For the second time as members of the Pac-12 the Buffaloes and the Trojans will meet on a chilly November Friday night in Boulder. USC has thoroughly dominated CU over the last 5 matchups, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest this week's contest will continue that trend.
If the Buffaloes are to somehow deliver a transformative victory tomorrow night nearly everything is going to have to break their way. They'll have to combine all of the best parts of their near-misses this season and finally click in all facets at once. This year, Southern Cal is not quite on the level of Stanford and they are still a relatively young team in the midst of a transitional phase. The Buffs may be able to hang in, here's where they'll need to find purchase.
The Ground Game
Last week, prior to the Stanford matchup, I essentially wrote off the Colorado rushing attack (the Buffalo tailbacks ended up gaining just 90 yards on the ground) and thought that any success they might find offensively would be set up through the air. Judging by Arizona's performance in the Coliseum last weekend (352 yards passing, only 60 rushing) it would appear as though that may be the case once again.
Only, at this point I'm not sure that Sefo Liufau and this offense can manage what the Wildcats accomplished. Against the Cardinal, the Buffs were able to put together just three acceptably productive drives, and only came away with 10 points, faltering near the red zone twice and failing to capitalize on Tedric Thompson's interception in the second half. The Buffs mustered just 231 yards of total offense, averaging 4.3 yards per play that day. If Colorado turns in a performance like that on Friday night, they'll be staring another 30-point defeat square in the face.
In order to keep pace with the Trojans and hang in beyond the third quarter, CU must find a way to run the ball successfully. It won't be easy, as USC's defense is allowing just 3.9 yards per carry which ranks them just below Stanford at 38th in the nation. They held one of the best tailbacks in the conference and in the nation, Utah's Devontae Booker, to less than half his average output. (Booker gained just 62 yards on 14 carries, he had been averaging 130 yards per game entering that Week 8 contest.) The trio of Colorado running backs (still led by Phillip Lindsay, who I'm willing to bet will see more carries this week) are going to need to create yardage after contact and hope that their offensive line can get enough of a push to give them consistent opportunities in the second level.
Further complicating offensive matters is the Trojan pass rush. Led by recently rejuvenated seniors Antwaun Woods and Delvon Simmons they currently rank 33rd in the nation in sacks averaging 2.56 takedowns per game. Then there's the constant threat posed by Su'a Cravens on the outside at the safety position. (Why is it that SC players always have sweet names?) Cravens is currently second on the team in tackles with 58, including 10 for a loss, and leads his defense in sacks with 4.5 to go along with 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. He must be picked up and accounted for on every single play, and even then he'll likely still find a way to force a key turnover or make a timely tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
As always, USC possesses exceptional athletes at every defensive position. The Buffalo offense will have to execute much better than they did last weekend in every situation. Ultimately, if CU struggles to run the ball they're going to struggle period.
The improved Colorado defense's bend-don't-break style has been well documented. In general, their overall numbers look better, they've helped keep this team in games longer by getting stops in spots they never used to, and they've had much more success forcing turnovers. But the core issue remains, when they do break (and it happens too often) they shatter spectacularly.
In three winnable games, the Buffalo defense did just enough to be tied or have taken the lead at some point in the second half versus Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA. Only, those leads were never sustained and the opposition quickly blew past Colorado by capitalizing on long, damaging gains both on the ground and through the air. CU's defense isn't entirely to blame for those losses, but the backbreaking big plays are yet another symptom of a unit still developing depth and skill and are a factor that continues to hold this team back.
The Buffaloes, overall, need to find a way to strike a happy medium between the play counts of the UCLA game (114, a program record) and the Stanford game (53, the fewest ran since 2012.) This defense did not receive enough rest against Stanford, succumbing to the Cardinal's grind-you-down style late in the 2nd quarter, and prior to that they weren't able to contain UCLA 's explosiveness allowing the Bruins to rip off scoring plays of 31 and 82 yards as well as plays that set up scores that went for 51 and 38. It's imperative that the CU offense keep the ball for longer periods of time and actually capitalize on those long drives, while the defense has to find ways to limit the amount of plays that go for more than 25 yards.
In order to have any shot at winning this one, Colorado must contain the Trojan threats on the outside in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson. (Again, the names. Are they cool because they're great players, or are they great players because of their cool names?) Smith-Schuster is averaging an obscene 18.2 yards per catch and has produced 9 touchdowns. It's a good bet that he'll break open a few big gains, but that's all the Buffs can afford. If USC scores more than 38, this game will be beyond reach.
Friday night will be the last chance most Colorado fans have to see one of the best pass-catchers in program history in person. Nelson Spruce has been the definition of reliably efficient production during his time at CU. As of this week he holds two of the three major CU receiving records. Spruce currently has 272 receptions to his credit (as you all know, a Pac-12 all-time record) and 3,022 receiving yards, overtaking Michael Westbrook's mark of 2,548 against Nicholls State earlier this season. Nelson needs just two more touchdowns to pass Scotty McKnight's mark of 22 on that all-time list.
While Spruce's senior campaign hasn't quite reached the level of his standout junior season efforts, he's remained vital to what this offense does. His presence has allowed for Shay Fields and Devin Ross to further emerge, and he's continued to provide an ultra-reliable safety blanket for Sefo Liufau, even while working against bracketed coverage most of the time. Nelson has averaged 10.9 yards a reception this year, hauling in 67 passes for 728 yards and 2 touchdowns. (Honestly, the fact that he's scored just twice is inexcusable, but that's a separate topic.) If Colorado ends up keeping pace with USC, there's no doubt that Spruce will have played a crucial role.
Another Colorado legend saying good bye to Folsom Field on Friday night, at least in a working capacity, is broadcaster Larry Zimmer. Zim is the voice of autumn for Colorado fans, and over the span of his 42-year career his vocals have provided the soundtrack to the greatest moments in CU history. If you're like me, you grew up with Zim, muting the television during away games and cranking 850 on the dial, or blasting the car speakers while throwing the ball around outside on crisp fall Saturdays.
Zimmer will be honored at the 1st quarter break on Friday night, so be sure to stay near your seats for that special moment. What better way to send off an indelible part of the program (who also happens to be celebrating his 80th birthday tomorrow) than with a first-ever win over Southern California?
Enjoy the Friday Buffalo doubleheader (ESPN2, Home of the Buffs) and enjoy the historic stylings of Nelson Spruce and Larry Zimmer for one last time in Boulder.
Prediction: USC 41 Colorado 27