BOULDER – In an epic “something’s gotta give” football game Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field, Colorado’s defense must cease being the gift that keeps on giving to Pac-12 offenses.
The skirmish matching conference oh-fers – CU is 0-6, Cal is 0-7 – rewinds a pair of fundamental weekly challenges for the Buffs ‘D’ in the pass-loopy Pac-12: pressure the quarterback, cover his receivers. Thus far, CU’s success rate doing either has been marginal, even a cut below.
This week’s QB to be chased is true freshman Jared Goff, Cal coach Sonny Dykes’ choice to operate his warp-speed, throw-it-everywhere-all-the-time offense that’s been graciously labeled the Bear Raid.
“Up-tempo” doesn’t do justice to the offense introduced by Dykes, who was at Louisiana Tech last season and coaching against now-CU coach Mike MacIntyre (San Jose State) in the Western Athletic Conference. Dykes’ first Bears team averages 91.3 plays a game, third nationally and first in the Pac-12. Put in context, Cal averaged 71.5 plays a game in 2012 and CU averages 72.7 now.
Dykes’ other QB option was redshirt freshman Zach Kline, and the choice initially generated some cyber debate in the Bay Area. Problem is for either guy, while the passes aren’t lacking, touchdowns are. Cal has attempted a league-high 535 passes (323 completions, 60.4 percent) but is last in scoring (23.9 points a game). The Bears also are last in red zone points, getting 28 scores (19 touchdowns, 9 field goals) on 40 red zone trips.
“They moved the ball good last week,” MacIntyre said. “I know the score was kind of lopsided (USC 62, Cal 28) but they were moving the football and doing some things. They just didn’t get into the end zone. Sonny does a great job offensively. He had the most prolific offense in the country a year ago at Louisiana Tech. So, it’s going to be a tough battle for us defensively.”
Having scouted him in high school, MacIntyre is familiar with Goff, who threw for a combined 7,687 yards and 93 touchdowns (18 interceptions) in three varsity seasons at Marin (Calif.) Catholic. Goff ranks third among the Pac-12 passing leaders, and through 10 games in his first college season he’s thrown for 3,141 yards, with 17 TDs and nine interceptions. He’s attempted 467 passes, completing 287, giving him a QB efficiency rating of ninth (126.1) in the league.
Pressuring him is key for the Buffs, but they’ll have to step it up from past performances. They’re No. 11 in the Pac-12 in pass defense (Cal is No. 12) and total defense (Cal is No. 12). The Buffs have given up 21 TD passes, the Bears 23.
And this stat might be a wash: CU is last in QB sacks with 1.22 a game, Cal is last in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed (30, or 3.0 a game). The Buffs’ current sack leader is a linebacker – freshman Addison Gillam with three – while senior end Chidera Uzo-Diribe and senior tackle Nate Bonsu each have two.
The 6-4, 205-pound Goff appears to have settled down in his past three games, accounting for eight TD passes against only two picks. He told Bay Area reporters this week that he’s “not trying to be Superman out there,” instead “just doing what a quarterback has to do and not trying to make every play on the field. For a little while there I was trying to do too much."
In the previous four games, his TD-to-pick ratio was two-three. “I would get frustrated and think I've got to throw a touchdown here,” he said. “I realized it and fixed it and that's what's going on the last few games."
CU defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat said in Dykes’ let-it-fly offense, Goff’s quick release is a perfect fit. “Once he gets back into his set he’s going to release it,” Jeffcoat said. “That’s the thing – you have to continue (rushing) because you’re going to get some opportunities to get pressure if you continue rushing. When you get those opportunities you have to take advantage.”
Added redshirt freshman defensive end De’Jon Wilson: “He’s a talented quarterback with talented receivers. He’ll hold onto it if he has to until he finds an open receiver. There’s a lot of pressure on us to get some sacks this week, really get after that guy.”
Goff’s top targets have been a pair of sophomores – Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, who ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the Pac-12 in receptions per game. Treggs has made 69 catches for 681 yards (one TD) while Harper has 68 for 842 yards (five TDs).
Jeffcoat, who spent 22 years in the NFL as a player or coach, said his linemen are gradually learning what he expects of them in generating a pass rush. MacIntyre wants consistent quarterback pressure from the defensive front rather than having to augment the pass rush with linebackers or defensive backs.
“When I came here I knew there were going to be some things . . . we just teach a little bit different,” Jeffcoat said. “The same thing happened at San Jose State, and the same thing really at the University of Houston (both previous coaching stops). Those first years, they were just learning how I teach it and how good I want it.”
The big difference, he said, is pressure on the two inside players to shed blocks and get to the quarterback. “The outside guys are going to understand they’ve got edges, but those inside guys – we have to get to the point where quarterbacks can’t step up (in the pocket),” Jeffcoat said. “That’s going to help the outside guys and get the inside guys more sacks. They’ll force (the QB) right into sacks. That means a lot of balance in the rush. They have to understand the pass rush lanes and understand the pass rush philosophy.
“They’re learning and trying to do it . . . that’s all I can ask – that they get better and better at it as they understand it more.”
The 6-2, 250-pound Wilson’s playing time has increased since the first month of the season. He’s participated in eight games, contributing 11 tackles (seven unassisted), half a sack, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery.
“He’s starting to improve, he just has to continue,” Jeffcoat said of Wilson. “He hasn’t played a lot of organized football, so there are things he still has to learn. But he’s really conscientious about it and he’s trying to do things right.”
Wilson, of Washington, D.C., said he believes he has “stepped it up. I’ve been talking with coach (Kent) Baer and coach Jeffcoat and they’ve told me what they expect out of me and what I should be doing. I’ve been watching a lot of film before practice and trying to be intense and focused.”
MacIntyre has stressed both of things, as well as being more physical than last week, to the Buffs as they try to keep their bowl hopes flickering. While Cal is 1-9 and long ago lost any postseason hope, CU is 3-6 overall with three games remaining. Six wins are required for postseason eligibility, and a win Saturday would raise the stakes for USC’s visit to Folsom Field on Saturday, Nov. 23. CU’s season-finale is Saturday, Nov. 30 at Utah.
“It’s one game at a time,” Wilson said. “Right now it’s Cal. Every game, we step on the field to win. We’re focused on this game so we can make some magic and be bowl eligible.”
Both teams endured similarly forgettable Saturdays last week. While Cal was being clubbed by USC, CU was being slapped 59-7 at Washington. The Buffs gave up 7.8 yards a play to the Huskies, the Bears 9.8 to the Trojans. CU committed three third-quarter turnovers that all led to UW touchdowns, Cal gave up three special teams TDs (two kickoff returns, one blocked punt). And by MacIntyre’s count, the Buffs missed a mind-boggling 37 tackles.
Cal has allowed 40-plus points in seven games this season, CU has allowed at least 44 in all six of its conference losses – including 50-plus in three of the defeats. And finally, early Saturday evening one long losing streak will be over: CU has lost 14 consecutive Pac-12 games, Cal has lost 12.