Some coaches would argue that it’s better to play aggressively and get beaten on defense for big plays occasionally rather than die by 5-yard gain after 5-yard gain. Well, when the opposing offense can put up a big play on every drive of the game, it hardly makes a difference. The front seven played well, but the only thing that mattered on the scoreboard was the enormity of the mistakes in the secondary that doomed Cal football to a 44-28 loss in the Boulder, Colorado altitude.
Two punts in the first two minutes of game time gave the illusion of a defensive struggle, but the Buffs would go on to put up their season high in first quarter yards. Phillip Lindsay was bottled on most of his carries, but he eventually broke off a 39 yarder, which set up a touchdown pass over Camryn Bynum.
Cal retaliated with a big third down conversion, followed by an even bigger fourth down conversion on a fake fullback drive that was pitched to Patrick Laird for a big gain. Cal would tie the game up with a pass from wide receiver Vic Wharton III to Kanawai Noa.
The front seven continued to play well, keeping Lindsay contained and putting big pressure on Colorado quarterback Steven Montez. Outside linebacker Alex Funches was playing particularly well, but bad coverage from cornerback Josh Drayden wasted what should have been a third and 17, and a big strike from Montez, over Bynum once again, set up an easy quarterback touchdown run.
Bad offensive line play started to derail Cal drives, and Darius Allensworth played the goat on Colorado’s next drive, getting beat badly for a 65-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Shay Fields.
Some creative play calling (direct snaps to Lindsay and a wide receiver end around after a sweep handoff to Lindsay) helped the Buffs to a field goal for their fourth straight score, and the 24-7 lead was starting to feel mountainous. It didn’t help matters that cornerback Elijah Hicks had a should-be interception thrown into his chest.
A 17-play drive that seemed to stop and start endlessly finally went Cal’s way when Ross Bowers stepped up in the pocket and placed a ball perfectly on a 27-yard touchdown strike to Noa. Things were looking a bit better, but when a quarterback who was on the verge of being benched before the game goes for 242 yards in the first half, you’re in trouble.
The Bears had a big opportunity in the third quarter when James Looney picked up a fumble at the Cal 45-yard line, but the chance was wasted with a three and out. And even that was a little lucky, as a deflection off tight end Gavin Reinwald’s hands on second down could have easily gone for an interception.
The Cal defense was excellent for most of the third quarter, led by James Looney, who was playing brilliantly all game. But the Bears seemed to finally tire on the last drive because of a no-huddle Colorado offense, and the Buffs were coming up with conversions when they needed them. The third quarter ended without points from any team (they combined for just 140 yards), but that drive ended with 7 points at the start of the fourth quarter for Colorado.
Safety Jaylinn Hawkins lost his receiver on that touchdown, but it wasn’t a miscue as bad as those in the first half, and it could be better attributed to the lack of a pass rush. Colorado had no issues in that department on Cal’s next drive, getting to Bowers for a sack twice. Kamryn Bennett, who slid over to left tackle from left guard because of an injury to Patrick Mekari, let up a particularly nasty hit on third down.
Bowers, who had played well despite poor circumstances, finally got a chance to show off on the next drive. He found a weakness in Colorado’s zone and made a perfect deep throw to Jordan Veasy for 51 yards, followed up by a well-timed screen to Wharton III for a touchdown. 34-21 didn’t exactly put Cal in striking distance, but it at least pushed the game further into respectability.
Lindsay finally got going consistently, and the Buffs’ evident ability to run the clock out quickly made any possibility of a comeback moot. The Bears didn’t let him embarrass them, but his final stat line of 33 carries and 161 yards paints a good picture of a Cal defense that simply wasn’t good enough Saturday to get a big road win.
A meaningless 100-yard touchdown on an interception return with two minutes remaining, followed by a similarly unimportant touchdown pass to Veasy, winded down a strange game.
The losses to Arizona and Colorado are understandable, but the path to a bowl has quickly gotten a whole lot harder. Assuming a win over Oregon State next week, the Bears still need a road win over Stanford or UCLA. It’s doable, but Cal head coach Justin Wilcox suddenly has more urgency and pressure in the close of the schedule than we would have thought just two weeks ago.