"T.I.P.S." for taking on the California Bears
Leading up to the 2010 season opener against Colorado State, Buff fans were anxious - to say the least - about the 2010 season.
Coming off a 3-9 season, the Buffs were a mystery. There were reasons for budding confidence - new speed at wide receiver; Tyler Hansen was named the starting quarterback; three offensive linemen were on national award watch lists; the Buffs' defensive line had another year's worth of experience; and All-American candidates were positioned at both cornerback position.
Still, the questions lingered - there were the unforgettable memories of the back-to-back debacles against Colorado State and Toledo to open the 2009 season; there was a decided lack of depth at running back; the Buffs' possessed special teams' units often unsuitable for viewing by women and small children; and there was, of course, the elephant in the room: Dan Hawkins' 16-33 overall record.
Colorado State had problems of its own, but the Rams had nine months to focus all of their attention on the Buffs, knowing that one win would cure many of the ills which had befallen the Rams in their 3-9 2009 season. The Rams also had the swagger borne from the 23-17 defeat of the Buffs, at Folsom Field no less, twelve months earlier.
Both teams claimed to be confident, but only one team would leave Invesco Field having put much of the misery of their 3-9 season behind them.
It turned out to be the Buffs, claiming a 24-3 victory with relative ease.
Can that new found confidence be translated into success on the road? The Buffs will take their shot on September 11th, coming in as eight-point underdogs against the University of California-Berkeley.
The differences between Colorado State and Cal can best be illustrated by comparing each team's quarterback. The Rams put a true freshman, Pete Thomas, out onto Invesco Field, and the Buffs' defense did its job, forcing three interceptions. The Bears will counter with a three-year senior starter in Kevin Riley, who just happens to have be the Pac-10's leader amongst active quarterbacks in career wins (16, in 24 starts). Last season, Riley threw for 2,850 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Good numbers (and certainly better than what Colorado fans have been seeing the past few years), but Riley's numbers were only good enough for a sixth place ranking in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency, coming with only a 54.7 pass completion rate. Still, Riley will be a significantly tougher test for the Buffs than was Thomas.
Despite his average numbers in 2009, matters may be looking up for Riley in 2010, if the results of the Cal-Davis game are to be any indication. The pass receiving corps received an instant upgrade this fall with the insertion of true freshman Keenan Allen. All Allen did in his debut was collect four passes for 120 yards (a nifty 30-yard average) and two touchdowns, also carrying the ball three times for 38 yards and another touchdown. Junior wide receiver Marvin Jones, who was supposed to be the deep threat for the Bears this fall before Allen made his debut, had five catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
The Cal running game also cannot be overlooked. Cal opened the 2009 season with a Heisman trophy candidate in Jahvid Best. When Best went down with a back injury against Oregon State in early November, though, Shane Vereen stepped in. The junior posted 952 yards and 12 touchdowns in relatively limited action - Vereen started only four games. Against rival Stanford, Vereen went off for 193 yards. Against Cal-Davis in the 2010 opener, Vereen had 95 total yards and three touchdowns.
On defense, Cal has a new defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast, taking over a unit which was ranked 72nd in the nation in total defense. The unit only returns five starters, with All-Conference players lost from each unit of the defense. All-Pac 10 defensive end Tyson Alualu was the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft (by Jacksonville), with All-conference linebacker Mike Mohamed and All-conference cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson also gone. If there is a weakness in the Bears' defense, it is the pass defense, which ranked 111th in pass defense in 2009.
On special teams, Cal returns two kickers who saw action in 2009. The punt team was ranked 30th in net punting, and 24th in punt returns last season. One weakness for the Bears on special teams came in kickoff returns, where Cal was ranked 96th in the nation.
I - Intangibles
Last week, Colorado State held the advantage in this category. This Saturday the Buffs have an edge when it comes to mind games.
A week ago, the underdog CSU Rams had everything to win and nothing to lose. This week, the underdog role falls to the Buffs. Cal was 8-5 last season, going to a bowl game for the seventh straight year. Colorado was 3-9 last season, suffering through the Buffs' fourth straight losing season. Both teams won their opener against inferior opponents, with Cal dispatching 1-AA Cal-Davis with exceptional ease.
Can the Buffs take the momentum of defeating a rival on the road to Berkeley? Well, at least the Buffs will have a little more support than usual. No doubt inspired by the impending move to the Pac-12, the game against new rival Cal has sparked a greater interest in the game from California alumni. The Buffs are usually hard-pressed to fill their allotted visitor ticket quota, but against Cal the Buffs are expecting in excess of 7,000 fans, with pre-game festivities sponsored by the school in a manner usually reserved for such venues as Austin, Lincoln, and Athens.
Another slight edge for Colorado (and the Buffs need all the help they can get) may come from the Buffs' offensive coordinator, Eric Kiesau. Before coming to Boulder in 2006 as wide receivers coach, Kiesau served in that same capacity under California head coach Jeff Tedford. "I am never going to forget where I came from and the guys there," said Kiesau. "I learned a ton of football from Jeff Tedford." Hopefully, there will be some plays, tendencies, or other intangibles (even tidbits about playing in Memorial Stadium) which Kiesau can use in his preparation for the Bears.
