Two years ago, the California Golden Bears went into Boulder and escaped with a 36-33 overtime win over a Colorado squad that would eventually finish 3-9. But despite the Buffaloes' struggles that year, it only took one player to make the Bears defense miserable that day.
Then-freshman wide receiver Paul Richardson torched the California secondary that September afternoon, hauling in school records of 11 catches for 284 yards and two touchdowns. Richardson had no problem beating the defense at the line of scrimmage or simply making tacklers miss en route to big play after big play.
Two years later, the Bears returned to Boulder to face the struggling Buffaloes in a late-season match between two lost seasons. Defensively heading in, the Bears knew that if they were have any chance of getting their second win of the season, that they could not afford to let Richardson run wild in the secondary again.
"Guys out there [are] not giving their full effort and stuff, it definitely shows out there," said linebacker Jalen Jefferson, who said the biggest difference in the game was, in a word, "effort."
As has been the case all season, the Cal defense struggled in executing their game plan of containing Richardson and the Buffs, en route to getting blown out 41-24.
Richardson finished the game tying his single-game school record 11 receptions, though the Bears ‘limited' him to 140 yards and no touchdowns. Their defensive game plan keyed on Richardson, having the corners and safeties play back in an effort to limit him from burning them deep. The irony is, while Richardson only had 1 reception go longer than 20 yards, the Buffaloes still managed big plays from everywhere else on the field.
For Colorado freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau, navigating through Cal's defense did not prove to be any sort of a challenge. Liufau was a dominant 23-of-36 for 364 yards and three touchdowns. On Colorado's first drive of the game, Liufau targeted Richardson four times, going 4-for-4 for 30 yards, including two first downs.
The early targeting of Richardson only further emphasized the Bears' need to contain him, which only created opportunities for other offensive targets. The Buffaloes had eight plays that went for 15+ yards from scrimmage, with seven of those plays coming through the air.
Targeting Richardson, Liufau was 11-for-15. Of those 11 completions, only two went for 15 or more yards, with only one completion being a deep post route that went for 39 yards on the play. Of Liufau's 15 attempts, only two went deep down the middle of the field. Cal was giving Colorado the short passes and medium passes all night, and the Buffaloes simply took what was available with Richardson. Of his 11 receptions, eight came between 7 and 13 yards, oftentimes with just Richardson settling into soft spots of the zone outside.
"You look at the big plays they made; we missed a lot of tackles," said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. "A lot of critical third-down tackles where we had people in position to make them and we missed them."
The Bears went with their standard defense early, with Cedric Dozier and Kameron Jackson being the primary cover on Richardson, depending on where he lined up on the field. However, after Richardson's success gaining moderate yards, defensive coordinator Andy Buh decided to match up Jackson on Richardson in the second half, though, on the night, a total of three different cornerbacks – including Joel Willis -- were assigned to Richardson.
Still, the defense's focus on Richardson allowed for big plays by other Buffaloes. From scrimmage, Colorado got consistent big plays from Nelson Spruce, who had a catch-and-run of 62 yards downfield and finished with a season-best 140 yards on eight catches, after coming into the game with 37 catches for 392 yards. Michael Adkins contributed to Cal's misery with a 63-yard touchdown reception that saw him break four tackles en route to the end zone. Even running back Christian Powell -- who has spent all of 2013 struggling to find any room to run -- managed to break a 21-yard scamper, finishing the night with 60 yards on 18 carries with one touchdown.
The main culprit wasn't just poor schemes, but poor tackling and poor angles by the California defense. As has been the issue all year, the Bears fundamental tackling and technique was poor, resulting in big plays even if defenders were in position.
"I think we just think too much out there instead of just playing, and instead of just worrying about tackling, and stuff," said Jefferson, who missed one of those four tackles on Adkins. "I think that's what it is: We're just thinking too much out there and we're not playing to our potential.
"It hurts really bad, especially the final score. We worked really hard this week, and first half, we had them contained. But, the second half, they just wanted it more than us."
With only one game left in a season that really cannot end soon enough, the Bears are only days away from shutting the book on 2013 and looking ahead to next year, when they can continue to learn schemes, develop in the weight room, and regain their health.
But even if the Bears were to make changes to their coaching staff, the offseason will have a heavy emphasis on fundamentals and technique on tackling—one that was unavailable during the season due to the depleted depth chart. The Bears' defense will have to go back to basics if there is any chance for improvement in 2013.
But for now -- for today -- the Bears tried to go with a conservative defensive game plan to prevent one man from beating them deep. Instead, they allowed season highs in yards and points to a Colorado squad who just earned their second win versus an FBS squad.
BY THE NUMBERS: Rich Get Richer
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