Cal Football: A Golden Spotlight on the Defensive Schemes vs. the Colorado Buffaloes

YOU. SHALL. NOT. PASS! (for that 285th yard...um...yeah...)

So, what in the world just happened?  Most of us thought that our front seven would be legally married to Tyler Hansen by the end of last Saturday's game.  Did we really get stymied by a Marshall-coached Oline?  Did we have a defensive gampelan at all?  Did we bother making any adjustments?  Let's take a closer look at CU's 1st two drives:

 

1st Drive:

1st Play:  Cal shows a 5-man front, one safety deep.  This is Cal's standard 3-4, but both OLBs are up on the line of scrimmage.  We line up in this formation almost exclusively throughout the game. CU has 12 personnel - 1RB, 2 TE, 2WR.

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Hansen fakes the hand-off and rolls right.  Cal rushes 5 and their ILBs charge upfield.

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Davis sticks with the TE, then leaves him to rush Hansen.

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Hansen lofts a pass to the wide-open TE...fortunately, he overthrows him.

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2nd Play:  Cal - 5 man front.  CU - 1 TE, 1 RB, 3 WR

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Bears rush 5, Hansen drops back to pass.

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The rush doesn't get there.  Campbell is in the slot playing zone against Richardson.

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Campbell can't drive on the ball quickly enough.  Easy catch on the slant route for a 1st down.

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3rd Play:  Cal - 5 man front. CU offset I, 21 personnel, 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR.

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It's a pitch to Stewart.  Cal is rushing 5 and both ILBs charge upfield.

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The Bears clog all the gaps.

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Holt and Kendricks meet to have themselves a Stewart sandwich.  No gain.

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4th Play:  Cal 5-man front, CU - 2TE, 1 RB, 2WR

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Cal rushes 5, but switches it up by sending Kendricks up the middle while dropping Campo into coverage.

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This leaves DJ Holt all alone in the middle trying to cover two Buffs.  The rush doesn't get there in time.

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Holt makes the right read, but can't get there in time.  Hansen hits his TE for a long gain.

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5th Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU 3WR, 2RB, I Formation

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It's a hand-off to Stewart.

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The CU center engages Payne initially, then releases to take on Holt at the next level.

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Payne misses Stewart...

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Holt tries to disengage, but also misses Stewart.  Campbell and Cattouse have to stop him after a big gain.

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6th Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU 2 TE, 2 RB power set.

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Hansen fakes the hand-off...

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...But rolls out instead.  The fullback releases and no one covers him.

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Davis is able to leap up and tip the ball...which is fortunate because the fullback was WIDE open in the flat.

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7th Play:  Cal - 5 man front.  CU - 2 RB, 1 TE, 2WR, I formation

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Cal rushes 5...but this time sends Holt up the middle while dropping Davis.

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Does this make anyone else sick to their stomach?

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The screen pass is the perfect call against a blitz.  Davis should have coverage, but drops too far into the middle of the field.

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Davis loses contain on the edge and then gets blocked.  Kendricks fights off his block and does an incredible job running down Stewart and saving a touchdown.

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8th Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU 2RB, 1 TE, 2 WR, offset I.

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Their backup LT holds off two rushers while their LG pulls.  Holt charges forward.

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Holt fills the gap, but the guard has him measured.

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Holt can't disengage and Stewart runs through the hole for 4 yds before being tackled by Anthony.(good run support)

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9th Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU, 1RB, 2TE, 2WR.  *Cal starts subbing in on their Dline sending in Tipoti, Jalil, and Coleman.

 

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This time, Cal rushes 4, and drops Campo into coverage.  It's the first time Coach Pendergast doesn't blitz.

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Hansen takes a quick 3-step drop and throws the quick out to Richardson.

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Hill has good coverage, but is a split-second and inches away from breaking up the pass.

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10th Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU 2RB, 1 TE, I formation.

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Hansen fakes the hand-off and does a half-roll left.  Campo drops into coverage and picks up the fullback.  Also noteworthy, Cal's ILBs don't charge aggressively upfield and instead drop back into zone.

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All of Hansen's outlets are covered.  The 4 man rush finally starts to apply pressure.

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Hansen has an open receiver, but has to throw it away.  

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11th Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU 2RB, 3WR.

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Cal rushes 4, drops Campo into coverage.  Hansen fakes the run, but Cal's defense doesn't bite.

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Hansen rolls out right.  His underneath receiver is well-covered.  

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Campo has Hansen's outlet covered.

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Hansen overthrows his receiver who is well-covered in the end zone.

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12th Play:  Finally, a 3rd and long! (yes, it's play #12) Cal goes with a 3-man front with McCain at one end, Payne in the middle, Guyton at the other end.  Wilkerson is also in as the middle backer between Holt and Kendricks.  Hill is in as a nickelback.  This is Cal's 2-4-5, big Nickel look.  We use it throughout the game on third and long situations.  CU - 1RB, 1TE, 3WR, shotgun.

