It's about time the Buffaloes won a Pac-12 game. In fact, it's far, far past time that they ended what is quickly becoming another infamous streak of defeats. Tomorrow night's homecoming matchup against Desert Nebraska, excuse me, Arizona, presents a terrific opportunity to do just that. (Seriously though, I've got a lot of love for the Dirty T. Shout out to the Frog.) Here are the three areas that will impact this game the most.
Running the Ball
The struggles of Colorado's offensive line combined with Sefo Liufau's tight play have been well-documented up to this point. I would expect the line to put forth a more consistent effort in pass protection this Saturday, for one thing Arizona is down its top two linebackers and does not generate the type of pressure that Arizona State produces, and for another Sam Kronshage is back and even if he can't go the staff has discovered that junior Shane Callahan is a better option at right tackle than a redshirt freshman thrown directly into the fire for the first time. But, in order for the Buffs to really have success on offense they need to run the ball. That line needs to get into a rhythm and this offense needs to give itself shorter 2nd and 3rd downs. They can do that by giving the ball to Phillip Lindsay early and often.
Arizona's defense, while unique and at times confounding in its 3-3-5 formation, is susceptible to the run. The 'Cats are allowing 185.7 yards per game, and as mentioned in the paragraph above, are down two of their best defenders. Enter Lindsay, the emerging leader of this team and the Buffaloes' primary weapon on the ground. Phil is currently averaging 5 yards per rush and has found the end zone 5 times. Getting him the rock will calm this unit down, and give Colorado a chance to put Arizona on its heels. Successful efforts running the ball will help keep Sefo on his feet and boost this line's confidence. It's high time the Buffs came out of the gates fast, and dictated the pace on offense. A few early Phillip Lindsay carries should help accomplish that.
Containing the Run
The Wildcats' offensive personnel strongly resembles that of the Buffs' two previous opponents. They have playmakers at all of the skill positions and an offensive line that handles its assignments well in Rich Rodriguez's spread attack. Although feature back and emerging star Nick Wilson is currently listed as questionable with a foot injury, the Wildcats have two horses behind him that are more than capable of taking over a game. Senior Jared Baker went for 123 yards (and is averaging 7.1 yards per carry on 37 touches) against Oregon State last weekend and freshman Orlando Bradford racked up three scores on the Beavers' reeling defense. If Wilson doesn't go, Anu Solomon will still have threatening options when running the read. Ominously for the Buffs, Arizona's offense has created 54 rushing plays that went for 10 or more yards this season, good for third-most among FBS teams. They've also produced four plays of 70 yards or more, the most in FBS. Expect to see a few big ones on Saturday.
Overall, 'Zona's offense currently ranks 9th in the country in total yards (530.2/game), 7th in scoring (42.3 ppg), and 7th in rushing offense (298.5/game.) Though they were shut down by UCLA and Stanford, they'll present many of the same queries that the Buffs have been challenged with over the past two weeks. A healthy Solomon changes the dynamic of this team, and he again has a dangerous receiving corps at his disposal. CU is going to counter this spread look with a linebacking corps made up of three freshmen and a sophomore. I'm as excited as anyone to see more of N.J. Falo and to watch Grant Watanabe for the first time but I think it's safe to assume that Arizona will get their yards. Even if the Wildcats are marching between the 20s, however, the Buffaloes do possess the upper hand in one important category, and they'll have to maximize that advantage in order to emerge victorious.
The Red Zone
The Colorado defense is significantly improved over last season, forcing exponentially more turnovers and getting more stops at critical junctures. However, they are still a bend-don't-break unit and will be working in three players who have little to no experience against Pac-12 offenses on Saturday night. In order to win, this group must not break.
So far this season, Jim Leavitt's players have done a fairly respectable job of making stands in the red zone. CU has held opponents to a scoring percentage of just 77% from the 20 yard line on in this season, ranking them 35th best in the country. On the other side, Arizona has capitalized just 29 times in 36 tries (5 of those scores were field goals) from this part of the field, ranking them 89th in the country in red zone scoring. Now, this stat can be misleading, as quite a few scoring plays for the Wildcats and against the Buffs had their origins outside of the red zone. But, if the Buffaloes can limit Arizona's explosiveness in the open field they have a good chance at holding the Wildcats to field goals or worse when down inside the 20. Just last weekend, OSU's beleaguered defense managed to force Arizona to kick three field goals of 37 yards or shorter. Colorado will need to do the same to win this game.
When Colorado has the ball in the red zone, they've been less successful scoring only 74% of the time, leaving them ranked 113th in the nation. If they find themselves consistently inside the 20 on Saturday night, and I think they will if they're able to hammer the ball on the ground, the Buffs need to find a way to get Nelson Spruce the rock. Spruce has just one touchdown catch through six games and while he's faced the opposition's best defenders and tougher coverage, Brian Lindgren and Sefo Liufau have to find a way to get him the ball in those must-score situations.
At the halfway mark, Colorado's season remains very much in the balance. The opportunity for progress is still at hand, but the threat of regression looms large. Arizona, while just as dangerous as ASU and Oregon, can be had. Tomorrow night's contest will tell us just what exactly we have in this 2015 Buffalo squad. They've had the players-only meeting, they've got two conference games under their belt, now it's time to execute. I think Colorado's offense matches up well enough with Arizona's defense, and that CU's defense (read: defensive line and secondary) does enough between the 20s to secure stops in the red zone. I'm riding with the Silver Buffaloes this week, 37-30.
Enjoy the homecoming festivities on yet another gorgeous fall weekend in Colorado.