(Dan Hawkins is pumped for this one.)
At the beginning of the season, I barely looked twice at the Colorado game on the schedule. Chalk up an easy “W.” And by “W” I really meant a big “Dubya” because Colorado has been bad under Coach Dan Hawkins and was really bad last season. They have yet to post a winning season under Hawkins and were just 3-9 last year. That’s almost Holmoe-esque.
To provide some further context for my dismissal of the game, the Buffaloes have lost 12 straight road games under Hawkins. Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen describes the frustration best. “We always want to sing the fight song in the plane coming home. We haven’t done that in a while.”
Suffice to say, next the UC Davis, this was about as much of a “gimmie” as I thought Cal would have all season. And we have WSU on the schedule.
As we approach Saturday’s 12:30 kickoff against Colorado, I thought it was worth taking a closer look at the Buffaloes. Not only are they expected to join the new Pac-12 next season, but they posted a slightly eyebrow-raising win over rivals Colorado State last weekend, to the score of 24-3.
I looked further. Their offense returns 10 starters including the new quarterback Tyler Hansen who took over after Coach Hawkins finally took away the driver’s keys from the previous starter, his son Cody who was sent to timeout on the bench midway through last season.
It turns out the Buffaloes also added some real speed on the outside with USC transfer Travon Patterson who bolted to Colorado before last season in hopes of getting some real playing time before his college career was over. Colorado also has transfers Toney Clemons (from Michigan) and Paul Richardson (from UCLA). They join senior receiver Scotty McKnight who has all sorts of records at Colorado, and is like, a big deal.
The Buffaloes defense features some disciplined, well-coached players, but their stars are most definitely the veteran senior cornerback duo of Jahlil Brown and Jimmy Smith. Suddenly, you’ve got to wonder how Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen might fare against a veteran and talented set of defensive backs.
What is the unsettling sensation that feels as if it is slowly creeping into the nether regions of my stomach? Could it possibly be fear? Of freaking Colorado?
I sure as hell hope not, because despite this being a far stiffer test for the Bears, think they should eventually take care of business. Here are a couple of thoughts and hopes.
Cover ‘Em Up
I don’t have too much fear about Colorado’s rushing attack. Their starting runningback Rodney Stewart is a quick and dynamic little scatback, but doesn’t appear to be getting much help from his massive offensive line, and gained just 67 yards (3.3 ypc) last week against Colorado State. This isn’t much of an improvement over last year’s paltry rushing production, when the Buffaloes were ranked 11th in the Big-12 conference.
Needless to say, I’d be sick if the Buffaloes mounted a consistent rushing attack against the Bears. My guess would be that their gameplan is to spread the Bears out with a quick strike offense that would allow some of their playmakers to get into space. We’re talking about passing like five yard crossing patterns, smoke screens (the Bears’ poison), and 10 yard outs.
The key may not necessarily be in rattling QB Tyler Hansen, because I don’t think their plan will be for him to be in the pocket very long and I would expect just 3 and 5 step drops. To make matters worse, I think they operate out of the shotgun quite a bit. Rather, the test will be for the secondary, and how they find ways to disrupt the rhythm of the receivers. How often will they jam them off the line, and how quickly can we expect the safeties in Josh Hill and Chris Conte to come lay the lumber in support?
The Buffaloes are far from a potent passing offense, but any passiveness in pass defense can be just what they need to lull the Bears to sleep into giving up a big play over the top or allow big yardage underneath.
Keep Hansen Contained
Tyler Hansen isn’t a Jeremiah Masoli or Colin Kaepernick, but the kid is athletic and make plays if forced out of the pocket. I’m not suggesting using a linebacker to spy at him all the time, but Cal’s linebackers are going to have to be very conscientious of where he is at all times, especially once they start sensing the play begins breaking down.
Flushing Hansen out of the pocket might work to Cal’s advantage if they bring the pressure. While they’ll undoubtedly give up a few big plays, they can be sure to extra physical when tackling Hansen, and finding ways to disrupt his rhythm and forcing his receivers to freestyle a bit more. Less rhythm on the road for the Buffaloes is a good thing for the Bears.
Get Your Playmakers in Space
The Buffaloes aren’t going to blow too many assignments, as they’re a fairly well disciplined team on defense. They play instinctively, cover gaps well, and are pretty scrappy in getting to the ball. While the Bears could simply try and pound the Buffaloes into submission, it may be a nicer idea to try and find ways to get the Bears’ playmakers into space early on.
One of the most obvious places to start will be with Cal’s dynamic wide receiver duo in Jones and Allen. The question though will be how free they’ll be with the aforementioned Colorado veteran duo guarding them.
I do think Jones and Allen will leave their mark when all is said and done, though I’d be surprised (happily of course) if they repeated their combined 200+ yard receiving performance.
The Bears benefit from having Vereen in the backfield as well as spreading out Anthony Miller over the middle. I’d like to see plenty of looks for Vereen to motion out to the slot, or even bring Sofele in at the same time to utilize his speed.
In sum, I think a number of big plays will help get Colorado out of their rhythm a bit, which would then set the stage for the Bears to run downhill a bit more on the Buffaloes defense, as well as opening up a number of passing lanes for Riley down the line.
I do think Colorado is improved this year, and the number of close losses last year lead me to believe that the Buffaloes certainly have a good shot to be bowl eligible this year. And I will admit, that I definitely overlooked the Buffaloes quite a bit heading into this week.
Still, I do think Colorado is still a bit of a ways out from coming to Cal and upsetting the Bears. I don’t quite know what the Bears are made of just yet, but I do think it will be enough to perhaps keep it close with the Buffaloes, before running away with the game late in the third quarter.
Cal 35 Colorado 17