The Buffs are .500 for the first time in a while. Coming off a victory against Hawaii, where it shouldn't have been as nail-biting as it was, they walk into Berkley ready to face a team that just got humiliated. Cal came to Arizona and took it to them for 3 and a half quarters, ready to climb out of the PAC's cellar. Then, a Hawkins moment came for Sonny Dykes, and they ended up losing as time expired, crushing their hopes. Let's look at last week for the Buffs.
Matt Sparkman's article on last week game can be found here, and he did a great job summing up the game. I'd like to talk about a few specific parts of the game. Let's start with the first half. The offense did a fantastic job moving the ball, and they did what they needed to do to use their superior speed against Hawaii. With a surprisingly stout defensive line, CU used misdirection to gain huge chunks of yards on three plays. First, the 4th down conversion on about the 20. With 4th and a bit to go, Coach Mac made a gutsy call and went for it. We want touchdowns, not field goals, dammit, So Sefo snaps the ball, rolls to his right, then suddenly turns left and drops the ball to Kyle Slavin perfectly for a first down. It was a perfect play call and was executed perfectly. Next, the Shay Fields touchdown. He lines out wide in trips, and it looks like another classic screen. The play starts, and he sweeps across the backfield, taking a handoff from Sefo to the house. Shay looks to be a special one. The third play will be the George Frazier touchdown. "The Train" scraped across the field on a designed rollout from Sefo, and was left wide open as the defenders took the deeper players. These three players show a willingness to play to the Buff's strengths from the staff, as well as a creativity not seen in a long time.
Thus far in 2014, Cal's offense has been explosive and balanced. They've run about as much as they've passed, and both have worked very well. The three headed monster of Jared Goff, Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad has passed the test with flying colors, powering this offense to 16th in the country in scoring and an Offensive S+P ranking of 42. Goff is the main player CU should watch for on defense. A true sophomore like Liufau, Goff has proven to be adept at everything Sefo isn't: deep balls, sideline throws, and read progression. However, he gets rattled easily and sometimes overthinks things, like all young quarterbacks. As of right now, he is 7th in the country in passing effeciency, and he likes to get down the field quick. Goff spreads the ball around, with no Cal receiver over 10 catches thus far, a stark contrast to the fixation CU has on Nelson Spruce. That being said, the biggest weapon on the outside will probably be Bryce Treggs. Treggs runs precise routes and is the most reliable target for Goff. CU's secondary will have to be on-point this entire game to stop Cal from having consistent success. The Golden Bear's running backs had their best day in the desert last Saturday, going for 218 yards on a combined 31 carries. Lasco gets the lion's share of carries, and Muhammad is usually the change of pace back. Cal's offense is littered with weapons for Goff to choose from, and even brings a second quarterback on, Luke Rubenzer, to keep defenses off-balance. The Buffs will have their hands full.
Colorado found out last year that Cal's defense was a dumpster fire in every sense. Ravaged by injuries, they were giving up anything and everything to the Buffs. This year, The Bears are clawing their way back to respectability. Bear in mind, this defense gave up the most points of anyone in the country last year, but this time around they're right about where CU is, ceding 29 points a game. A lot of that, again like the Buffs, is built on young talent producing. Five of Cal's top seven tacklers are sophmores and freshman. This leads to unpredictability, and occasionally total collapses (sorry to bring it up again, Cal fans). They are led in the secondary by safety Griffiin Piatt, who has three interceptions in as many games. The linebackers are probably the strength of the D, led by Jalen Jefferson and Jake Kearney on the outside of the 4-3. Cal's edges are fast and hard to attack, the Buffs will have to go through the middle to open up the outside in this game. The good news is that Spruce and Fields should be able to get open against these DB's who aren't bad, but just mediocre enough to count on success. I expect the Buffs to go spread more often than not in this game, splitting three out wide and/or a TE (read: T.Y. McColluch) to get the LB's out in space or bring a safety into the box.
CU's Oline vs. Cal's Dline - Advantage: Push. Cal's defense is meant to fight against spread offenses, with everyone under 300 pounds, a far cry from the Hawaiian tree trunks last Saturday. Jeromey Irwin and Kaiwi Crabb will have to rebound from a poor showing to stop the pass rush and generate push on runs.
Cal's Oline vs. CU's Dline - Advantage: Cal. The Golden Bears' have a line based on experience, with 79 starts between them. Contrast this with the inexperience on CU's front, and you can see how this turns out. Expect blitzes to bring pressure.
CU's QB vs. Cal's DB's - Advantage: Slightly CU. If there is one thing we know about Sefo Liufau, it's that he's a gamer. After struggling in the game against the Rainbow Warriors, he will be more than ready to play lights out this game. Plus, he has plenty of help from his supporting cast that should beat the DB's pretty consistently.
Cal's QB vs. CU's DB's - Advantage: Push. Jared Goff is a great young prospect, but he's not a great quarterback (yet). He definitely is a good one, however, and the Buffs in the Back will have to show up. Fortunately, that's just what they did for the past seven quarters, and there's no reason to believe that stops now. Crawley and Henerson's open field tackling will be key here.
CU's Skill Players (WR, TE, RB) vs. Cal's Back 7 (LB's and DB's) - Advantage: CU. Nelson Spruce continues to astound, and he is playing like one of the top 5 receivers in the country right now. It's hard for anyone to counter that. CU will need to get its rushing attack going in this one to have a chance, but that matchup is where Cal has the most advantage with its LB's.Side note: Shay Fields chose us over Cal, time to show them what they're missing, Shay!
Cal's Skill Players vs. CU's Back 7 - Advantage: Slightly Cal. Goff spreads the ball around, making this matchup inherently harder. CU's back 7 just had its best game in a while, and I expect that trend to continue. The key is to stop Daniel Lasco from gashing the Buffs. If they can stop the run, defending the Bear Raid just got a whole lot easier.
Special Teams - Advantage: Cal. Cu has not had a good special teams game the one time they were at sea-level, so it's hard to judge whether this team improved or not. I'll go with Cal on this one, but hope the Buffs prove me wrong.
As you can see above, I feel oddly confident about this game. I think CU, especially on defense, took a huge step forward the past two games, and I think that trend continues against the Golden Bears. The key in this game is the running game. If the Buffs can get something going, that keeps Goff off the field and tires their defense. If CU's front seven can hold Lasco and Muhammad in check, Cal will have to consistently pass for 1st downs, something a young quarterback can find hard to do. My heart says 31-24 Buffs, but my head says 34-27 Cal. I'll go with my head for this one.