There’s a common saying about football that claims football is a game of inches. It’s a cliche, sure, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The Cal football team’s double overtime 59-56 win over Colorado on Saturday provided a perfect representation of that saying, because despite gaining 630 total yards against the Bears, despite scoring 56 points, the Buffs lost the game — all because they couldn’t gain one lousy yard when it mattered the most.
Colorado’s final offensive drive in double overtime involved four plays run from inside Cal’s three-yard line. Two plays were snapped from the two-yard line, and the last two from the one.
On first down and goal, the Buffs’ running back, Tony Jones, was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. On second down, quarterback Sefo Liufau didn’t fare much better, only gaining a yard. On third down, the Buffs turned to their fullback, George Frazier, who attempted to jump over the trenches and into the endzone. Cal held its ground at the one.
Finally, on fourth down, the Buffs’ offensive coaching staff decided to get cute instead of trying to jam the ball through a seemingly cemented defensive line for a fourth straight time. The result was a disaster for Colorado and a rare win for Cal’s much-maligned defense.
With that, let’s go to the tape.
The Buffs opt to go heavy on fourth down. They’re actually in the exact same formation as the play before when Frazier fell a yard short of paydirt. With five offensive linemen, two tight ends, a fullback and running back and only one wide receiver, Colorado is showing run once again, just as they did on the three previous running plays.
Cal is matching Colorado’s formation — one defender is covering Colorado’s lone receiver on the right flank, but the remaining 10 are bunched around the ball.
Despite the seemingly obvious run formation, Cal has to be wary of a pass, for two specific reasons. The first is Nelson Spruce, who is the receiver lined up on the right. Spruce caught 19 passes Saturday, so leaving him in man-on-man coverage isn’t exactly a situation Cal has to be comfortable with.
The second reason dates all the way back to the first quarter, when the Buffs scored their second touchdown of the game on a play-action pass to Frazier — the fullback. The formation in that play, while not identical, slightly resembles the fourth down formation in double overtime.
Except the Buffs aren’t planning on airing out the football. The Buffs aren’t planning on handing it to either one of their backs in the backfield. Instead, Colorado intends for Liufau to carry the ball into the end zone himself.
Liufau takes the snap and immediately fakes a handoff to Frazier. The offensive line also blocks straight ahead. They’re essentially selling the exact same play that they failed to execute the play before.
The Buffs have another trick coming, as Liufau fakes another handoff — this one going to the running back off of the left tackle. But not many Cal defenders are fooled. If anything, all they do is take one false step toward the misdirection.
At this point in the progression of the play, two Cal defenders have diagnosed what’s coming. And when Liufau finally rolls out to the right side of the field, both Jalen Jefferson and Todd Barr are there to run him down.
Jefferson is the first to meet Liufau, wrapping up his ankles. Then, Barr comes flying in to assist, hitting Liufau up high. Colorado loses three yards, Cal gets a rare stop, and it’s enough to propel the Bears to a win.
Cal’s defense might have managed to come up big when it needed to most, but for four quarters and one overtime period, the defense was more swiss than cheddar. While the Buffs weren’t necessarily burning Cal deep, Liufau was able to methodically carve his way through the Bears’ secondary, completing 46 of 67 passes. Not all of this falls on the secondary though. The pass-rush deserves its fair share of blame as Cal didn’t even sack Liufau once.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the defense’s performance for Cal fans was its inability to do anything to slow down Spruce. And after the game, head coach Sonny Dykes owned up to their difficulties.
“Our game plan didn’t work very well,” Dykes said. “On third and fourth down, you know he’s going to get the ball, and he’s still hard to stop. And they do a good job of mixing it up. You try to play heavy inside coverage with your corners, and they throw fade routes. You try to play head up, and they run slant routes. They diamond release on the slants. It’s just a lot of different things.”
At the very least, Cal’s running defense continues to look crisp. The Buffs ran the ball for 175 yards, but only averaged 4.1 yards per carry. On the season, Cal is ranked 47th in defending the run. Last season, the Bears finished as the 87th best team against the run.
The final four offensive plays Cal faced Saturday exemplify the strides the defense has taken since Art Kaufman took over as defensive coordinator. It’s still early, but it appears the days of running backs gashing the bears for big runs are coming to a close. For the first time under the direction of Dykes, the defense came up with the tackle that all but sealed a conference win.
It’s funny; one week ago, the Bears were gashed for 627 total yards and 49 points. The defense was blamed for that loss because it ended on a Hail Mary touchdown. A week later, the Bears gave up 630 yards and 56 points — nearly identical numbers to the week prior — yet because they stopped the Buffs short of the goal line by a few yards, they’re heroes.