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Colorado Buffaloes vs. Oregon Ducks: Keys to the Game

The Buffs' chances at victory over the Ducks rest between slim and none but here are three things that will help them cover and maybe, just maybe, come close to throwing the inaugural College Football Playoff into chaos.

The Buffs will likely be hanging on by just a thread on Saturday in Eugene.
The Buffs will likely be hanging on by just a thread on Saturday in Eugene.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Both Oregon and Colorado have sustained more than their fair share of critical injuries to this point in the season, neither team is entering this weekend near full strength. The obvious difference is that Oregon has the depth and the overall talent to readily overcome their losses while the Buffs' margin for loss is down to a 1-point font. As Mike MacIntyre noted in his Tuesday press conference, the Buffs will again feature scout team players in the secondary due to being without their top five safeties. Generally, it's difficult to have a wild amount of success in Pac-12 play with a defensive back corps decimated to that extent.

All of that aside, there are areas that the Buffaloes can capitalize on in order to attempt to hang with Mr. Ducksworth and keep this one close late leaving the door open for anything to happen. (Stay with me, this post had to include keys other than "don't die.")

Colorado_mediumDo Not Feed the Ducks

CU currently owns a -9 turnover margin and it feels much larger than that, mainly because the Buffalo giveaways have come at much more costly junctures than any of their opponents'. Colorado also lacks the ability to recover from more than one critical fumble or interception, of their 20 turnovers 15 have been converted into points totaling to 92 on the season. On the flip side Oregon rarely turns the ball over, possessing a +15 turnover margin. Marcus Mariota has thrown just two interceptions through 10 games which is insanely good. CU hasn't been able to intercept opposing quarterbacks and I don't expect Mariota to make any mistakes, so forcing fumbles will be their best chance at creating Oregon errors. The previous two games were essentially decided on painful CU giveaways, two early Sefo Liufau fumbles and the late pick caused by a protection breakdown led to a loss in Tucson and three consecutive, inexcusable, 3rd quarter turnovers spelled defeat against Washington. Those types of mistakes have played a significant role throughout CU's 7 conference losses and they will not fly in Eugene. Oregon's offense is going to score, they certainly don't need any additional help doing so.

Colorado_mediumFinish Drives

For all of CU's offensive improvement this season, with passing totals nearing school records, the offense has had issues finishing drives with touchdowns. They've come up short after marching down the field far too many times, most notably against Cal, UCLA, and Arizona. According to the S&P+ rankings put together by Football Outsiders the Buffs rank 84th in the nation in drive efficiency, which isn't good enough to stay up with a team like Oregon who ranks 7th in the country. Colorado is far more methodical and much less explosive than the Ducks but if they're able to turn those long drives into 7 points more often than not, they'll be able to chew clock and hang in well into the second half.

If the Ducks have a real weakness that CU can exploit, it's their pass defense which has given up 2,940 yards on the season and currently ranks 51st in the country. I'm slightly less optimistic that the Buffs will be able to take advantage with Jordan Gehrke under center, especially combined with the predicted weather conditions, but we'll learn what he's really got if he does in fact see significant time. CU will not be able to settle for field goals in this touchdown fight, Nelson Spruce and company will have to be lights out in the red zone as I'm not sure how effectively the Buffs will be able to run the ball in those crucial spots with Michael Adkins likely out. The defense is going to have some serious trouble no matter what, it'll be up to the offense to answer Duck scores and seize every opportunity they're given.

Colorado_mediumDuck Control

I don't think anybody actually understands what game control means or why it's important but apparently the selection committee is placing a high value on it. Oregon will likely be looking to do two things against Colorado (besides stay healthy); dominate from start to finish and boost Mariota's Heisman candidacy. For the Buffs to have a shot they'll need to hold Mariota to at least an average performance, by his standards, and jump out of the gates quickly. We saw what happens when CU starts slowly against a clearly superior team on the road as the Buffs were buried in Los Angeles before the halfway point of the 1st quarter. We've also seen what happens when CU lands the first punch and comes out swinging, as they did in Tucson and Berkeley. Oregon is on a much higher level than those teams (their loss to Arizona aside) and it becomes even more critical that the Buffs don't get overwhelmed early. As I mentioned in Wednesday's post, it's imperative that Oregon ball carriers are held at least moderately in check. Finishing methodical drives won't much matter if the Ducks are repeatedly exploding for long scores immediately upon receiving the ball.

Because the Buffaloes are in fact taking the field on Saturday, the chance for a massive, monumental, stupendous upset does exist. That chance is extremely miniscule however and I expect a rested Duck squad to take care of business on their way to the Civil War and beyond. I do think that the Buffs will cover what is an inordinately high spread and that they'll at least be "in it" longer than they were against USC. Anything beyond that is a bonus and then it's time to focus all efforts on beating Utah. Here's to the Buffaloes somehow making this one interesting while the rain falls in Autzen.