Cal football to face fast Colorado offense

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The Tuesday Cal football press conference generally stays away from recounting the triumphs or misfortunes of the team’s previous week, preferring to focus on moving forward and, therefore, the upcoming opponent. But after the Bears’ calamitous loss Saturday at the hands of Arizona — one that saw the Wildcats pile on 36 points in the fourth quarter and win on a walk-off Hail Mary — the reporters crowding the room couldn’t help but pepper head coach Sonny Dykes and the players at the stand with the same question Cal fans surely have been asking each other: What the heck happened?

“We were pretty tired,” linebacker Jake Kearney said. “It just came really fast — I mean, we have to work on finishing, really. But yeah, we got pretty tired at the end.”

“The guys started to wear down at the end of the game,” Dykes said. “Next time we’re in that situation, we’ll handle it better.”

An opportunity to prove the Bears can handle that situation might present itself sooner than Dykes anticipates. As Cal (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) prepares to take on Colorado (2-2, 0-1) at Memorial Stadium at 1 p.m. Saturday, it will undoubtedly spend a good deal of time thinking through its conditioning practices for a fast-paced offense. Why? Arizona currently ranks fourth in the country in plays run at 340. In fifth? Colorado with 334.

In other words, the Wildcats and the Buffaloes run their offenses at almost the exact same pace. If Cal’s picked anything up from last week’s experience, it’ll be evident in countering Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre’s breakneck offense.

That is, of course, if the Buffaloes can meld their lightning pace with an efficient attack. The latter hangs in a much more precarious position — although Colorado ranks fifth in the country in total plays run, it ranks just 82nd in yards per play and last in the entire Pac-12.

Coming off a 4-8 season in which their only conference win came against Cal, the Buffaloes found themselves hanging around the bottom-dwellers in the preseason projections. Their first contest — a 31-17 loss to Colorado State — didn’t do much to repair their reputation. Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau played well, throwing for 241 yards and a couple of touchdowns to wideout Nelson Spruce, but the defense collapsed near the end, allowing the Rams to get points on their final four drives of the game.

The rest of the season has been similarly touch-and-go for the Buffaloes, nearly losing to a hapless UMass squad before hanging with but ultimately falling to Arizona State and besting Hawaii. When they’ve looked respectable, it’s been a product of the Liufau-Spruce hookup.

Spruce has put up 100 yards in every game but one, where he finished with 97 yards. The Hawaii game represented his highlight performance — the junior tore through the Warrior secondary to the tune of 13 catches and 172 yards.

“They’re getting him the ball in a lot of different ways,” Dykes said. “They’ve done a nice job in being creative and figuring out how to get him the ball. He’s carrying the load for their offense, he really is.”

To what extent he will carry the load Saturday depends on a litany of factors, one of the most pertinent being how healthy the Cal secondary figures to be. Dykes remarked that Stefan McClure might not be at full strength, and Avery Sebastian is still working his way up to 100 percent.

Already thin at safety, the Bears can’t afford to let both McClure and Sebastian play only sparingly. If both are sidelined, Michael Lowe and Griffin Piatt figure to play nearly the entire game. Imagine this — Colorado down four, driving with time running out, Spruce running a go-route, and Lowe and Piatt fatigued from an entire game’s worth of plays — it’s not out of the realm of possibility Cal will have a chance to really see if, faced with “that situation” again, they’ll handle it better.

Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.