California throws the ball well, and they throw it a lot. Sonny Dykes' Bear Raid offense has gotten well off the ground in his second season as head coach in Berkeley. His Bears are averaging 43.7 points a contest and have already amassed 1,006 passing yards through their first 3 games. Naturally, slowing down this aerial bombardment is of paramount importance to the Colorado Buffaloes' chances.
Colorado's Secondary vs. California's Bear Raid
Arizona's devastating 4th quarter comeback aside, Cal's offense put together a signature performance down in Tucson last weekend. They came out firing and executed on their game plan, jumping on the Wildcats early. Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff, the lead Bear Raider, was in rhythm throwing for touchdown passes of 80, 26, and 30 yards in the first half. Khalfani Muhammad went on to add two rushing touchdowns, one a 50-yard breakaway, in the final quarter. The Golden Bears ended up totaling 573 total yards, 380 of which came through the air, albeit in a losing effort.
Clearly, Dykes' offense revolves around the spread passing attack. He currently has five receivers with over 100 yards and at least one touchdown catch. But, what's really got the Bears rolling this fall is the emergence of a threatening running game. Thus far Cal has rushed for an average of 187 yards per game and posted 6 scores on the ground, a major reason that the Bear Raid is putting up so many points in 2014. That rushing assault directly concerns CU's secondary.
This offensive scheme is predicated on building to the decisive play. For example, over multiple series Cal will run a power or zone repeatedly to one side, betting that the defense will begin to jump that move when they see the offensive line blocking down for a power or sliding over and out for a zone. After enough of these, the opposing defense is likely to start anticipating and cheating to one side, and that's when Goff will run a quick read or a play-action and hit his tight end or far side receiver on a delay route, and they'll more often than not pick up significant yards after the catch due to the defense being caught out of position.
Colorado's defenders in the second level will need to be constantly locked in to Cal's play calling and motion. Cheat up too far, and one of Cal's experienced and speedy receivers can easily beat you on a hitch route. Hang back too long and either Muhammad or Daniel Lasco will have plenty of room to gain speed and outmaneuver you. They'll need to anticipate, but not overcommit. Fortunately, CU's defensive backs have shown themselves to be the relative strength of the defense through four games.
Against Hawaii, CU allowed only 155 yards passing and kept the Warriors out of the end zone entirely. This came against much weaker competition than the Buffs will face on Saturday but it's a performance to be built upon. Ken Crawley led the team in tackles with 9, showing great poise and confidence in making open field stops. Greg Henderson turned in yet another outstanding performance, breaking up 4 passes and creating and recovering a big fumble after drilling Ikaika Woolsey in the backfield.
Importantly, John Walker and Tedric Thompson each put together very nice games last weekend. Walker will be called upon to play nickelback frequently this Saturday, covering the middle of the field and roaming up when necessary. When he saw time against Hawaii he showed he can be in the right position at the right time and has the ability to make plays in space. Thompson finished with 8 tackles and the Buffs' only interception* (Walker's pick should have counted.) He too will play a crucial role in the attempt to slow down the Bear offensive, patrolling the deep routes and drifting up to provide run support.
Ultimately, I think Cal's now balanced Bear Raid will be too much for this young defense to handle on the road. Their gashing rushing game combined with a bevy of athletic receivers could quickly overpower the Buffs. I expect the Bears to amass their standard share of yardage as CU's defensive line is going to have trouble putting pressure on Goff. The onus will fall on the secondary, which will have to exhibit sound tackling and opportunistic yet steady coverage to slow down the Cal attack.
However, there is one glaring disadvantage to the fast-paced Bear attack; its inability to eat clock when it has to. That and their tired defense led to Arizona's 36-point 4th quarter rally. If the Buffalo defense can do just enough to help their offense keep pace and stay within a score or two, there's a possibility that Colorado could pull this one out.