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September 12, 2011

The Last Word on Colorado



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BOULDER, Colo. -- BearTerritory analyst Rob Calonge said that a Berkeley engineer could easily make something out of Colorado's offensive numbers from Saturday. Given the final score, my top contenders are: some kind of sense, a new element, a cyclotron, an easily-decipherable map of Dwinelle Hall and a cobbled-together homemade cold fusion laser.

At the risk of running over already well-trodden ground, let's take another look: Four school offensive production records, 284 yards receiving on 11 catches for Paul Richardson, 474 yards passing and 500 of total offense for Tyler Hansen, a 33:32 to 26:28 time of possession advantage, a 25-22 first-down advantage and 582 offensive yards to 370 for the Bears. Oh, and somehow a 36-33 overtime win by the team on the wrong side of all those digits.

Cal lost the battle on defense, registering zero sacks, a paltry four tackles for loss for just 10 yards and surrendering seven plays of over 20 yards. The defensive line personnel was not rotated nearly as much as it was in the opening game of the season, with Kendrick Payne and Ernest Owusu having sub-par days, redshirt freshman Gabe King a no-show for the second straight week and true freshman Viliami Moala seeing fewer snaps. The only bright spots there were the increased role of true freshman defensive end Mustafa Jalil and the down-the-stretch performance of Trevor Guyton, who finished with five tackles.

The Bears lost the battle in the trenches, surrendering 108 yards on the ground and tallying 100 of their own. Colorado gained 221 yards on second down, while Cal gained 112. The Bears were faced with more third-and-longs than the Buffs, finding themselves an average of 8.3 yards from moving the sticks on third down, while Colorado was an average of 7.9 yards away. Cal had a trio of three-and-outs to the Buffaloes' two. Colorado gained an average of 5.2 yards on first down, while the Bears gained 4.7 yards. By nearly every statistical measurement -- save the all-important final score -- Cal should have lost that game.

Yes, one can argue -- as the team did afterwards -- that the Bears showed some tremendous heart to pull out a win on the road, at altitude, in a hostile environment, and indeed, those are feathers they can rightfully stick in their caps. However, the adversity that they proved so hearty in overcoming was almost entirely of their own doing.

When the defensive backs admit that there was little to no attention paid to shutting down Richardson during game week prep, and when no substantive defensive adjustments were made at the half to slow down a Colorado offense which went into the locker room with 240 yards under its belt already, that's not a 'gutsy comeback' for Cal. That's an escape.

Now, who's to say that the offensive and defensive playbooks -- so largely vanilla against the Buffs, save for on third downs -- won't open up like flowers in bloom during the conference season? They very well could, and likely will. But, let's face facts; whether or not Saturday's affair was called an official Pac-12 conference game or not, Colorado is still a Pac-12 foe. The Buffaloes are a full-fledged member of the league. Even though this game did not count toward the conference standings, would it or would it not behoove the Bears to show as much creativity as they did against non-BCS Fresno State? That's a question that perhaps should have been asked beforehand.

The Colorado higher-ups did not want to play this game. Tedford even said during game week interviews that the Buffaloes tried to get out of the back end of the scheduled home-and-home, after the Pac-10 set itself up to expand to the Pac-12. The Colorado players, though, definitely wanted this game.

The fact that an offensive line helmed by much-maligned former Cal coach Steve Marshall held the Bears defense -- the No. 1 unit in the conference in 2010 -- to fewer sacks than Hawaii with two of his starters out with injuries isn't exactly flattering.

The fact that the Buffaloes came back from a 16-6 halftime deficit to tie the game at the end of regulation, with a crowd of nearly 50,000 shaking the foundations of Folsom Field showed just how much they wanted this game. They just didn't quite have the talent to do it. And by talent, I mean Keenan Allen and Zach Maynard.

Cal didn't out-heart Colorado. No, the Buffs' thirst for vengeance following an embarrassing 52-7 defeat in Berkeley last year was a much-stronger motivation than getting a win on the road after going 1-4 away from Memorial Stadium last season. Rectifying a series of one's own mistakes does not trump the desire to avenge a middle-of-the-playground pantsing. Yes, at the end, it was Maynard and Allen's unflappability and their supernatural sixth-sense brother-brother echolocation that won the day, but it was only just barely enough.

