The Colorado Buffaloes (3-3 Overall, 0-3 in Pac 12) host the Arizona Wildcats (4-2 Overall, 1-2 in Pac 12) on Saturday at 6 p.m. MST at Folsom Field. The Wildcats are the only team the Buffs have beaten in Pac-12 play at Folsom, when they got a 48-29 win on November 12, 2011, their first victory in conference play. Since that win, Colorado has only won two Pac-12 contests and have lost six straight Pac-12 home games and is 1-11 overall in the not so friendly confines of Folsom Field. It is the worse stretch in Colorado history, which is something that has become too common of a phrase for Buffaloes football fans.
Strong Rushing Attack Leads Wildcats Offense
Arizona brings in the nations number 11 rushing offense, averaging 268.5 yards a game through their first 6 contests of the season. Their offense centers around one man, Ka'Deem Carey. Carey was the nations leading rusher in 2012 and currently leads the NCAA in yards per game (he sat out Arizona's win over Northern Arizona due to off-season issues) and through 5 games has amassed 805 yards and 6 TD's rushing. He is no stranger to Buffs fans after totaling a Pac-12 record 366 yards rushing (finished with 400 total) and 5 rushing Touchdowns last year in a 56-31 Buffs loss. Carey is the perfect back for the shotgun spread offense Rich Rodriguez brought to Arizona after Carey's freshman year. He has the speed and strength that backs like Steve Slaton and Noel Devine had during Rodriguez's most successful years.
From day one it seemed Rodriguez had his offense in high gear whlie leading Arizona to a bowl game and 8-5 record last season and he's on the path to a second bowl game with three of the next four games against the worst teams in the Pac 12 (Colorado, Cal and Washington State). Arizona has averaged 35 points a game and are only allowing 20 per game, but they score just over 26 points in conference play against 31 points a game on defense. Arizona's 3-3-5 stack defense is a carry over from Rodriguez's days at West Virginia. He brought in old friend and coordinator Jeff Casteel from WVU to run the difficult defensive scheme that has proven to be a roller coaster ride for the Wildcats. Arizona relies on their offense to score 35 and hopes their defense can keep them around 30.
Arizona Passing Game
Arizona relies on B.J. Denker to lead the high octane spread offense. Denker played in a limited role last year but did draw his lone start against Colorado when filling in for last year's injured starter Matt Scott. Denker showed his abilities going 12 of 14 for 136 yards and 2 TDs passing to go with 44 yards rushing and a score on the ground. Denker is not a pocket passer, as was shown in the Washington game where Arizona got down early after an interception on Arizona's first drive and the offense couldn't get going. Other than that game, Denker has been effective as a passer and a threat as a runner. He already has 327 yards rushing and 8 TD's to go with a pedestrian 976 passing yards and 7 touchdowns with only 2 interceptions. Arizona is prone on putting the ball on the ground with 12 fumbles but they have limited the damage by only losing 4 of those. 6 turnovers through 6 games is a good number and is one of the reason the Wildcats are 4-2.
Arizona's receiving corp is just that, a group of guys, since there is not the go-to guy most programs have in the Pac 12 and none rank in the Top 40 of Pac 12 receivers. The Wildcats 6 players have 10 or more catches and none of them have 200 yards for the season. Ka'Deem Carey ranks second in receptions with 15 to leading reception man Samajie Grant.
After a big loss to Washington and a near come from behind victory against a wounded but motivated USC team, Arizona rebounded to get their first conference win against Utah. The Utes were favored after a stunning upset of Stanford and with Arizona coming off two conference losses, but the Wildcats prevailed. They may have benefited from Utah losing Travis Wilson, but Arizona grinded out a hard fought victory and Arizona's defense contributed with a big pick 6 and did what they do best, rely on the legs of Carey.
The defense has gotten a great performance this season from freshman linebacker Scooby Wright. He is a slightly leaner version of the Buffs Addison Gillam. Much like Gillam he is from a smaller California school and was not highly recruited but is playing at a high level as a freshman. Fellow linebackers Jake Fischer and senior Marquis Flowers anchor the 3 LB spots with Wright. The group are the team leaders in tackles with Wright and Fischer at 40 tackles and Flowers at 37. Fischer anchors the defense and is their defensive leader. The Wildcats defense puts average pressure on the quarterback amassing 9 sacks on the season and have 36 tackles for a loss. Tra'Mayne Bondurant leads the Wildcats defensive secondary with 3 interceptions, 3 pass break-ups, 3 tackles for loss and a sack to go with his 2 touchdown interception returns. The Arizona 3-3-5 scheme fits the Pac 12 well. Defend the pass and provide blitzing schemes where you are not sure who is coming. Players like Bondurant can be covering downfield one play and creating havoc in the backfield the next.
Wildcats Special Teams
A spotty part of their team that doesn't have much of a wow factor, similar to the Buffs. They had two muffed punts against Utah and haven't had a kickoff or punt return of over 26 yards. Their coverage units have been very solid to date. They have a returner in freshman Nate Phillips who is a burner and whom has had some long plays on offense to date. Their punting average has not been great but the benefit of altitude usually turns an average punter into a pretty good one. Their kicker has only had 8 attempts, making only 5 of them. He has already missed two PATs to start the season.
