Bully ball: Bears beat up on Buffaloes in Berkeley

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Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff

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On a day that couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted to be sunny or rainy, Cal football knew exactly what type of team it wanted to be. The Bears imposed their will on both sides of the football en route to a 26-3 statement win over conference foe Colorado.

All week long, Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave emphasized two improvements he wanted to see from his offense: a more dynamic rushing attack and consistency in hitting on explosive plays of 15 yards or more. The Bears — led by redshirt senior quarterback Chase Garbers — answered the call Saturday.

Garbers posted 161 passing yards and 82 yards on the ground in the first half alone, flashing the dual-threat ability that Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell discussed throughout the week. With the running game humming early, Musgrave opened up the playbook and trusted his quarterback to take shots down the field. The result was a 24-yard touchdown loft to Keleki Latu and later, a 31-yard touchdown strike from Garbers that hit tight end Gavin Reinwald right in stride down the right sideline.

“I played well enough to win, but it could be better,” said Garbers, who passed Joe Kapp as Cal’s all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks. “It’s truly an honor to be a record-holder, but all the credit goes to the other 10 guys.”

A rejuvenated and balanced Cal offense lit up the Buffaloes’ defense for 23 points in the first half — the most that the unit has scored in a half all season. The blue and gold sucked the soul out of Colorado’s defense from its first drive onward. Well, actually, the soul of the Buffs’ vaunted defense left the field in the second quarter when star linebacker Nate Landman walked off gingerly with an apparent leg injury. Although Landman would return in the second half, enough damage was done in his absence.

But it wasn’t just the offense that found its identity today. Cal’s defense had arguably its best performance of the season, led by safety Elijah Hicks and outside linebacker Cam Goode. Hicks seemed to be everywhere on the field, registering a sack and nabbing a late interception. Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon’s unit was dominant and held Colorado to an abysmal 104 yards of total offense — a strong response for a group that began to crumble toward the end of last week’s loss to Oregon. For comparison, the blue and gold hung 438 yards of offense on the Buffs.

“A number of guys contributed today. It wasn’t just a one-man show,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “It takes all 11, and everybody did their part today.”

The Bears got into the backfield early and often, shutting down run plays on fourth down and making it hard for freshman quarterback Brendon Lewis to gain any semblance of rhythm. Lewis was sacked six times and began to get “happy feet” whenever the pocket collapsed. It seemed like Colorado’s only sources of offense were penalties and sophomore tailback Jarek Broussard, who contributed in both the running and passing game.

“We knew that we wanted to get after these guys. We started implementing more third-down pressures and having guys like Daniel Scott and Elijah Hicks on the back end makes our jobs easier,” said senior outside linebacker Marqez Bimage. “It felt good to see our big boys get after the quarterback.”

Even Cal’s oft-criticized special teams group got in on the fun. Redshirt junior kicker Dario Longhetto nailed field goals from 49, 30, 51 and 33 yards, respectively. It was the type of complete game that the blue and gold have been searching for. Up to this point, whenever one or two units on the team met expectations, it never seemed as though the third phase was in sync.

Not much changed in the second half, but issues observed in previous games did rear their head again. While the offense flowed early, it started to stagnate when playing with a lead. But unlike in other contests this season, Cal’s defense held its own, and the game never fell into question.

“Winning feels good and we want to enjoy it, but we don’t want this to be the highlight of the season. We want to build on it,” Wilcox said. “We’re focused on the right here and right now.”

While getting back in the win column won’t do much for the Bears’ postseason hopes, perhaps this performance will help get fans to fill what was a half-empty student section. Granted that this all came against a Buffs’ squad that is sitting near the bottom of the Pac-12 standings, Cal football finally lived up to the image of what it could be — at least for one day.

Kabir Rao covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.