Some are calling this game "CU's Introduction to the Pac-10." How about we just call it "CU's introduction to Cal?" I'm going to call it "CU's best chance to break our losing streak on the road." There are going to be a bunch of CU fans there and we're coming off a pretty solid win on a neutral field. I also think we match up well with the Bears, which I'll explore after the jump.
Now that you're here, I would be remiss not to mention the fine folks over at California Golden Blogs. You should definitely check out their stuff in preparation for the game, as well as their Spotlight of our Buffaloes.
While the Buffs may be coming off of a solid win against their in-state rivals, the Bears come into this game after trouncing their little cousins, the UC-Davis Aggies, 52-3. 24-3 doesn't seem so impressive now, does it? That, of course, isn't true, as CSU is a better team than UCD that plays at a higher level of football in a better conference. This was evident throughout the game, as the Davis players were a couple of steps slower than the Cal players. The Aggies seemed to be in solid position quite a bit of the time, but the better athletes that Cal fields had no trouble avoiding tackles and blocks. I'm not saying Cal isn't any good-they are very good-I'm just saying that they weren't quite as dominant as the scoreboard suggested. This will be an excellent test of our supposedly improved team speed.
52 points. Phew, that is a lot of points. I don't expect Cal to put up a point total even remotely close to that against us. Don't get me wrong, they have one of the most talented groups of skill-players of any team we'll face this season. But I think we match up well with them. It begins with their QB, Kevin Riley. He has a tendency to run hot and cold. And I think we can get into his head a little bit in this game. Our Defensive game plan against CSU was very vanilla. Very few blitzes, and they were very simple when they did send an extra guy. We have the Cornerbacks to allow us to send more than the occasional extra pass rusher. I think we break out a few more blitzes against Riley early and get him off balance, which leads quite handily to their Offensive Line. Their blockers up front seem to be the weakness of their Offense. Between the blitzes that I believe we will use, and our Defensive Line rotation, the Buffs should be able to get some pressure on Riley even though Cal's best Lineman, Matt Summers-Gavin will be back after sitting out with an injury.
Hopefully we can rattle Riley some, because I don't really want to see the ball in the hands of Cal's receivers. Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones are very good. It will be our first chance to see if Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown can match up against top tier receivers. Smith and Brown played off for most of the CSU game, letting the Rams exploit the short passing game, but preventing any plays of more than twenty yards. I expect to see more press-coverage from them against Cal, but I think the coaching staff is trying very hard to prevent those big plays (‘gashers' as Dan Hawkins calls them). And this Cal team is capable of making some very big plays.
Big play prevention is one of the reasons I like Major and Sipili better than some of the Inside Linebacker duos we've had recently. They are faster and stronger than their predecessors. It means that Cal's talented running back Shane Vereen will have a tough time finding room to run tomorrow. He's not going to be able to run around those guys like he was against Davis. And I don't think the Cal Offensive Line will be able to open up the same kinds of holes they did against the Aggies. The CU Defensive Line is stout. Curtis Cunningham is very good, and Will Pericak is becoming very good at recognizing and blowing up running plays. We saw it on the early 4th down stop against CSU that Bob broke down, and I expect to see it on Saturday. Vereen is very talented, but you can only get so far when there's nowhere to run.
Also, very important to note how our 3rd down Defense was against CSU. Yes, it's just CSU, but we only let them convert one 3rd down. 8.3%. We obviously won't do that well against Cal, but that should continue to be a strength of our Defense. Cal also had a solid 3rd down Defense, but they allowed 21.4% conversions to the Aggies. We did better against a higher caliber team.
Matchups I'll be watching:
Ray Polk vs. Cal Offense
-Polk didn't get in on much action against CSU even though he was out there for every snap. It's because only two of CSU's plays made it far enough down the field for the Free Safety to need to get involved. We won't have that luxury against Cal, and it'll be up to Polk to make sure nothing gets behind our D. He will be the fastest Buff out there, but his recognition and his ability to wrap-up when tackling instead of going for the big hit (which he's good at, but could get him into trouble) will be the deciding factors here.
Linebacker coverage vs. Running Backs in the flat
-One of CSU's few big plays was a pass to the Running Back out in the flat. Shane Vereen is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Who wants to bet that he catches a few passes out in space that the Linebackers are responsible for? I saw Major, Sipili and Tyler Ahles all covering backs in the flat against the Rams, and they're all pretty fast. But Vereen can change direction quickly. It'll be up to those three to bottle up those plays quickly so that Cal's Running Backs can't gain a ton of yards after the catch.
Jimmy Smith vs. mental errors
-I hate that we're still talking about this. He's one of the most physically gifted players on the team, but he's still prone to making silly mistakes. His shot on Pete Thomas was one last game. He didn't try to wrap him up, which would have given him a sack. And he had a personal foul on Special Teams. He should know better than that by now. Again, I believe in Ashley Ambrose, who will hopefully spend the week at Smith's side and force him to focus on the little things.
