Can Cal prevent Colorado from becoming the ninth opponent in 11 games to score a touchdown on its first offensive series of the game?
As much as anything, the game’s opening defensive sequence for Cal holds the key to its fortunes. There is no question, the Bears’ terrible starts have contributed mightily to their 1-9 record.
Consider these numbers:
- Nine of Cal’s first 10 opponents have scored on their first offensive drive, eight of them notching touchdowns.
- Seven of those TD drives spanned 73 yards or more, four of them 85 yards or longer, so this isn’t a matter of losing the early field-position battle.
- Northwestern, Portland State and Ohio State, over the season’s first three weeks, scored on drives that averaged just under 85 yards . . . and it took them an average of only 3 plays to reach the end zone.
- USC last week had six touchdowns after its first four offensive series, despite being forced to punt once. How is that possible? Three of those TDs, of course, came on punt returns that didn’t even require the Trojans offense to take the field.
So why have the Bears consistently fallen on their faces coming out of the gate?
Coach Sonny Dykes insists it’s not because the players aren’t mentally prepared.
“I don’t know if that’s the case,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a lack of preparation — our guys prepare well.”
So what then?
“We’ve got to execute. That’s been our issue,” Dykes said. “You can go back game to game to game and it’s a lack of execution, whether it’s getting fooled early on a play-action pass against Northwestern on the first series or it’s Washington State and (us) driving down to the 5-yard line and fumbling.
“That’s what’s hurt us.”
It’s done more than that — it’s killed their chances.
The Bears are being outscored 157-41 in the first quarter, putting them behind by an average of nearly 12 points entering the second period. It’s too much to overcome.
“What happens sometimes is when you’re young and you’re learning, the execution part comes last,” Dykes said. “What has a tendency to happen to us is we’ll mess something up, we’ll miss a coverage, turn the ball over, not execute, have a penalty, whatever. Then they’ll take advantage of it.
“It seems like at that point we’ll get a little rattled and it takes us a series or two to get settled in. That’s confidence, that’s experience, playing with attitude.
“The young teams I’ve been around in the past, there’s always been those issues and they’ve been magnified by this bunch.”
Colorado has its own problems, which suggest there may be hope for Cal on Saturday.
The Buffaloes not only have been outscored 91-55 in the first quarter, they’re on the wrong end of a 321-134 margin over the first three quarters of games. (Cal is no better: 397-189) The Buffs rule the final 15 minutes (84-43), but by then most of their games have been long over by them.
So pay attention early: Whichever team gets the jump in the first quarter could be on its way to something unusual: A victory.