The 2015 Buffaloes failed to reach their goal. They came up short of bowl eligibility once again, officially eliminating the possibility on a dark night in Pullman. (Although really, those dreams suffered a terminal wound during the first three minutes of the season in Honolulu.)
This team is once again left to try and salvage one last shred of optimism on the field against the Utah Utes. After a blazing and eye-opening 6-0 start Kyle Whittingham's Utes have since dropped 3 of 5, including a dud of a loss at home last week against UCLA with their division title hopes on the line.
All four Pac-12 meetings between these two schools have been decided by 7 points or less. As was true for most of this year's schedule, this game is there to be had. The question now is whether we'll see the Buffaloes that nearly knocked off USC, or the team that succumbed to dysfunction against Washington State. Here's what will matter most in this Thanksgiving weekend matchup.
Contain the Run
Utah is at their best offensively when they're pounding the rock, chewing clock, and consistently wearing down opposing defenses behind their physical and bruising offensive line. Devontae Booker nearly placed his name up amongst the Heisman contenders in the early-going, averaging 126.1 yards per game (130.9 in conference play) before going down with a knee injury against Arizona on November 14th. Booker led the nation in touches from scrimmage (305, 268 rushes, 37 receptions) and rushing attempts per game (26.8) so it's fair to say that Utah's offense revolved around his ability.
Having recently lost their offensive focal point in Booker, in addition to one of their most reliable receiving targets in Britain Covey, Travis Wilson and his unit have struggled to move the ball as effectively and explosively. However, Booker's replacement, Joe Williams, showed some ability and found success against UCLA's defense, rushing for 121 yards and 4.7 yards per carry. The Buffs must focus on limiting him and forcing Wilson and his short-handed receiving corps into difficult 2nd and 3rd and long situations.
Now, Colorado has struggled to stop teams in those moments as well, and they've really had trouble containing mobile quarterbacks. Just last year Wilson torched them for 311 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air, and he's more than capable of picking up those killer 3rd and longs on the strength of his legs.
The improvement of Colorado's defense this season is real, but they're still allowing nearly 200 yards per game on the ground, having most recently given up 149 yards rushing to the Cougars, of all teams. It's going to take a concerted effort from CU's front seven to slow Utah on the ground, but it will be critical to their chances that they find a way (and the will) to do so.
Stick To What Works
If this game becomes an ugly field position battle, which is entirely possible, Utah will emerge victorious. The Ute punting units are among the best in the country, and they feature the best punter in the country in Tom Hackett who's averaging 47.4 yards per punt and has placed 43% of his punts within the 20 yard line, including 11 inside the 10.
Thus Colorado will need to find some way to capitalize when they find themselves moving the ball with Cade Apsay at the helm. Of the four scoring drives Apsay has been a part of since being forced in to action, one was led most of the way into enemy territory by Sefo Liufau, and one was set up by a 45-yard Nelson Spruce punt return. The other two were 65 and 66 yards in length, and both stalled out ending in short Diego Gonzalez field goals of 28 and 24 yards.
There have been many criticisms levied at the offense this season, and many have involved offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren at times seemingly outthinking himself. There will be moments when Colorado finds itself driving down the field and approaching the red zone on Saturday. When they arrive in that position, they shouldn't stray too far from what got them there.
If CU is somehow having success running the ball against Utah's stingy front seven, they need to keep pounding it with the hot back until the Utes prove they can stop it consistently. If the middle of the field is open, let Apsay throw some darts to the tight ends, or hit some quick crossing patterns. As this is Colorado's last game of the season, Lindgren and his staff should get creative but within the parameters of whatever is proving to be effective against Utah's defensive looks. Obviously, the situation will dictate where they go with the ball but CU must press any advantages they discover until Utah adjusts and opens up another avenue.
The largest factor in Colorado's scoring struggles this season has simply been execution. Mike MacIntyre's staff can help their players out by doing whatever it takes to get them in some rhythm and provide them with options that they already feel confident in.
Don't Hold Back
This is it for Colorado in 2015. They've made tangible progress, sure, but they've yet to beat anyone of real substance. In order to put a positive coda on this season what happened in Washington State cannot happen in Salt Lake City. While the odds are against the Buffs, as always, this Utah team as presently constructed is within their reach.
Colorado's defense must play with abandon. If the Buffaloes are going to win this game, they're going to need to create giveaways and mistakes. Utah is 7th in the country in turnovers gained with 25, those takeaways played a massive role in their hot 6-0 start. It's a good bet that they'll get one off of CU's offense, so the defense must find ways to pressure Wilson into forced throws and cause some havoc. It's no coincidence that Colorado is 0-8 when losing or tying the turnover battle and 4-0 when winning it. Also of no coincidence is the disparity in the quality of opposition between those two marks, good teams protect the ball and force turnovers.
If Colorado brings a cohesive effort to the foot of the Wasatch Range, they can be right there in the 4th quarter and the only remaining question will be the one that's been asked since the beginning of conference play. Are the 2015 Buffs capable of finishing off a signature win? More than likely, the Buffaloes and their fans will be again be left to wait until next year.
If you've made it this far, thank you for reading this season. Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend, travel safely, and enjoy watching Nelson Spruce in the black and gold and silver and white one last time.
Prediction: Utah 27 Colorado 17