After a long hiatus, extended by a jaunt to Honolulu, the weekly three keys post is back with a brand new edition. The Buffs need to do many things better than they did a week ago in order to deliver a confidence-boosting victory over UMass on Saturday, here are the three facets that will prove most critical.
Let's begin with the obvious. Colorado's offensive line play in Aloha Stadium was abysmal, specifically when it came to creating and maintaining a pocket for Sefo Liufau to work from. They somehow managed to run block pretty well, opening holes for Michael Adkins and Philip Lindsay pretty consistently through the middle of the game. However, when it came to holding blocks and picking up the blitz they failed at every position. Sure, Hawai'i was throwing some stunts around but what they were bringing wasn't particularly exotic or confusing. Mostly the Warrior pass rushers simply overpowered and beat their way around the Buffalo front, even when rushing only three men.
Most surprising was the play of the two veterans, Stephane Nembot and Alex Kelley. These two graded out significantly lower than their season averages from a year ago when it came to Plus Play Percentage. (PPP% is the number of positive plays divided by total plays. The other two categories of plays are neutral and negative plays. It's not foolproof but it paints a fairly accurate picture.) Nembot came in at 46.2% on Friday morning after averaging 53.3% last season and Kelley delivered a 43% mark after maintaining a 57.8% average in 2014. Aside from the two stalwarts who will more than likely have a better go of it this weekend, Jonathan Huckins, Shane Callahan, and Sam Kronshage will also have to do a much better job of sustaining blocks and picking up rushing linebackers. Gerrad Kough is listed as probable after tweaking his ankle so I'm betting we'll see Kronshage and Callahan rotate in.
No one really had a good explanation for why the offensive line appeared stuck in beach sand late last Thursday. Maybe it was a combination of the humidity, the odd hours, the travel, and the pressure of the first game of the season. Whatever the causes, this line will need to help Liufau and his receivers establish a rhythm and some confidence on Saturday. The Minutemen defense is not particularly stout, they are especially susceptible to the run having allowed 191 yards per game on the ground last year. I expect Brian Lindgren to continue to feature Adkins and Lindsay, but I also expect this passing attack to find its familiar gear and start breaking open some big plays. That starts with the big boys up front winning their battles.
Among the few positive takeaways from the season opener was the play of the defensive line. The Buffs were able to pressure Max Wittek in a couple of big moments, and came thisclose to forcing two safeties or recovering the Jase Franke-caused fumble for a touchdown, which would have drastically altered the game. Franke was a quiet revelation, and it's a good bet that he'll get the chance to continue showcasing his tenacious play against UMass' veteran offensive line. The front seven also did a serviceable job of corralling the Rainbow Warrior running backs, for the most part. Freeing up Derek McCartney to either drop back or rush the edge proved beneficial right off the bat, resulting in his first interception. The two junior college transfers, Leo Jackson and Jordan Carrell, had solid debut performances themselves. They'll likely be relied upon further going forward.
It appears that Jim Leavitt's scheme and attitude have already begun to have a positive effect on the defense as a whole. Aside from a few glaring miscues, the unit played well enough to win in Aloha Stadium. They'll need to play smarter and faster against a superior offensive unit and an experienced and dangerous quarterback-receiver tandem in Blake Frohnapfel and Tajae Sharpe. The defensive line has to disrupt Frohnapfel, he's too accurate and can pick apart a good secondary if left untouched. Colorado will need to be in the backfield more than they were against the Rainbow Warriors, and that starts inside with Justin Solis, Leo Jackson and Jordan Carrell. They'll need to have success occupying multiple linemen and beating their man more often than not. Consistent hurries, one or two every other series, and four or more sacks should do the trick.
It's been stated ad nauseum but it's something that the Buffs still struggle with on a game-to-game basis. They've got to make smart decisions with and around the football. As was proven again last week, this team, with its narrow margin for error, still can't afford critical communication breakdowns (the blocked punt and two timeouts wasted on one drive that culminated in a failed 4th down conversion attempt), poor special teams decisions (Shay Fields attempting to scoop a bouncing ball in the middle of the field), poor tackling (Ken Crawley trying to strip the ball instead of wrapping up), and sub-par quarterback decision-making (Sefo's interception intended for George Frazier or the sideline but falling short of both to a Rainbow Warrior.) I expect Sefo to rebound in this one, as he should have better protection and more time. It would be very encouraging to see him look off Nelson Spruce more often and find Shay, Bryce Bobo, and Devin Ross who in particular had some nice grabs against Hawai'i. Teams key on Nelson as it is, the issue is compounded when Liufau locks in for too long on his primary read.
The Buffaloes need to clean up those all too familiar miscues that consistently come back to hurt them. They will not win close games against strong competition until they do. There's no better time and place than a brilliant Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field to put together a crisp, clean, confidence-boosting performance to build upon going forward. Here's to a comfortable cover and an end to this nine-game losing streak.