For those who want more Cal-Colorado preview stuff, check out the biggest individual matchups to watch on Saturday between Cal and Colorado's units.
Cal pass offense vs. Colorado pass defense: Establish short and the flats, spread the field, go middle.
Biggest advantage for Cal: Senior quarterback play
Biggest advantage for Colorado: Corner coverage, deep group of rush ends
Sorry fans, this is not the week to see Kevin Riley show off his deep spiral and go balls-out with Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones--those corners are good. If Riley is lobbing bombs, we're probably down 21-10 in the third quarter and you're all howling at the top of your lungs about suiting up Allan Bridgford.
No, this is probably the week for Riley to start showing how improved he is on his short and intermediate routes, and testing the likely weakness of Colorado's pass defense--the middle of the field and the short flats. Colorado lost two of their linebackers last season, and we all know how losing linebackers affects a team's ability to defend those areas. They lose positioning, they get faked out, they don't tackle as effectively.
Although Colorado has some good defensive linemen, they don't a team with a lot of pass rushers, so you'll often see the Buffs rush four on many plays and not get any traction. That leaves the three linebackers with a lot of real estate to cover, and they are completely untested with their edge tackling.
Although Jon Major showed ability to cover tight ends, he's still a sophomore in his first road start, and he's likely going to draw Anthony Miller's number. This is an advantage the Bears have to be ready to exploit, as Riley has shown he's quite comfortable at delivering down the middle when the receivers get draped by coverage down the sidelines. Shane Vereen could also have a big game as a receiver, and if he can get great downfield blocking from the receivers that'll open up the vertical passing action.
Cal run offense vs Colorado run defense: Make Colorado pay for playing their base 4-3.
Biggest advantage for Cal: Shane Vereen. This answer will probably be the same most of the season.
Biggest advantage for Colorado: Experienced depth on the defensive line
Like I said yesterday, you can't tell too much about Colorado's front four based on their clogging up Colorado State. First off, they were going against the offensive wunderkind that is Steve Fairchild, who runs the ball even if the defense is sending his running back further backwards on every play.
(Personal note: I would know about Fairchild's stubbornness. He was the offensive coordinator for my Bills before Buffalo recognized he wasn't capable of handling tasks that required a brain. Watching him call offensive plays is kind of like letting your grandpa drive the car. No, grandpa, you're going the wrong way again. I think we've been here before grandpa. Why do you still have a license again grandpa?)
Colorado played their base 4-3 against the Rams. After UC Davis boxed them in, the Bears struggled to run the ball and seemed to persist as if to see if they could run effectively with a numerical disadvantage on the line. You don't think Ludwig will let Colorado get away with seven in the box against the Bears and expect anyone to respect them as a legitimate Pac-10 threat.
The Bears need to pound the ball with their zone techniques, using their agility to double team the big defensive linemen (the Buffs have some big guys up front) out of the play before moving out to take out the smaller linebackers. They need to seal off one side of the line (preferrably the one featuring Marquez Herrod) so they can give Shane Vereen open space. And then if they can establish power, awesome, although Colorado definitely has a lot of girth they can occupy. I'd highlight Brian Schwenke as the key guy here: Schwenke struggled with technique last week, but he's easily the most physical guard on the line with Matt Summers-Gavin's move to the outside.
Vereen didn't play particularly great in Week 1. He looked very rusty coming back from injury (kind of like Best against Maryland). He didn't always find the cutback lane, he ran too often to where the action was, and just didn't look very polished. Like Hydrotech said, Isi Sofele might be tough to take down, but he's still very raw. Dasarte Yarnway might be a monster, but he keeps on dropping the ball on the turf. So this is another week to work on running back development and get everyone accustomed to the offense before the road tests begin.
Cal run defense vs Colorado run offense: Get penetration. Don't open up the outside.
Biggest advantage for Cal: Nose tackles galore
Biggest advantage for Colorado: Outside play
Speedy Stewart is probably the evolutionary scatback--a small blur of speed and juking, he'll remind plenty of Cal fans of Jahvid Best on more than one occasion. Only thing is that Best was 5'10, 195 and Stewart is 5'6, 175. I know there are plenty of cantankerous know-it-alls who go, "OH BEST ISN'T A TRUE RUNNING BACK HE GOES DOWN AT FIRST CONTACT." Well, Stewart does go down at first contact. It's not like he can help it--he's small, and smaller, faster guys usually go down when they meet linebackers running straight at them or defensive tackles who reach out and grab them.
Discipline will be key for the front seven. Stewart runs well with big holes, less so with small holes. He has a lot of the same characteristics as Best--great open field speed and a little juke move that can help him evade tacklers. But he's not as talented a receiver, and he's definitely not as great with his vision--he's just not tall enough to survey the linebackers. He needs space to run effectively, and Cal's defensive line needs to plug those gaps and make him bounce outside for the linebackers to handle him.
And when I say Cal has an advantage at nose tackle, I mean that. Colorado's left guard and center are a problem spot, and they will likely draw a steady diet of Kendrick Payne, Derrick Hill and Aaron Tipoti. Good luck to Ethan Adkins and Keenan Stevens. You've got your hands full. Stuffing those inside running lanes will quickly turn Colorado into a one dimensional team.
Cal pass defense vs Colorado pass offense: Fight off wide receiver blocks, making open field tackles.
Biggest advantage for Cal: Inexperienced quarterback, young right tackle.
Biggest advantage for Colorado: The blind side and good receivers.
I've talked a lot about the Colorado receivers already (here and here), so let's focus on Hansen and the offensive line that's got his back (or I guess his front. Depends which side they're standing on.). He's a little bit more seasoned than Randy Wright, but he's still pretty green and doesn't have many road games under his belt. So you'd expect him to struggle early on reading coverages and handling pressure.
Hansen seems comfortable in the pocket, when he can get into his drop. But it didn't look like he really challenged himself vertically, settling for the safe screen or the "I'm sure he's wide open" pass. So it remains to be seen whether he can really go deep with any accuracy, especially if the defense can get to him.
Cameron Jordan and Nate Solder will probably battle all day--it'll make for good film review for draft-nuts, although all likelihood is that this ends in a standstill. So I look on the other side at Ernest Owusu vs the new starter David Bakhtiari. Oh, sorry, let me make that juicier: It's the seasoned Owusu and the beastly Deandre Coleman against redshirt freshman David Bakhtiari. The right tackle had a nice game last week, but he's got his hands full blocking out those two on every play.
(Actually, I just noticed Jordan played left defensive end for the UC Davis game, so it might be Owusu and Coleman vs Solder--a huge advantage for Colorado. But that means Jordan and Trevor Guyton battle Bakhtiari, a possibly bigger advantage for Cal. Colorado's tight ends are not their strength, particularly so in pass protection, and the double-teams will be needed to keep Jordan at bay.)
So I expect Cal's secondary to respect the short pass and expect Hansen to aim low and short. Open field tackling will be big--something Cal struggled with all of last season. Colorado's receivers are decent downfield blockers, so screens could play a prominent role. And I wouldn't be surprised if Cal was flashing that 2-4-5 formation against the Aggies (or 4-2-5, the linebackers are basically functioning as stand-up defensive ends there) last week in preparation for the more versatile Colorado corps.
Get yourselves strapped in. The real season begins tomorrow.