Last week in Corvallis the Colorado Buffaloes finally shook their late-game woes (and capitalized on Oregon State's) to end their infamous Pac-12 slide. This season can now fairly be judged as an improvement over the near-miss laden 2014 campaign.
But what remains to be seen is how much improvement these Buffs are capable of demonstrating. The latter portion of the schedule is stacked, rated as the second most difficult in the country, but it does present this program with four shots at signature victories. (Washington State would be a very nice win.)
Their first chance comes at the Rose Bowl against the 24th-ranked UCLA Bruins. In 2013, this matchup represented some small semblance of progress. It was one of Colorado's most competitive and fiery road showings. Although the Buffs eventually fell 45-23, that game did produce one of the great P-Rich moments, when he essentially tackled a UCLA corner with one arm, flipping him to the ground after hauling in a reception:
The Buffalo comeback and eventual double overtime defeat last year in Boulder represented even further progress. CU proved that it could provide itself with chances to win against a top-tier conference opponent, albeit one that had stumbled previously. Lee Corso's national championship pick was on the ropes late, but the loss of Tedric Thompson, the failure to score a touchdown in the second frame of overtime, and the legs of Brett Hundley all contributed to Colorado's demise as they fell 40-37.
Coming into this season UCLA returned nearly the same team, aside from Hundley, but they've since endured one of the worst runs of injury luck in the conference, if not the nation. The Bruins have suffered critical blows at several key positions, losing both Myles Jack and Eddie Vanderdoes for the season, and most recently they've been hit at tailback where they may find themselves without the services of dynamic runner Paul Perkins on Saturday.
Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen will be looking to notch his third straight 300-yard passing performance and the UCLA defense will be attempting to put Sefo Liufau under constant pressure. Thus the Buffs' chances of proving there's more progress to be made largely hinge on the play of their linemen on both sides of the ball. Here's how the two sides matchup.
When UCLA Has The Ball
In order for Colorado to have a shot at this one they'll need to hold the Bruins under 38 points, at least. A tall order considering how fluid and sharp the UCLA offense looked last Thursday in dismantling the Cal defense.
Aside from the difference in styles between Hundley and Rosen, the largest change in the Bruin offense has been the improved and steady play of the offensive line, led by senior center Jake Brendel. Through seven games last year, UCLA's much-maligned front was allowing 3.7 sacks per game, ranking them 118th in the nation. This season, perhaps in part due to the nature of Rosen's game, they're allowing only 1.3 take downs per contest, good for tops in the Pac-12 and 26th best in the country.
If the Buffs are to slow down an offense that has amassed over 500 yards four times this season, their efforts need to begin with pressure up front. To this point they've done much better for themselves at hurrying quarterbacks this season, ranking 47th in the nation in sacks with 20 and accumulating 42 official hurries. Last week the Colorado front and Chidobe Awuzie were able to put timely pressure on Oregon State's quarterbacks, forcing miscues and limiting what the Beavers could accomplish offensively, especially when the more pocket-oriented Nick Mitchell was in the game.
Should the Buffs be unable to speed up the timer on the freshman Bruin quarterback, it's not hard to envision Thomas Duarte, Jordan Payton, and Devin Fuller breaking free in space and busting open explosive plays. The CU secondary is capable of matching up with the UCLA receiving corps, but they will struggle if Rosen has time and room to make throws. As is often the case, Colorado will likely need a turnover or two to keep themselves within range of the Bruins. If any are forced I expect them to come from one of the veteran defensive backs.
I've gotten to this point without bringing up UCLA's ground game, which is averaging a healthy 194.3 yards per contest. If Perkins is unable to go, capable freshman Soso Jamabo will fill in, he's raw but possesses quicks and proved himself a tough tackle against Cal. Kenneth Olugbode and his young counterparts at linebacker will again be tested.
Colorado's chances begin with the play of the defensive line and the pressure that Jim Leavitt is able to manufacture. Up front, Justin Solis, Leo Jackson, and workhorse Jordan Carrell have been quietly playing very well as of late, they'll need to find ways to be disruptive against an effective veteran offensive line on Saturday.
When Colorado Has The Ball
While the defense has made significant strides, the CU offense has definitively regressed at this point. The Buffs have shown that they're capable of putting together two quarters of efficient and effective forward progress, which they offset with slow starts and sputtering finishes.
The root of the offensive issues lies in depth and skill level. Colorado is missing its best offensive lineman in Jeromy Irwin and has had to rotate guys around almost constantly over the last four games due to various injuries. There have been bright spots, the Buffaloes do the run the ball effectively at times and, over the last two games at least, have been providing Liufau with much more time to work. They'll need to continue that positive play and string together a full four-quarter effort to keep pace with UCLA.
Ominously for the Buffs, the Bruin defense put forth one of its best performances last week, holding Cal's vaunted and prolific offense to just 313 yards on 70 plays, good for just 4.4 yards per attempt, before the game moved in to garbage time. Prior to last Thursday night, the Bears had been averaging over 6 yards per play. Jared Goff and Cal may have had an off game, but slowing the Sonny Dykes offense to that extent is no fluke.
UCLA's success begins up front with the play of defensive lineman Kenny Clark. The versatile junior is third on the team in tackles, including five for a loss and two sacks, and has broken up three passes. He'll be someone that the Colorado protection must key on. The Bruin linebackeing corps is solid and athletic and they're backed up by an experienced secondary, who've benefited from the return of Ish Adams.
In order to stay with the Bruins, CU's offense has got to find ways to avoid bogging down for long stretches. Much criticism has been levied at offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren, and at times rightfully so, but he can only work with what he's got and make calls that fit the skill sets that are on the field. He and his offense need to find ways to more effectively compensate for their weaknesses. If Shay Fields is again unable to go, the Buffs must attempt to stretch the field with Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo. They'll also need to find ways to get Nelson Spruce more involved, the 10-yard curl is almost automatic regardless of who's covering him.
Any consistent success that the Buffs are able to have moving the ball will be predicated on staying on schedule. This means that the offensive line must generate a consistent push, and do so well into the final quarter. It remains to be seen whether they're capable of this against a talented and athletic UCLA front. Liufau and his tailbacks could be in for a long afternoon if the Bruins find the kind of success that they enjoyed in their win over Cal.
On the road for the second consecutive week, facing a UCLA team that moves the ball exceptionally well in both phases and possesses talented experience on each side of the line, all signs point to a Colorado struggle. The Buffs have made progress to this point, and more is on the table, but it's going to take a sustained level of play that we have yet to see from this team, one that I'm not sure they're capable of as presently constructed.
The Buffaloes can keep it relatively close through the third quarter, but odds are that UCLA will eventually wear them down at the point of attack and pull away in the fourth. Any further forward progress will have to be put on hold for the time being.
(Editor's Note: This piece originally ran on Pacific Takes)