Improvement. That’s about all Cal football can hope for Saturday when Colorado pays its first visit to Memorial Stadium since 2018.
After a heartbreaking loss to No. 10 Oregon, the Bears dropped to 1-5 on the season and 0-3 in conference play, firmly cementing themselves in the Pac-12 North basement. Now, they must regroup before welcoming the Buffaloes, who at 2-4 can just barely see light from the first floor.
Responding to adversity appears to be a recurring talking point for Cal this season. Four of its five losses have come by 7 points or fewer. Every week, players and coaches alike detail how a good stretch of practice should translate to better results on game day. Yet every week, it appears to be the same story — the Bears start fast, then slow down and ultimately fail to catch up in the end.
Fortunately for Cal, however, Colorado is just a bit slower. The Buffs rank fourth-worst in the nation in total offense, averaging just more than 260 yards per outing. In fact, the blue and gold lead their opponents in nearly every offensive statistical category.
Still, Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave rightfully knows that his offense has a long way to go.
“We’re continually working not only on replicating our good concepts but weeding out the ones that aren’t so effective and replacing them with things that may be complementary to the good things we do,” Musgrave said in a press conference Wednesday.
In particular, Musgrave emphasized the need to make the Bears’ run game more explosive. Doing so would help prevent longer third downs and help Cal push the ball downfield faster by setting up play-action opportunities. It’s clear that chunk plays are where Musgrave’s offense hums — redshirt senior quarterback Chase Garbers, who leads the Pac-12 in total offense, has produced 38 plays of 15 or more yards this season.
Establishing a rhythm offensively will not be an easy task against Colorado, however. The Buffs’ defense is stout and fresh off of a 34-0 shutout performance against Arizona.
“There is no rest for the weary. We’ve faced some good defenses already, but this is probably the best group we’ve seen to date,” Musgrave said in the press conference. “They appear to know exactly what they are doing, and they do it well.”
Part of the reason Colorado’s defensive players appear to know what they are doing is they’ve already done it. The Buffs’ defense is full of experienced veterans, led by senior linebacker Nate Landman, who has already racked up 53 tackles and a forced fumble this season.
“They’ve got a bunch of older guys and transfers who have played a lot of football, so nothing new is going to be shown to them,” Garbers said in a press conference Wednesday. “They’ve seen a lot of football, whether it’s Air Raid or pro style, and they’re a really talented group.”
It will be interesting to see how Musgrave attempts to rejuvenate his rushing attack against a unit that is not surprised by much. And considering the likelihood of rain on Saturday, a run-heavy game plan is probably Cal’s best play in what is shaping up to be a defensive slugfest.
While the steadily improving Bears’ defense should find its footing early and provide the offense with good field position to work with, Cal’s playmakers must make the most of those opportunities. Perhaps they’ll be motivated by the fact that the blue and gold have never lost to the Buffs in Berkeley since Cal won in 1968.
Pride aside, neither team has a whole lot to play for. Neither Cal nor Colorado is likely to be playing in bowl games this season, so conference bragging rights and goodwill with recruits seem to be all that is at stake.
So will the Bears actually respond to adversity this week? Another Pac-12 loss could be damning for Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, but offensive improvement in a win would certainly bring some stability to a program that desperately needs it right now.