My first observation about the Cal Defense, is that they are very athletic. It starts on their Defensive Line. They go a solid two deep at each spot, and they will rotate guys in and out. They can get pressure from each position along the line and from the Linebacker positions. Nate Solder should be fine on the left side (he was dominant in the CSU game), but these guys will provide a much stiffer test for David Bakhtiari at Right Tackle. He handled the smaller CSU Defense Ends pretty well. I hope he'll be able to anchor against the Cal Ends and Outside Linebackers, who are much bigger and stronger. I expect us to give him some extra Tight End help. We will also have to watch our performance inside. In the stats that CU released from the game, Mike Iltis graded out much better than Ethan Adkins, who started the game. Iltis actually played ten more snaps than Adkins did in the game. No matter who plays there, we need better play at that spot tomorrow. Clancy Pendergast, the Cal Defensive Coordinator, will easily find ways to take advantage of our weaknesses along the Offensive Line. ***** BG Brooks is now reporting that Iltis will get the start at Left Guard over Adkins, though both may play again*****
They have a lot of size at Linebacker (Pendergast runs a 3-4, so that makes sense), so they are the polar opposite of CSU. We faced very quick, small Linebackers last week, while we face some bruisers tomorrow. We may not open the same kinds of holes against them in the running game, but Rodney Stewart could have more luck evading would-be tacklers. We may see more short passes to the Tight Ends. Too many short passes to our Wide Receivers will get them killed against those Cal Linebackers.
And the Cal secondary boasts lots of athletic potential, but also some inexperience. They start one senior and one sophomore at both Safety and Cornerback. They didn't really get tested against UC-Davis. They lost a great Cornerback in Syd'Quan Thompson, and I'm not sure they know exactly what they have there yet. They are playing more press coverage than they have in the past. I think that will give Clemons (I can't wait to watch them try to press him off the line) a chance to shine.
Matchups I'll be watching:
CU's Backs & Tight Ends vs. Cal's additional pressure
-Ryan Deehan aside, CU's additional support in pass protection wasn't all that effective. That will have to change against Cal. They run a 3-4 (though their OLBs spend plenty of time with a hand on the ground giving them a 4-3 look) and they will bring pressure from a variety of places. Stewart is a solid blocker for his size, but he will be facing guys that he gives up a foot and 70+ lbs to. I think our Offensive Line will be able to handle their matchups for the most part (though I'm still a bit worried about LG and Center, especially after Shawn Daniels went down with an apparent foot injury), so it'll be on these guys to help with the addition pass rushers.
CU's Offensive Linemen out in space vs. Cal's Linebackers
-Our Linemen were able to get to the second level and take on the smaller CSU Linebackers without too much trouble last week. This week they will face a much larger challenge...literally. Cal's defense is huge across the front seven. I'm not worried about Nate Solder and Ryan Miller so much, but I am concerned that the rest of the guys will have trouble both getting a push off the line of scrimmage, and blocking at the second level. Rodney Stewart is best if he can get past the initial blockages at the LOS and make some moves as he gets down the field. If our Linemen can't get off the LOS and take on those Cal Linebackers effectively, we won't have a lot of success in the running game.
CU's playcalling vs. Cal's playcalling
-I've already voiced my opinion that the coaches didn't go very deep into the playbook against CSU, and it sounds like the Cal coaches took the same approach against UC-Davis. I think CU coaches will show us more of the Offense this week, so we will need to see if Pendergast decides to throw more plays at us. They might be saving their special stuff for that first conference game against Arizona.
I might be crazy, but I'm predicting that CU will beat Cal. I know we have been miserable on the road and I know Cal has been good at home, but I think this is the game that we turn our road problems around. My friend Husam noted that even though both teams won last week, we might have more momentum coming in having beaten a rival away from home while Cal played a team they had no extra feelings for comfortably at home. Having a bunch of fans there (They believe there will be more than 7,000 Buffs there) will help. I think our Defense will have gained some confidence after limiting CSU's running game, and I think Cal's Offensive Line didn't play as well as they were expecting last week. I also like the fact that we tackled well in the open field, especially because Cal likes to get the ball to its Skill Players out in space.
I also think Brian Lockridge gets a couple of BIG Kick Returns. Cal's Special Teams are better, but their Kicker isn't a touchback kind of guy. Lockridge will be getting the ball at around the five yard-line each time.
On Offense, I think the Buffs make use of their speed on the outside tomorrow and let the Wide Receivers loose. Our guys are significantly bigger and faster than the Aggies. I think we can handle their pressure, and I think Hansen continues to find the open receiver. This week, his accuracy improves. I think we surprise some people. Colorado beats California 34-17.