Of all the difficult matchups spread throughout the Colorado schedule, Saturday's feels like the most lopsided. Stanford excels in the areas where CU's greatest weaknesses lie, and the Cardinal are an experienced, senior-laden team while the Buffaloes are still relatively young.
In order to pull off what would be a gargantuan upset, Colorado will need to play assignment football and win their individual battles at the points of attack. Much easier said than done against the best team the Buffs will have faced all year.
Here are three aspects that will factor heavily into Saturday's outcome.
Pass and Catch
The Cardinal have boasted the best rushing defense in the conference in each of the past four years, and that dominance has continued through this year's campaign. Stanford is allowing just 128.6 yards per game on the ground, ranking them 28th in the nation. The Buffs have found a fair (and somewhat surprising) amount of success running the ball this season, averaging 195 yards a game and 4.25 yards per attempt. One of these things is going to have to give, and my money would be placed on the Cardinal front limiting the Colorado running game.
If that's to be the case, Sefo Liufau is going to need to make it happen through the air. Through 9 games, the passing attack has not found its 2014 gear, and the blame for this falls on several parties. For one thing, the Buffaloes are missing the production of Tyler McCullough and D.D. Goodson. They haven't yet found reliable replacements in the slot as Jay MacIntyre and Dylan Keeney have yet to fully emerge. Because of this, teams don't have to respect as many threats outside of Shay Fields, so Nelson Spruce has often been bracketed on the outside reducing his production. The playcalling has also been a large part of the issue, too many times passes are forced on early downs putting the Buffs behind schedule and Colorado's thin offensive line is then asked to accomplish the sort of protection that it just isn't capable of producing when the defense knows what's coming.
There is hope for success this weekend, however. Last Saturday night Washington State amassed 354 yards through the air en route to outgaining the Cardinal 442-312. Sefo may not be on the level of Luke Falk in terms of a pure passer but the yards are there to be gained on this defense, provided the protection holds up long enough. (It may, Stanford ranks just 90th in the nation in sacks, averaging just over 1 per game.) Colorado had a lot of success moving the ball up and down the field on UCLA last week, as Liufau went 37-57 throwing for 312 yards helping the Buffs to outgain the Bruins 554-400. But, as the Cougars also found out later that night, outgaining the opposition means absolutely nothing when you're unable to get the most out of your yardage. Thus it is imperative that CU...
Teams in Colorado's position cannot afford to come away with field goals when within the 20, and they can even less afford to turn the ball over in that position. The problem is that teams in Colorado's position are in that place to begin with precisely because they aren't good enough to drive the dagger home and capitalize often enough. We've seen it in three games now this season, CU is presented with opportunities to create real distance between themselves and the opponent and they fail to do so. It's happened early, and it's happened late.
Against Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA the Buffs found themselves down quickly, but then rallied to either tie the game or take a lead in the second half. From there, they collapsed each time, unable to stop the other team's playmakers and unable to create the necessary offensive plays themselves. This is a symptom of a young and developing team, which by and large the Buffaloes still are.
In order to turn the tide, they've got to find some way, any way, to finish drives in the end zone and make the three or four critical plays necessary to winning the types of games they've been involved in this season. You can't play cute with Stanford, you have to go right at them and hit them in the mouth. Colorado must continue to move the ball north and south, and they need to seize every opportunity presented to them, because they'll likely only get a precious few.
A great coach once said "The pride and tradition of the Colorado Buffaloes will not be entrusted to the timid or the weak."
These Buffs are neither timid nor weak, they've just not yet been good enough through four quarters to finish the deal against quality opposition. It's impossible to say when the breakthrough will come, it may not arrive until next year, but this weekend presents another fantastic opportunity to notch that program-altering triumph.
The move to wear the black and gold for just the second time this season in honor of the Bill McCartney-era Golden Buffaloes is a terrific one. Although each new combo has been so sweet (I am a huge fan of the silver lids and would have really liked to see the silver-black-silver look on the field) there's nothing that compares to the shine of that gold helmet in the Colorado sun.
Enjoy the weekend and enjoy taking in some crisp November football at Folsom Field.