In the big spots, the Bears had the right players -- Maynard, Allen, Michael Calvin and C.J. Anderson -- in the right places at the right times in the right situations. Calvin -- it must be said -- had a superlative game, catching three balls for 42 yards and showing a flash of the promise he's always been reputed to possess. Heck, it may even be the big senior's year. Even after yet another blocked PAT, senior kicker Giorgio Tavecchio booted four kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks -- equaling his total from all of 2010 -- and smacked a 39-yard field goal. However, despite Tavecchio's leg giving his defense a shorter field -- Colorado started their drives eight yards further back on average than Cal, at their own 26 -- the Buffs were still able to come back late and post big gain after big gain. That's part of what should be worrisome to the Bears. As sure-handed as Calvin was, as resilient as Tavecchio was, as elusive and instinctual as Allen is and as tough to tackle as Anderson has proved to be, there were some key mistakes made that will not fly against the better teams in the conference.

Of Cal's five dropped passes, four were by seniors normally known for their hands -- three for tight end Anthony Miller and one for Marvin Jones. Those will loom much larger against better defenses: ones capable of turning those drops into picks or ones that will be disciplined enough not to commit two pass interference penalties on back-to-back third down plays to keep a drive alive.

Tailback Isi Sofele was once again relatively underwhelming. Aside from a second-quarter carry for 29 yards and a 13-yarder early in the third quarter, Sofele averaged just 2.33 yards per rush for the entire game. Sofele's inability to run between the tackles -- a staple of previous Cal tailbacks -- and the offensive line's inconsistency in opening up holes will get him nowhere if he keeps getting the rock on plays up the middle. A review of the official play-by-play shows that Sofele ran between the tackles 12 times, gaining 28 yards, again, an average of 2.33 per carry. His slight build -- however densely-packed with muscle -- takes more punishment than a featured back can bear.

So far, Sofele has run 21 times in first halves this season for 128 yards, and 23 times in second halves for 44 yards, seeing his YPC drop from 6.09 to 1.91. Against more powerful linebackers than the Buffs' undersized corps, Cal won't have much punch on the ground unless Anderson is used more liberally, perhaps to literally shake things up at the point of attack with those broad shoulders and flat-iron head of his. If the run is not a threat, the pass will be easier to defend. The advantage that the Bears currently have in the Maynard-to-Allen connection will prove moot if there is no running game to keep opposing defenses honest, and Maynard's escapability only counts for so much (he ran just five times and lost a net 17 yards against Colorado).

The Buffaloes demonstrated exactly what an offense can do when a defense is keyed into stopping the run, which the Bears did do quite effectively, holding tailback Rodney Stewart to just 73 yards on 24 carries.

But, much like Arizona has done to Cal in the past with pass-catching scat backs like Keola Antolin, the Buffs used the short screen pass to Stewart to act like a running game. Then, of course, beyond that, there was the tandem of Hansen and Richardson. Hansen became the first opposing QB that the Bears had allowed to throw for over 400 yards since Alex Brink threw for 421 in a 42-38 Cal win at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 22, 2005.

It was only when defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast put cornerback Steve Williams on the speedy Richardson that Cal was able to at least slow him down. Again, at the end, it was the advantage in talent - Williams is one of the fastest corners in the conference and a veteran defender - that proved to win the day late, as Williams broke up a big pass to Richardson in the end zone in overtime, forcing the Buffaloes to kick a field goal instead of risking a go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the five.

A win is a win. A road win certainly is something to be proud of, given last year's woeful record away from home. The final overtime drive? Ballsy and clutch. This win, though, is not one to celebrate for long. This is a wipe-the-sweat-off-your-brow-and-get-back-to-work win, a skin-of-your-teeth squeaker. Some call this a 'statement' win, for Cal's ability to pull itself together for a dramatic overtime drive. The real statement, though, should be: That wasn't good enough.


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