The Cal football team heads to mile-high Boulder, Colorado this weekend to face a team that, on paper, looks very similar to Cal itself. Perhaps because of a home-field advantage and particularly the elevation, Colorado currently sits as a 3.5-point favorite. But a spread so small should probably be interpreted as a bookkeeper’s ruse and not overly indicative of the outcome, which is nebulous at this point. Both teams are 4-4 overall and 1-4 in Pac-12 play, need two more wins for bowl eligibility, have recently lost close contests to Arizona and both allow and score points per game in the 20s.
The similarities go beyond the results. Both teams are hard to handle on the ground. Cal’s Patrick Laird put forth an impressive performance against Arizona, bouncing back from injury to deliver his second 100-yard rushing performance of the season. But in Laird’s absence the prior game against Washington State, Vic Enwere took care of business with 102 yards of his own running the ball.
Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay, however, has been dominant all season, ranking sixth in the nation in total yards and having eclipsed the 100-yard mark four times. Against Arizona in week six, he exploded for 281 yards on an astonishing 41 carries.
Lindsay comes in at 5-8, 190 pounds, but he has the strength to play a ground-and-pound game, as well as the quickness to break away in the open field. And if the Buffaloes’ coaching staff have learned anything from Cal’s losses to Oregon and Arizona, they know that the Bears’ front is shaky against runs up the middle. With the right looks on the offensive line, Lindsay could have a field day.
“(Lindsay’s) been really productive for them for a long, long time. He’s a good runner. He catches the ball. He kind of does everything. He’s a complete back,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “He’s hard to bring down. Not a lot of people tackle him one-on-one, and if they do, he pushes the pile, he runs behind his pads.”
But despite the similarities between the two teams, it’s probably as important to emphasize the differences.
Let’s start with team’s sole conference victory. The Buffs barely took down last-place Oregon State 36-33, while the Bears had their historic dismantling of then-No. 8 Washington State, 37-3. It should be noted that the Cougars went on to dismantle Colorado last week, 28-0.
To follow that, the Bears and Buffs’ defenses performed significantly differently in recent matchups against against Arizona. Colorado relied on its offense to keep pace with Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate ─ as he ran his way to the FBS record for quarterback rushing yards. Evidently, the defense was nearly nonexistent, as Tate trampled the Buffs all game long.
Cal’s defense, however, was much better, getting reasonable pressure on Tate, closing gaps up the middle and preventing big-yardage plays for the most part. The Bears also showed in the second half just why their 21 turnovers forced are a tie for best in the nation.
After the Cal defense allowed Arizona to rack up 249 rushing yards in the first half, it slowed down the Wildcats’ potent run game in the second half and forced Tate to use his arm, and Ashtyn Davis even got a late-game interception.
Based off of the defensive adjustments against Arizona and the huge difference in quality against Washington State, Cal appears to have a decent shot at winning this crucial road game. But everybody knows what playing at high elevation can do to visiting teams, so while recent form might not validate the point spread favoring Colorado, the home-field advantage certainly does.
A victory in Boulder would be Cal’s first on the road against a Pac-12 team after 11 straight losses and would leave the Bears one win from bowl eligibility. With Oregon State coming to Berkeley the following week, the postseason is definitely within reach for Cal.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].