Colorado Buffaloes Quick Re-Cap
The Buffaloes played a very balanced game against a lower tier opponent in Charleston Southern. They finally established their running game and let freshman Sefo Liufau, making his first start for the Buffaloes, get comfortable. Mike MacIntyre didn't make any qualms about calling out his defensive line in that game, saying his defensive line "sucks" at halftime after they didn't follow coaching instructions and got outplayed by an undersized offensive line. The Buffs allowed 150 yards in the first half but limited CSU to only 46 yards in the second half. A strong pass defense and the offense churning out yardage on the ground is a big confidence boost for two phases of the Buffs game that had been really struggling in Pac-12 play.
Colorado Buffaloes - Arizona Wildcats Match-Up
Against Arizona, Colorado must do what they have done in their 3 non-conference games that they haven't done in their first 3 Pac-12 games... put points on the board. Colorado has scored an average of just over 40 points per game in OOC play but have been limited to just over 15 points per game in conference play while giving up 51+ point a game. The Buffs have faced three teams that rank 1st, 2nd and 6th in the nation in scoring so there is at least a positive that their defeats are against three great offenses with all of them ranked amongst the Top 30 in college football.
The three opponents that have beat Colorado were all expected to win before the season and each game rang very true to expectations, but Arizona is a nice measuring stick for Colorado to determine how far they have to go to at least be in the Pac-12 mix. The Buffs reached 3-3 a little different than most expected, but they are still there and with the likes of Paul Richardson, the solid showing by young Sefo Liufau and a ground game that appears to have a legitimate chance at improvement throughout the season with the emergence of Michael Adkins II, Buffaloes fans are circling this date as a possible turning point. A win gives the Buffs a legitimate shot at making a bowl game but a loss means the holidays can't come soon enough.
The Arizona game is probably the biggest toss-up of the season for the Buffs since they played Colorado State and fans weren't sure what to expect. While Buffs fans held out hope for a victory against Oregon State, there were question marks from how they could defend a real passing attack, how they'd handle the road and how they'd handle a long layoff. The questions were all answered with not very well after that game and the team sputtered because of the lack of confidence and ability the offense suddenly lacked. Liufau seems to bring an air of confidence but also remains humble. His ability to open the field should become evident in this game, seeing as the coaching staff seemed to put a leash on him not to show too much in his first start.
Buffs Keys to Victory
The Buffs are going to have to do numerous things to win this match-up and the keys are as follows:
• Limit Ka’Deem Carey - While Denker is dangerous, if Carey goes for 200 yards, there is no chance for the Buffs to win the game. If Carey is held to under 140 yards in Pac 12 play, Arizona is 1-6 while being 4-1 in all other games he gets over that mark. If the Buffs can "limit" Carey to 140 yards, they give themselves a much better shot.
• Punish Denker - B.J. Denker is a lean quarterback that is built more like a wide receiver. When he carries the ball they need to put a chest in his gut and hit him on any play that they can legally. If he gains the confidence he was allowed to last week against Utah and against Colorado in 2012, this game will end much like the ’12 Arizona-Colorado game.
• Win the turnover battle - The Buffaloes are even on the season in turnovers but got handled by Arizona State and the game was over before the Buffs knew it because of those mistakes. Similar things happened at key moments against Oregon State.
• Establish the Run -The Wildcats gave up over 240 rushing yards to both Washington and USC, and over 400 total yards to each, in their only losses on the season. A combination of Adkins II breaking long runs, Liufau opening up the passing game early with his legs and power of Powell for short yardage would be big.
• Spread the Wealth - Paul Richardson is the key to the receiving corp and has shown he can turn 15 yards into 80 pretty quickly, but the Buffs seem to move the ball more efficiently when Nelson Spruce, Tyler McCulloch and DD Goodson get involved. Sefo did a nice job of getting each guy a look or two against Charleston Southern, but the Buffs need these guys involved to sustain long drives such as was seen by this offense in the first two weeks of the season.
The Buffaloes are exactly where they needed to be at this time of the year and optimistic fans hoped they'd be. They need to have the same record in the second half they did in the first half. A win against Arizona means they have 3 manageable games left in USC, Cal and at Utah to end the season after a difficult two week stretch at UCLA and Washington. A 4-5 record isn't overwhelming heading into those last 3 weeks while 3-6 is a daunting task the Buffs hope to avoid.
Colorado is 14.5 point underdogs at home to Arizona. Arizona struggles on the road and are only 2-10 on the road in Pac-12 play. They come to Boulder where the Buffs are only 1-9 in Pac 12 play at home. Something in the match-up will have to give. If Arizona had lost to Utah as expected, the line on this game would be somewhere around 9. The 57.5 point over/under shows odds makers don't respect either teams defense. The Buffs win this game if they limit Ka'Deem Carey to under 150 yards and amass over 350 yards. If Carey is allowed to run wild and Colorado can't amass yardage, it will be another long day in Pac 12 play.
What does that all boil down to? Unfortunately, I see Arizona winning this game 41-28. The Buffs barely cover the spread but the youth of Liufau and the inability to sustain multiple long scoring drives allows Arizona to grind out a victory on the ground. Carey won't run for 300 but he'll be around 200 and that means the Buffs have to wait until Cal to shake their demons.