One last intangible which might help the Buffs. Last weekend, Colorado and Colorado State squared off in 90-degree heat. This weekend, the forecast is for clear weather, but a temperature in the mid-60's. The cooler temperatures might - okay, just might - give the Buff players just that much more energy on Saturday.
P - Prepartion / Schedule
Cal is an anomaly.
The last four times the Bears have started the season ranked in the Associated Press top 25, they have finished the season ranked lower than where they started. In both 2007 and 2009, the Bears started the season ranked 12th in the preseason poll, only to finish the season unranked. Last year, California made it into the top ten after a 3-0 start, but successive blowout losses (42-3 to Oregon; 30-3 to USC) took care of that.
California finished in a tie for sixth place in the Pac-10 in 2009, and not much more is expected from the Bears this season. In the 2010 Pac-10 preseason media poll Cal, which had been picked to finish second in the conference five of the previous six seasons, was picked to finish 7th.
Perhaps low expectations is just the right recipe for 2010 success.
When looking at the game before and the game upcoming for both teams, the Buffs might have a slight edge. Colorado had to get up for a rivalry game at a neutral site; Cal had to generate enthusiasm for playing an out-matched 1-AA team at home. Advantage, Buffs.
Next week, Colorado returns to Boulder for its first home game of the season, a winnable contest against Hawaii, while Cal must take to the road to face Nevada. Colorado comes in with a little higher high, and has a little more to look forward to for next week.
Colorado players came out of fall practice with a certain swagger. Without any success on the field to back it up, however, there was a question as to whether that swagger was justified. A solid defensive effort against Colorado State, coupled with new talent making its presence known on offense, gives some justification to the swagger.
Can the Buffs back it up two weeks in a row?
The other factor when it comes to the Schedule cannot be ignored ... 2-19.
Colorado hasn't won a road game since October 27, 2007. The last 13 times the Buffs have left the friendly borders of the state of Colorado, they have returned empty-handed. Until or unless a Dan Hawkins' coached team can put together a solid effort on the road, the mere location of the game will be a severe handicap for the Buffs.
S - Statistics
Under Jeff Tedford, California is 20-3 in regular season non-conference games.
Under Dan Hawkins, Colorado is 7-10 in regular season non-conference games (with only one of those wins, the upset of West Virginia in 2008, coming against a BCS conference school).
The Bears are 34-6 at home since late 2003, losing only to Oregon State and USC (how it is that Cal is 0-4 at home against Oregon State since 2003 is a mystery for another day).
The Buffs, as we all know too well, are 2-19 on the road under Dan Hawkins.
How can the Buffs turn the above numbers around?
For starters, make the passing game click.
As noted above, California was 111th in the nation in pass defense in 2009, and lost one of its best defenders. Colorado now has the speed and the talent to exploit a poor pass defense. Last week, Cal unveiled true freshman Keenan Allen, who torched the Cal-Davis Aggies for 120 yards on only four catches. It's time for Colorado to introduce to the nation one of its three new stars - senior Travon Patterson, junior Toney Clemons, or freshman Paul Richardson (of course, the Buff Nation would not mind seeing a great game from Scotty McKnight, Will Jefferson, or Kyle Cefalo).
By the same token, the Buffs must stop the pass.
Last season, the Colorado defense gave up 53 plays of over 20 yards. Last week, the Buffs gave up one: A 20-yard run late in the fourth quarter, when the game was well in hand. No pass completion went for over 18 yards. That statistic must hold true against California as well. The Colorado defense cannot afford to give up big plays. At the same time, Colorado cannot routinely give up underneath passes, as was the case against the Rams. The Buffs allowed a true freshman quarterback to complete 72% of his passes in the opener; such numbers from a three-year senior starter will be death to Colorado's chances.
In order to force California into passing situations which the Buffs can defend, Colorado must continue its strong play against the run. Colorado gave up only 49 yards rushing against Colorado State (29 of those yards in the fourth quarter). The Buffs must keep Shane Vereen from dominating the game. Conversely, the Buffs must find their running game. Colorado fans are more than pleased with the Buffs' No. 13 national ranking in rush defense. Cal, meanwhile, is ranked No. 3 in the nation, after giving up only 14 yards to Cal-Davis. If Cal can keep Rodney Stewart from gaining significant yards, it could be a long afternoon for the Buffs.
Can Colorado prevail against California? The history of the Colorado Buffs on the road under Dan Hawkins says "no".
Still, the Buff players have adopted a new attitude. Senior leadership is more evident; the Buffs are tired of losing. "To go on road trips, and to fall short almost every time, that's really rough," said quarterback Tyler Hansen. "We always want to sing the fight song on the plane coming home. We haven't done that in awhile."
Buff fans are hoping this Saturday night will begin a new trend ...
More on Colorado football posted daily at www.cuatthegame.com
Buff fans - Check out a new Colorado Buffalo podcast, Totally Biased Buffaloes. You can download the podcast off of iTunes, or listen to it on your computer at http://totallybiasedbuffaloes.wordpress.com/. The current episode features a discussion outside of Invesco Field after the CSU game, as well as a look at the upcoming Cal game (and yes, you can hear my cheery voice as part of the broadcast!).