 

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Cal rushes 3, Wilkerson comes on a delayed dog blitz.  CU has a designed roll-out right.

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Cal's pressure can't get there initially.

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Hansen throws on the run and the refs claim he dragged a toe.

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13th Play:  Cal 5 man front.  CU - 2 RB, 2TE, 1WR Power I.

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The Dline holds, Davis comes free around the end.  Both Holt and Kendricks look to be blocked.

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But Holt fights off his block and makes a great play grabbing Stewart.

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Davis and Kendricks help Holt finish Stewart off short of the 1st down line.

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Did anyone else think the refs would get this wrong? (I'm not the only raising my hand right now...right?)

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2nd Drive:  Okay, it was clear that CU was going to use a West-Coast style of attack with plenty of short passes, misdirection, play-action, roll-outs, and some power running sprinkled in.  How would Cal adjust?  Unfortunately, the coaching staff didn't have a lot of time to talk it over thanks to Maynard's ill-advised INT.  Already on their heels from CU's first long drive, the Cal defense had to step up again...

1st Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU 1RB, 1 TE, 3 WR.

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After ending the last series rushing just 4, Coach Pendergast tries to apply pressure again and sends 5.

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But the pocket holds.  Hansen takes a quick 3 step drop and releases before you can count to 3 Mississippi's...

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Williams has tight coverage.  But it's a perfect throw.

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2nd Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU - 1 RB, 2 TE, 2WR.

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Cal switches back to just rushing 4, and drops Campo into coverage.  No blitz, so the screen should fail...right?

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But CU runs their screen to the side where the OLB is rushing the passer.  Davis can't quite get to the ball.

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Inexplicably, both Kendricks and Campbell shade to the right towards the TE, even though Holt already has him in coverage.  Kendricks is late to read the screen.

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Because both Campbell and Kendricks are out of position, the screen goes for big yardage even though we didn't have a blitz called.  Kendricks does do a good job of fighting off blocks and runs down Stewart before he can score.

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3rd Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU - 1RB, 2TE, 2WR.

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Cal rushes 4, Campo holds back initially.  It looks like a run, but the Cal ILBs hesitate a moment before charging upfield.

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For the first time all day, a Cal player beats a blocker.  Owusu pushes past the CU LG and stops Stewart for little gain.

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4th Play:  Cal 5-man front.  CU - 1 RB, 2TE, 2WR.

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Hansen runs play-action.  Cal rushes 4 and drops Campo into coverage.

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Instead of rushing upfield, Davis reads play action and stays with the TE.

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Hansen doesn't have anything underneath.  He has to force a throw too high and out of bounds in the corner of the end zone to a well-covered receiver.

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5th Play:  Another 3rd and long.  Cal goes with their 3 man front again.  In an interesting wrinkle, they put Coleman at NT and Tipoti at end, possibly to see if Tipoti is a better match-up against their RT.  McCain and Wilkerson are in again as rush backers.  CU - 1RB, 1 TE, 3WR, Shotgun.

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CU keeps their back and TE in for protection.  Cal rushes Wilkerson on a delay up the middle.

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Hansen has nowhere to go and has to check-down to a well-covered receiver short of the 1st down.  They do ultimately convert the field go for the first score of the game.

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Summary:  

Gameplan:  It looks like Coach Pendergast watched the game film of Hawaii vs. CU and thought that the Cal Dline and rush linebackers would be able to win their one on one match-ups against CU's patchwork Oline.  He started the game with a 5-man front which forced the CU Oline to fend off rushers one on one.  Not only did CU's Oline stand their ground, but Colorado's offensive gameplan involved plenty of rollouts, play-action, and quick passes specifically designed to take advantage of our aggressive defense.  *This is probably the #1 issue which threw off our defense for the entire game - whether we rushed 4, 5, or 6, we simply could not get consistent pressure on their quarterback.

You also have to give credit to CU QB, Tyler Hansen.  He was making quick reads, accurate throws, and when he wasn't rolling out, the ball was often out of his hand within 2 seconds.  Because we couldn't get any push up front, we never disrupted his timing.  Then, there were several plays where the Cal DB's had great coverage, but were still beaten by a perfect throw.  

Because of the assumption that our front 7 would be able to apply pressure, it looks like we played a lot of Cover 1 (one deep safety) with both zone and man looks on the outside.  Our veteran secondary was often left to handle their WRs one-on-one, including having one of our safeties in solo coverage on their slot receiver or TE.  Mr. Richardson appears to have taken that game plan, rolled it, and smoked it along with our entire secondary.  Why didn't we double team him?  Well, we did.  In post-game interviews, Coach Pendergast mentioned that they started doubling by putting a safety over the top and Richardson was still able to beat them.  

