Keys to the Game: Cal vs. Colorado

We take an inside look at what the Bears need to do this week to defeat Colorado, as well as a look back at what Cal needs to work on from Saturday's heartbreaking loss to Arizona on the road.

Maturity. Maturity is what’s allowed this year’s California football team to go from dead last in the Pac-12 in third-down conversions in 2013 to third this season. It’s what’s turned the Bears from a team that went from 12th in the conference in red zone offense a year ago to tied for third through three games. But, Cal is not as mature as it needs to be to win close games. They weren’t on Saturday against Arizona.

“We played about as good as we could play, for a half. I think there’s a lot to be gained from that,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “I think, defensively, for us to hold them to six points in the first half, and to play as well as we did offensively, early in the game. It was very encouraging. I think it showed what we’re capable of doing. But, at the same time, we’re a young, inexperienced football team, and young, inexperienced football teams typically don’t play at the very highest level for four quarters. They just don’t.

So, what do the Bears need to do this week against Colorado in their conference home opener? They need to start growing up, on both sides of the ball. The first step in that was Sunday’s practice.

“I thought the mood was somber, but focused,” Dykes said. “I thought we had a good practice. We scrimmaged live. Guys who didn’t play in the game or didn’t play that much in the game went 40, 45 plays. It was really physical and upbeat. I was really happy, particularly defensively, with the way the guys flew around, so it was good to see that.

“We’ve just got to keep getting better, and the rest of the stuff takes care of itself. We’ve said it a lot: We’re not a big-picture team. It’s just about going out and practicing, practice better on Tuesday, practice better on Wednesday and play as well as we can play on Saturday and move on to the next one. That’s the approach you have to take, otherwise you start worrying about stuff you can’t control.”

What exactly can the Bears control? Well, for that, we turn to this week’s Keys to the Game.

KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Throat-stepping 101. The Bear Raid offense is designed to do two things: Score points, and score them quickly. In a game like Saturday’s against the Wildcats, where Cal led by as many as 22 points, the Bears were put in a situation where they not only had to hold that lead for an entire half, but, late in the game, had to run clock. That is not what this offense is designed to do, though there are ways it can, to an extent.

“There’s a fine line. It’s the same old deal. The best thing you can do is score, because they have to score, and then they’re right back where you were before,” said Dykes, who saw Arizona score 36 points in the fourth quarter, while his offense scored just 17 in the entire second half. “That’s a good thing, when you can score. It hadn’t been a problem for us [at past stops like Louisiana Tech and Arizona] as we got better. It’s the same old process that I’ve talked about a million times: You learn how to do certain things, and then, once you get better at them, you learn how to play with a lead and the guys execute and understand the importance of it, and it doesn’t become an issue. It’s just something that we’ve got to work through.”

No, the run game is not as dependable as Cal hoped it would be. It’s certainly better than last year, with Daniel Lasco setting career highs for rushing yards (128) and carries (20), and Khalfani Muhammad rushing 11 times for 98 yards, including a 50-yard score. In fact, over three games, the Bears have averaged for an average of 184.5 yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry. Last season, Cal averaged 122.2 and 3.5. What I’m about to suggest is completely counter to traditional football logic: Don’t run the ball to run clock; keep doing what this offense is designed to do, and do it for four quarters. Don’t let up. Don’t try to be what you’re not.

That said, Cal can’t completely abandon the run, either. We saw what happened last year when they did that. Jared Goff is safest when other teams have to respect the run and the pass, and that’s when the offense works best. As Dykes said, there’s a fine line that needs be walked. Trying to slow down an offense designed to go fast takes everyone out of rhythm, particularly when the Bears put up six explosive plays in the first half (one rush of 12+ yards and five passes of 20+ yards) and managed just one passing play of over 20 yards and three rushes of over 12 in the second.

Despite the big passing plays in the first half, though, Cal still rushed 17 times (not including sacks) for an average of 5.6 yards, compared with 17 passing attempts. The median run in the first half was 4 yards, with seven runs of five yards or more, and five runs of 0 or negative gain. In the second half, the Bears’ median run was 5 yards, with three runs of 0 or negative gain, and eight runs or five yards or more. On the surface, those numbers look very, very consistent, until you factor in the third quarter, when Cal had its biggest lead.

In that third quarter, the Bears didn’t gain a single net rushing yard, and, not surprisingly, Goff went 2-for-8, and was sacked twice. That’s 10 passing plays compared to six rushing attempts, and on those six rushing attempts, two plays went for negative yardage, and two went for five or more yards, with a median of 3 yards. As Dykes said earlier in the week, if a team runs well, it passes well, and to pass well, a team has to run well. The play mix in the third quarter was completely different than the previous two, throwing the offense out of rhythm.

The conclusion? Do what you do. Don’t change, baby. Make adjustments, to be sure, but don’t change the fundamental mixture that led to success. Believe in what you’re doing enough to continue doing it. Instead of answering the other team’s scores, force them to answer yours.

Speaking of the other team’s scores …

2. Keep defensive focus. In each of Cal’s two games against FBS opponents, the defense has come out and forced a three-and-out on the first series of the second half. That’s good. After that first possession though, opponents have scored on four of eight possessions. That’s a very large drop-off.

“We’ve got to become the team that was out there playing in the first half,” Dykes said.

