Leading up to Saturday's tilt, Patrick Cormier and I traded some thoughts about the Buffs and the Bears. Colorado comes into Memorial Stadium on the strength of a solid, but not overly impressive, win over Hawaii. California returns to their home field following another explosive offensive outing, but one that ended in heartbreak. Who's offense will have the bigger day and help its team claim their first Pac-12 win of the season?
PG: Cal's Bear Raid looks like it's really sharpened its teeth through the first three games of the season. What factors have contributed the most to the improvement in Sonny Dykes' offense? Who makes this quick-strike attack so dangerous?
PC: The Cal offense has undoubtedly looked much sharper to start the year. Last week's first half against Arizona provided a great indicator of how this offense can hurt opposing teams with explosive plays. What's also been impressive this year has been their ability to sustain long drives, we saw too many drives end in quick three and outs last season.
We've seen improvements from the offensive line in the opening weeks, they've been able to springboard some explosive plays in the run game. Both Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad were able to contribute long touchdown runs against the Arizona defense last week. This is an encouraging compliment to the passing attack for the Bears.
Jared Goff makes the Bear Raid go, there's no doubt about it. His improvement as a complete passer has been apparent through the first three games of the season. As it currently stands Goff is 9th in QBR among all of college football, he shows an innate ability to spread the ball all over the field to any one of his highly talented receivers. He is developing into being one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation, and that's a scary thought for the rest of the Pac-12.
Colorado's defense has been much maligned to start the year, but they showed a dominant performance against Hawaii last week. How do the Buffs plan to slow down Goff and the Bear Raid? What players should we look for to make plays for this Colorado defense?
PG: The strength of the CU defense thus far has been its secondary, which is fortunate. Greg Henderson is a stud and on the other side Ken Crawley is an athlete who's developing into a solid corner. Safety Tedric Thompson has also emerged as a playmaker in the early-going, leading the team with 38 total tackles and snagging the Buffs' only 2 interceptions. A pleasant surprise in the Hawaii game, John Walker made his presence known at the nickelback position, showing a keen sense for the ball. These four will have to play opportunistically, fast, and smart on Saturday. They'll be counted on to make many an open field tackle and try to force a turnover or two.
Unfortunately, the defensive line is more of a work in progress than the practice facility going up on the east side of Folsom. Senior Juda Parker and junior Josh Tupou anchor the interior but on the ends the Buffs are starting two freshman, Derek McCartney and Christian Shaver, and rotating in two more as well as two sophomores. McCartney has shown flashes of terror and is Colorado's best chance of getting pressure off the edge. Since the 2nd half of the UMass game this unit has improved significantly but they'll be truly tested on the road against this offense.
In order to slow down Goff and his raiding Bears, the front seven is going to have to blitz gaps frequently to try and disrupt the pass and fly to the ball when Cal hands it off. It'll be up to the secondary to read Cal's motions and avoid getting beat on the play-action. The Buffs held Hawaii to two trips to the red zone and those resulted in two field goals. This weekend, Cal might as well be in the red zone once they cross the 50. CU is going to have to limit the big play and hold the Bears to field goals to help their offense keep pace.
Like Colorado, Cal's defense has been the question mark and was harshly exposed in the 4th quarter against Arizona. Who will be key to preventing another late rally against a CU offense that is starting to find its identity and is capable of compiling significant yardage?
PC: Cal's defense has shown flashes of being really solid this year; however, the last time we saw them on the field (4th quarter vs. Arizona) they looked almost worse than the 2013 version of themselves which I didn't think was possible. This group can't wait to be back on the field after that last performance. I'll be looking for them to get back on track against the Buffs and turn in a complete performance in this week's game.
Linebacker Jalen Jefferson and safeties Michael Lowe and Griffin Piatt have been noticeable standouts this year on the defensive side of the ball for Cal. Jefferson was by all accounts the defensive MVP of the Northwestern game. I'll be looking for him to make a big impact in this one both in the running game and in pass coverage. Piatt, a former walk-on, has three picks in as many games for the Golden Bears and has been a revelation when he has gotten on the field in passing situations. Lowe has brought a physically imposing presence to the secondary after taking his lumps last year.
Nelson Spruce, who is off to a torrid start to the year, is the guy that Cal is looking to shut down. Spruce is going to provide a great test for the Bears secondary. The pass defense numbers have not been good so far, they currently rank 121st in the nation. Part of this is due to the fact that Cal has jumped out to huge leads early forcing opponents to throw on them often, Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon took 73 pass attempts to throw for 520 yards last week. The Bears will also need to get a consistent pass rush from defensive ends Brennan Scarlett and Todd Barr in this one and a solid performance from their secondary to limit Colorado's dangerous passing attack.
Like you said, Colorado is more than capable of putting points on the board. How are they planning on attacking this Bears defense who will be looking to atone for their meltdown last Saturday?
PG: Obviously, Nelson Spruce will be the first option. He's very difficult to cover and catches most everything thrown his way. In the event that he is shut down to any extent, Shay Fields has a been the breakout freshman on this team. He's versatile, fast and has very steady hands. Look for him to get the ball out of the backfield, on wide screens, and on a deep route or two. D.D. Goodson is the steady senior who is lightning-quick and can often be found dashing across the middle on a slant. If he and Fields are able to rack up some catches, then CU's offense is likely having a pretty good day. As for the ground game, Christian Powell has established himself as the number one tailback but he's not the most well-rounded rusher. He excels charging down the middle and running between the tackles. Tony Jones offers a quicker burst and Phillip Lindsay just runs like he absolutely hates whoever is in front of him, unfortunately he's a tad undersized.
If the Buffs are going to keep pace with the Bear attack, they'll need to be producing via Spruce and the passing game. The ground game will need to be established, to eat clock and keep Cal's offense off the field as much as possible, but as Sefo goes so goes the Buffalo offense.
So how you do see this one turning out?
PC: This Golden Bears team was heartbroken, demoralized, and deflated after the way that the game ended in Tucson and we get to see on Saturday how they respond to adversity for this first time this season. They sit at 2-1, while not having trailed for a single second in the 2014 season.
They cannot wait to get back onto the field and prove how far they've come as a football team, and the only thing standing between Cal and redemption are the Buffaloes of Colorado. I think that Cal gets back on track this week, takes care of business and grabs their first conference win under Sonny Dykes this Saturday against the Buffs.
With this all being said, how do you see this game shaking out for the Buffaloes?
PG: It's obvious that Cal is very much improved this season. They have talent across the field and will benefit from playing this one at home. I see this game becoming a bit of a shootout. Colorado's defense has steadily improved but on the road against Cal's offense I think they take a bit of a hit. Sefo Liufau and the Buffaloes' offense will get theirs, but I think they come up one or two scores short and Cal walks away with the win, 42-31.