. Michigan State was also called for a holding penalty on a rush by Ringer that would have put them at the two-yard line of the Bears, and a 22-yard touchdown pass from Hoyer to Dell later in the same drive was reversed after an official review.

With Friday's victory at Memorial Stadium, the Bears have now won 23 of their last 27 home games.

Cal's young kicking game looked very promising, as David Seawright hit a field goal and all five extra points, and punter Bryan Anger averaged 48 yards on his four punts. His first of the game-and the first of his Cal career-went for 59 yards.

Nate Longshore entered the game with just under seven minutes left in the second quarter and completed a 50-yard pass to a streaking Morrah on his first attempt. However, he ended the drive by throwing an interception in the end zone to Spartans safety Otis Wiley. When he came back out for a second series, Wiley picked him off again and returned the interception 31 yards for a touchdown.

The attendance was 62,956-the 25th straight home game with over 50,000 fans.


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]

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