Adjustments:  It's pretty clear from watching the tape that we did try to make adjustments throughout the game.  After blitzing the first eight plays of the game without a finger laid on Hansen, Coach Pendergast switched to a base look (only rushed four) which emphasized covering their outlet receivers.(TE/FBs)

Coming out of halftime, you could tell that the Cal defenders were much more aggressive covering the quick passes underneath and in the flats.  We used more zone blitz looks dropping different guys into coverage on their tight ends and backs, including our defensive ends.  They also switched Cattouse to play more shallow and didn't drop Campbell back as far.  However, this emphasis on stopping Colorado's short game made us more vulnerable down the field.  

Scheme or execution?:  

When the other team sets offensive records, you certainly have to raise some tough questions about your schemes.  But, taking a look at what Clancy Pendergast knew going into the game:
1)  CU's Oline gave up seven sacks to a basic 4-man rush. (no blitzes)  
2)  CU's best lineman, their left tackle, was out for the game.  
3)  Clancy spent all of last year being able to sack Riley or Mansion every day in practice by sending in the hydro techs or any available coach's kid to play D.

From that standpoint, it made a lot of sense to try to apply pressure with a five-man front.  Cover 1 is an aggressive scheme that relies on having a reliable safety with plenty of range to play centerfield.  The advantages are that it is relatively simple to execute, but allows for plenty of creativity with your blitzes and fronts.  (You can read more about the Cover 1 and its variants here.)

Unfortunately, give CU credit for a clever offensive gameplan that negated our pass rush and kept our young guys on the bench.  

Moving beyond tactics, sometimes the scheme and the defensive play call is appropriate, but the players simply don't execute or get beaten.  

On the long TD to their TE, we ran a stunt with Wilkerson and McCain as well as a corner blitz with Hill - They didn't get there in time and a blown coverage between Holt and Campbell allowed the score.  Leaving a TE wide open down the middle is exactly what can happen when you skew your defensive alignment by doubling a receiver...or if you're Cal.

On the first long TD, Hill went for the INT and missed...and his safety help (Campbell) took a bad angle and missed the tackle.  On the 2nd, Anthony was in trail position expecting safety help, but Cattouse got caught peeking into the backfield, moved too far forward, then couldn't retreat quickly enough and Richardson was able to out-run them both.  

Ironically, you could also make the argument that neither of these long TDs would have happened if we had kept our safety deep instead of trying to double Richardson.

It was nerve-wracking.  But in some ways, the early wake-up call to defensive coaching staff with regards to what our current personnel can and cannot do might actually be more helpful than dominating three games before facing UW.

Live by the blitz...:

Why didn't we send more all-out blitzes?  First of all, that's exactly what Colorado _wanted_ us to do and specifically designed their offense to exploit.  And more importantly, our guys just weren't getting there consistently, whether we zone-blitzed, sent a corner, sent an inside backer, stunted, or really gambled and sent 6.  To keep CU guessing, Coach Pendergast continued to mix up a variety of pressure versus coverage looks throughout the game, but the sad, surprising fact is that their Oline was up to the challenge.  On the rare occasion where we had a chance to put Hansen in the turf (Campo, Guyton), our guys came up empty.

Oddly enough, our most effective defensive scheme was when Coach Pendergast switched it up to rushing four and dropping the 5th man into coverage;  we did a much better job of forcing Hansen to throw it into tight coverage or to throw it away.  Too "vanilla?"  Hardly.  Sometimes we dropped the strongside OLB, sometimes the weakside OLB, and sometimes it was one of the defensive ends.  Bob Gregory would have loved it...but four trips in the red zone for only 9 points isn't too bad, all things considered.


One adjustment that did pay off:  in overtime, we gave safety help to Anthony and Hill, but left Williams on an island. (HT Avinash) This forced Colorado to decide whether to throw at Richardson into double coverage in a tight area (not a lot of field left in the red zone), or to test Williams in single coverage.  They decided to go at Williams...and big props to him for holding the rope.

Final Thoughts:

1)  I can see why coaches like Campo.  He's very disciplined and does a good job dropping into coverage.  However, he doesn't have the speed or athleticism to be as effective when rushing the passer.

