It remains to be seen if Saturday was a renaissance for the Cal defense or just the chance to play against one of the nation’s most feeble offensive teams.
But the Bears’ 26-3 win over Colorado — their first Pac-12 victory of the season — certainly was a big step in the right direction on defense for the home team.
Even including its game against Sacramento State — an FCS level team — the Bears (2-5, 1-3 Pac-12) hadn’t given up fewer than 21 points in any of their first six games. They’d shown progress in recent weeks, allowing Washington State just 21 points and then-No. 9 Oregon 24 a week ago.
Still, the Bears entered Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium ranked No. 77 nationally in points allowed (27.0) and 88th in total defense (407.7 yards). Hardly the stuff of those Evan Weaver-led defenses of just a few years ago.
Colorado will not be the most severe test the Cal defense sees this season. The Buffaloes (2-4, 1-3) were ranked 127th out of 130 FBS teams in total offense (260.5 yards) and had totaled just 34 points in four straight defeats before thrashing Arizona 34-0 last week.
Given that Arizona is almost certainly the worst Power 5 team in the country this season, the Buffs’ big showing in that one comes with an asterisk.
Does this Cal performance deserve the same notation?
We’ll know more a week from now when Oregon State visits Berkeley. The Beavers (5-2, 3-1) showed off their offensive prowess by totaling 468 yards while rallying for a 42-34 win over Utah on Saturday night.
Elijah Hicks talks in the video below about the challenge of playing well again next week.
Still, there was some compelling evidence of significant improvement by the Bears on Saturday:
— The Bears held a Pac-12 opponent without a touchdown for the first time since a 37-3 win over Washington State in 2017
— Cal limited the Buffaloes to 104 total yards, including just 13 in the second half. CU had only one first down after halftime. The Buffaloes finished with 69 passing yards, 35 rushing yards.
— The Bears, who had sacked opposing quarterbacks just nine times in their first six games, harassed Colorado freshman Brendon Lewis most of the afternoon, sacking him six times.
— Cal had a total of 12 tackles for loss, which represented nearly one-third of the Buffs’ 37 offensive snaps.
It all worked on this day for the Cal defense. Six different players — Cameron Goode, Elijah Hicks, JH Tevis, Orin Patu, Darius Long and Marqez Bimage — had a hand in the sacks.
As coach Justin Wilcox noted, everyone contributed.
But perhaps no one had a better day than senior safety Elijah Hicks, playing his 44th game for the Bears.
“Elijah’s played good football for us for a long time,” Wilcox said. “That might be his best game since he’s been here.”
After collecting six tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss, an interception and a pass breakup, Hicks was in no mood to argue.
”Yeah, I got an interception, I made a lot of plays to help the team win. It feels good,” he said. “It was a pretty clean day for me, I could say that.”
In a game so one-sided there were few turning points, Hicks was at the heart of one of them. Down just 3-0, Colorado opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Bears’ 49-yard line.
Jarek Broussard got the handoff and Hicks stuffed him for a one-hard loss. Cal took over at midfield and three plays later extended its lead to 10-0.
Cal’s defensive front totally dominated the CU offensive line, which not only couldn’t protect Lewis but couldn’t create any running lanes.
The Buffaloes gained 40 yards on their first five runs. Then, starting with the failed fourth-down attempt, they netted minus-5 yards on their 23 remaining rushes the rest of the afternoon.
Wilcox gave big props to the Bears’ D-linemen.
“It comes down to winning one-on-one matchups,” he said. “When you talk about four-man pass rush, somebody’s got to win one-on-one. I thought we had guys that did that today.
“If they’re going to have four and five guys out on the (pass) route, they can’t double-team everybody up front.”
Hicks said Cal’s secondary was the beneficiary of the work done up front.
“The big boys up front,” he said, “if they go crazy up front, the secondary loves that.”
Cover photo of Cal safety Elijah Hicks by Al Sermeno, KLC fotos
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo