Saturday night, on paper, represents Colorado's last best chance at nailing down a conference victory in 2015. The Buffs have struggled on both sides of the ball at critical junctures in conference games, but Oregon State's woes have been even more pronounced.
The Beavers are working in a first year staff and a freshman quarterback while trying to implement new systems on both offense and defense with pieces not necessarily suited to the task. They're young, and are coming off of three consecutive lopsided losses. But, the Buffs come in on a three-game slide as well and of course, are playing on the road, where things usually go as wrong as possible as quickly as possible. Here are three things that will be critical to this team's bid to claim their first Pac-12 road win under Mike MacIntyre.
Contain the Run
This is one of those things that matters every single week, but for the Buffs (and for the Beavers as well) it's especially critical. CU is currently allowing 210 yards per game on the ground and 5 yards per carry, ranking them 110th in the nation. This isn't news, even for all of the improvement Jim Leavitt has been responsible for we knew that the Colorado defense would again have issues stopping the rush. The Buffs have gone for long stretches where they've only bent slightly, but then when they eventually break they shatter in spectacular fashion.
In the two games that the Buffs had a legitimate shot in, Oregon and Arizona both utilized backbreaking explosiveness on the ground to bury CU's defense. The Beavers don't necessarily posses athletes of that caliber, but they do have a run-first athlete at quarterback in freshman Seth Collins and an experienced and hard runner in tailback Storm Barrs-Woods. The return of senior Kenneth Olugbode will greatly help the defense's efforts in containing those two threats, but Rick Gamboa and Grant Watanabe will need to continue improving. Those two are quick and can really stick guys but due to their youth they're also prone to overcommitting and getting blocked entirely out of a play. Watch for the play of that group along with the defensive line.
Speaking of big plays, they will again be a key factor this Saturday night in Corvallis and could even be a category in which the Buffs hold an advantage in. Colorado is going to need to find the big hitting passes from other sources now that Shay Fields will miss time with a high ankle sprain. Devin Ross has already shown that he can coax the elusive and exquisite Sefo Deep Ball out of hiding and this could be the game that Bryce Bobo breaks out and shows us all of his potential. This season the Buffs have broken 8 plays for gains of 40 yards or more, and only one of those was a run. Oregon State's young and fluctuating secondary presents an opportunity for CU to make a few more of those deep passing plays happen. Could this also be the game that speedster Patrick Carr breaks his first big gainer on the ground?
Defensively, both sides have been prone to allowing the big play. Against the one common opponent, Arizona, both units surrendered over 600 yards to the Wildcats, much of which came on long runs and deep passes. Explosive plays are generally defined as plays gaining 25 yards or more. Colorado has allowed 28 such plays, 17 of which came at the hands of Pac-12 opposition. Conversely OSU has created just 8 explosive plays, split down the middle between runs and passes. While not where they want to be offensively, Oregon State does still possess gamechangers at the skill positions, particularly wideouts Jordan Villamin and Victor Bolden. CU will find themselves in good position late, yet again, if they're able to limit big gains and produce a few of their own. At that point, they'll only need to...
I don't know what it will take for this team to finish, I don't think anybody does. I mean, we all know what needs to happen from a football standpoint, but the question remains how will these players finally make that happen. Last year, a lot of the close losses could be pinned on youth and inexperience. This year, they now have that experience (more than enough) and they know what it's like to be in those close, pivotal situations.
Now, sure, CU still does not have the necessary horses, that's a fact. They're deeper then they were, but they're not deep enough yet. They're good enough to get themselves to the point where they have leads or are tied in the second half, but not yet good enough to drive home the stake and capitalize. A lot of that can be placed on depth and talent. Is the issue simply physical? After all of the X's and O's, do the Buffs just need another year to develop and bring in more bodies?
Or is the issue mostly mental? Is this team, when presented with the opportunity to reach out and grab a win, somewhere in their subconscious afraid of the pressure and of the effort that it takes to actually do so? Similar to the way some individual athletes never quite break through, finding ways, unconsciously, to self-sabotage and to escape the pressure and the consequences of victory. I suspected this might be the case after the Hawai'i loss but since the win over Colorado State I'm not so sure it's that complicated. Mentality might have been a large part of the issue in years past, but I think this team's heads are in the right place.
This was all a long-winded way of saying, I have no idea what it will take for this team to finish off a conference victory. They simply need to do better, everyone from MacIntyre on down. The playcalling must improve and the execution must improve. Saturday night can fairly be called a must-win for this program, and while an upset is certainly still possible down the road, the Buffs will be staring down two straight winless years in conference if they fall in Corvallis. That is downright dismal, and almost unbelievable even for a program that's been where Colorado's has.
It's difficult to project a CU road win under any circumstance, but lessons have to have been learned from the past three weeks and frankly Oregon State isn't very good in any phase right now. Give me the Golden Buffaloes in a roller coaster 34-31 victory. Perhaps this weekend Buff fans can actually enjoy a late night of Colorado football.