2)  Missing Mohammed?  Kendricks is a great athlete, but he's still adjusting to his reads as an inside linebacker.  He looks less comfortable when dropping back into coverage.  On the first two CU screens, he was slow to read the play.  On the 3rd, he read screen, but missed the tackle.  (I didn't review the 4th screen because I was already twitching uncontrollably in a fetal position.)  To be fair, it did take MikeyMo and DJ Holt several games when they were new starters inside before they became more adept at coverage.  It's also unknown whether Kendricks/Holt are coached to "spot-drop" (retreat to a set spot) or "pattern-drop." (read the WR pattern and match-up with receivers that enter their zones)

3)  Missing Conte?  After a good game against FSU, Cal's safeties had a rougher outing.  Some of this was scheme - Cattouse was playing deep centerfield by himself most of the game.  But, to put mildly, both Cattouse and Campbell had their issues in coverage.  Maybe Paul Richardson will buy them a burger after drinking their collective milkshakes all game long.  As one of our astute readers pointed out, this defense will not and cannot be truly dominant without elite safety play. (HT Cali49a)

4)  Missing Jordan and Hill?  Our D line may not be as dominant as we had hoped.  Payne/Tipoti are solid, but neither are making me forget Derrick Hill.  Similarly, neither Owusu or Guyton are in Cam Jordan's league as game-changers or someone the offense has to account for.  Although the youngsters are highly touted, Coleman and Jalil didn't make much of an impact in their snaps.  Right now, it looks like our line does a capable job stopping the run, but lacks the ability to consistently pressure the passer.  In the front 7, our best pass rushers are the young LBs Whiteside, McCain, Wilkerson, and Scarlett - but they're also more prone to get drawn out of position.  Our starters (Davis/Campo) are more suited for run support and coverage than rushing the QB.  If the young players can't grow up in a hurry, we may have to rely on blitzes or stunts to get pressure and that means rolling the dice.

5)  Pistolero?  It looks like we only ran the zone-read twice.  Once, Galas had a bad snap, then missed his block, and Isi got dropped in the backfield.  On the second play, Maynard kept it but there was little running room and he was dropped for a short gain.  I'm not certain why we didn't try it more often considering Hawaii's success the previous week.

6)  I never thought I'd say this...but Colorado's Oline out-performed ours all game long.  They consistently held up against our various blitz and pressure packages.  It was very rare that a Cal defender was able to beat a CU blocker one on one.  If not for the penalties (MARSHALLLLL!), this would have been ugly.  On the other hand, Cal's Oline was inconsistent in both the run and pass game.  Maynard's INT was a horrible decision, but he was pressured because Cheadle whiffed on his block.  Both Galas and Schwenke also took turns missing their blocks.  After the re-watch, there may be a difference in running style/ability between CJ and Isi, but the biggest factor in the results of the running plays was the execution of the blocking assignments.

7)  For all the worry with regards to special teams, you have to tip your hat to the coverage units.  Richardson proved how dangerous he can be with the ball in his hands, yet was never a factor in the return game.

8)  We're still allowed to throw to the tight end?  Who knew?  Miller had some drops and penalties, but his one-handed TD grab and his Beast Mode run after the catch while carrying a linebacker were outstanding.

9)  I'd give my players' game ball to......Michael Calvin.  Jones and Allen get all the accolades, but Calvin has quietly emerged as clutch performer, particularly as a big third down target.  It's nice to see him becoming the player that we've been waiting for the past several years.  For the coaches, it's all about Coach Blasquez.  The guys didn't break down, didn't give up, and showed a winner's mentality.  Well done.

10)  Although the historical Cal MO seems to be finding a way to snatch defeat from the jaw's of victory...give credit to the guys for finding a way.  Taking a step back...we're on the road into a hostile environment...throw an INT early...give up 3 long TDs and blow the lead...turn a journeyman QB into a record-holder...put a purse-snatcher on SportsCenter...and because OT is too easy, why not 1st and 30?  No big.  We'll just beat double coverage for 1st and goal and then huck it up there for a walk-off TD.  Seriously?  Didn't anyone tell these kids what it means to be a Golden Bear?  I love the grit and resilience.  Make no mistake - Colorado was absolutely fired up for their home opener with a new coach and would have sold their collective souls to get revenge for last year's curb-stomp.  But our guys stood tall through adversity and prevailed.  So, remember this game.  We might point to it later on as the start of something very interesting...

 

Bonus Coverage!  Let's forget about how the Blue Hose will shred our defense for a second and focus on Maynard to Allen to Maynard:

 

11 Personnel:  3 WR, 1 TE, 1 TB.  CU has six in the box, the deep linebacker suggests Cover 2. (?)

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Sofele goes in motion and lines up as a wide receiver.  Slip screen!  Quick pass!  We always do this!

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Maynard throws the quick hitch to KA.  See!  We always throw the quick pass to the WR!

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But, it's actually a lateral.  And KA drops back to pass!

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Maynard gets the ball with a convoy of blockers.

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Maynard runs it to the 10, fumbles the ball, and is fortunate to recover.  Although Cal's Oline gets down field, some of them are...less proficient than others with getting a hat on a defender.  1st and goal, Bears!  And a big shout-out to Nico Dumont for his 1st career catch and TD moments later!

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That's all for this week.  For all the hand-wringing, let's be glad that Colorado is still Bear Territory. Time to rest up and get ready for our AT&T home opener against the Mighty Blue Hose!  Go Bears!

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