“We’ve just got to learn how to play for four quarters,” said defensive end Brennan Scarlett. “That’s what’s haunting us most, thus far.”

That should be notably easier against the Buffaloes, which rank dead last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (27.3 points per game), but eighth in total offense, ahead of UCLA, Washington, USC and Stanford, generating 464.7 yards per game. Sound familiar? Last year’s Bears were last in scoring offense (23.0) and sixth in total offensive yardage (453.6 ypg). Colorado is very good between the 20s, and have converted 12 of 13 trips into the red zone, but only nine of those 12 have been touchdowns. Cal has converted 12 of 12 trips into the red zone, with nine touchdowns, and have allowed opponents 13 trips inside its own 20, with two of the 10 scoring trips (both scores) coming on interceptions. The best defense, then, is a good offense – one that takes care of the ball. Both of the interceptions that turned into scores came after halftime. In fact, all three of Cal’s offensive interceptions have come after halftime.

The good news? Colorado’s defense has only tallied two picks on the season.

The Bears defense has five interceptions on the year, while opponents have picked off the Buffaloes five times. The focus of the secondary should be Nelson Spruce, who had 172 receiving yards against Hawaii for his third 100-yard game of the season. It was also the first time this year Spruce didn't have two receiving touchdowns.

What’s unknown is whether or not the Bears will have the services of veteran defensive back Stefan McClure, who injured a calf muscle in the pre-game warmups last week.

“I kind of knew Stef was a game-time decision, so I was mentally preparing myself,” said safety Griffin Piatt, who got the start and came down with his team-leading third interception. “Once they told me that, I got a little bit more focused.”

What has Cal done with its five interceptions? They’ve scored once, and that one time was against Sacramento State in the third quarter. Again, the watchword is maturity – being able to convert on turnovers. In that regard, the defense can only help so much, but what creates interceptions? Pressure. In the second half against Arizona, Anu Solomon was barely pressured at all, with notably fewer blitzes dialed up and three- or four-man rushes being the order of the half, as opposed to the five- or six-man rushes that Art Kaufman brought in the first half. Solomon had a very comfortable pocket after the break, going 29-for-40 for 371 yards, after going 18-for-33 for 149 yards and two interceptions in the first half.

Colorado’s starter Sefo Liufau -- a true sophomore – has thrown all five of the Buffaloes’ interceptions this season, and his protection is vulnerable, which brings us to the third key to the game.

3. Bring the heat up front: Strength vs. Strength. Out of Colorado’s five starting offensive linemen, just two are seniors, with the remainder being two sophomores and a junior. Sophomore starting tackle Jeromy Irwin missed all of last season due to injury, and didn't start a game in 2012, though he did see time on offense in seven games. Junior starting tackle Stephane Nembot started all 12 games at right tackle last season, playing the second-most snaps on offense both overall and by linemen (823). That, coincidentally, will be the side of the line that’s manned by perhaps the Bears’ best pass rusher in Scarlett, and the best linebacker -- Jalen Jefferson.

“We fought hard all game, and couldn’t come up with the stops that we needed to,” Scarlett reflected on Saturday’s game. “Win or lose, these games last 24 hours, and then it’s on to the next one. We’ll put it behind us and look to next week. It won’t be as easy, but we’ve got to be mature about it.”

Colorado’s interior is manned by sophomore center Alex Kelley, in his first season as a starter. Last year, he played in all 12 games, nine on offense. Out of his 97 snaps on offense, the Buffs charted 58 plus plays (0 or positive gain). He’s very disciplined, not allowing a sack or pressure, and not being flagged for a penalty.

The most veteran part of the line are the two guards – seniors Kaiwi Crabb and Daniel Munyer. Munyer was selected as a preseason second-team All-Pac-12 lineman and is one of six team captains. He has 24 starts in the past two years. Crabb is the most versatile lineman, who’s played left tackle and center. Last season, he started 12 games at left guard after a year where he didn’t see any action due to a back injury. As a redshirt freshman, he played in all 13 games, though he didn’t start any.

The veteran interior is going to put the onus on the interior of the defensive line -- Austin Clark and Mustafa Jalil -- who came up with his first solo sack of his career last Saturday.

Of the three QB hurries the Bears have tallied this year, all three have come from defensive ends. Of the eight sacks, five have come from those defensive ends, led by two apiece from Scarlett and Todd Barr. The best way to create turnovers is to create pressure, and after four games, the Buffaloes are -2 in turnover margin, with 17 quarterback hurries and six sacks allowed.

4. Home, sweet home. Last year, Jared Goff had one of his worst games of the season in Boulder, as he went 23-for-45 with an interception, just 173 passing yards and two sacks. He was replaced by Zach Kline on the second drive of the third quarter, and returned in the fourth to go 7-for-15 with an interception, and was sacked twice. This year, the Bears will be back home in Memorial Stadium, without the howling wind and freezing temperatures they encountered last season. Beyond that, Goff has improved by leaps and bounds as a quarterback, and has found his voice as a leader and as a team captain. The weather for Saturday’s start? Sunny skies and 73 degrees.

Goff’s stats at home: 243-for-385 for 2,808 yards and 20 touchdowns to 8 interceptions, and a 137.4 QB rating. Memorial Stadium, it would seem – with its mid-day start times and home crowd – see m to agree with the sophomore.

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