Cal-Oregon State a measuring stick for their season

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

How does a team define a successful season? Here's a guess that both California's and Oregon State's definitions includes a victory this weekend.

Considering that they are meeting in Berkeley on Saturday, the obvious point of contention is one will walk away with a high degree of disappointment.

A win guarantees nothing. But a loss probably will prelude a below-expectation finish in the Pac-10.

California (6-2, 3-2), ranked 20th in the BCS standings, has won three straight since since becoming a national punchline after losing consecutive weekends to Oregon and USC by a combined count of 72-6. A third-place finish and a potential Holiday Bowl berth -- if the conference gets two BCS teams -- are still appealing possibilities, though the Bears were thinking Rose Bowl in the preseason.

Oregon State (5-3, 3-2) likely would return to the national rankings with a victory. The Beavers have won three of four since inconsistent performances at home against Cincinnati and Arizona, but a third conference defeat likely would leave them looking at a fourth- or fifth-place conference finish.

The Bears are looking to shake off the ghosts of this season, so it seems appropriate that they will try to do so against a team that has haunted them of late.

Oregon State has won the last two meetings in the series and four in a row in Berkeley. The win at Cal in 2007, one might recall, is particularly notable.

On that day, the 5-0 Bears were ranked No. 2 in the nation and took the field knowing that No. 1 LSU had lost to Kentucky. Even though starting quarterback Nate Longshore, who had played well in wins over Tennessee and Oregon (had to dump that in Cal fans), was out with an ankle injury, Cal fans were confident. The Beavers were only 3-3 and had lost at home to the Bears 41-13 the year before.

So no worries, right?

The Bears fell behind early, but their backup quarterback found his rhythm and led a furious rally. He drove Cal into position to kick a game-tying field goal and force overtime.

But, with the clock ticking down and no timeouts, he thought he saw some daylight. He took off up the middle. He was tackled on the 10-yard line. The clock hit zero. The Beavers won 31-28. Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who rarely shows extreme emotion on the sideline, spiked his play sheet in frustration.

The Bears imploded thereafter, that loss becoming the first of six defeats in seven games.

That quarterback of whom we type, of course, is Kevin Riley.

Riley, now a junior, was asked if he remembered the play in question. He let out a short laugh.

"I definitely remember it," he said. "I made a mistake and it was a bad mistake. But I learned from it. I've played 20 or so games since then. I'm a lot better player than I was then. I remember it though."

What's notable now, however, is that Riley, who presently sports a bushy beard that he refuses to shave during the Bears winning streak, is fresh off leading a game-winning drive to beat Arizona State. He's played well, in fact, since the Bears were manhandled by the Ducks and Trojans, completing 62 percent of his passes during the streak with eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

But by proving he can come through in the clutch, which he did when he went 5 for 6 for 85 yards on the 11-play drive that set up the winning field goal, he showed his team he's got moxie.

"People have a lot of confidence in Kevin," Tedford said. "They see how he practices. But anytime you can put together a last-minute drive and put the team in position to be successful, I think that goes a long way. It gives the whole team a boost."

Cal's balanced offense has big-play potential on the ground and through the air. It should make things difficult for the Beavers. The Bears average 196 yards rushing per game with explosive backs Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen, while Riley ranks 10th in the nation and first in the Pac-10 with 33 passes of over 20 yards. Oregon State struggles against the pass. It's given up 15 touchdown passes, ranks ninth in the conference in pass defense and ranks last with just eight sacks.

Of course, the Bears defense will have to contain the Rodgers brothers and Sean Canfield, who is playing as well as any quarterback in the conference. That unit has been surprisingly inconsistent and, oh by the way, is no great shakes against the pass either, ranking eighth in the conference.

In a conference as deep as the Pac-10, one game can't make a season. And Saturday's tilt won't irrevocably break the loser.

But it certainly will leave a big crack in its expectations for the postseason.