We're four games into the 2015 football season and thus far there's been many surprises in the Pac-12 conference. Nobody predicted the Cal Bears, Utah Utes and UCLA Bruins would be the only undefeated teams left. Also, the Colorado Buffaloes (3-1, 0-0 Pac-12) certainly weren't expected to have a better record than the Oregon Ducks (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12) one-third of the way through the season. Nonetheless, both teams come into Saturday hoping to make a statement and set the rest of the season up for further success.
Colorado needs to pick up wins along the way to keep their bowl game aspirations alive and Oregon can't afford another loss to drop below .500 on the season.
The Buffs open conference play looking to add onto a three-game winning streak after shutting out Nicholls 48-0 at home last week. The Buffs defense has been impressive forcing turnovers this season, averaging over two takeaways per game. CU's ranked 8th in the nation in interceptions with seven and tied for 16th in turnover margin at plus five. Oregon's versatile offense will be, by far, the toughest test thus far for the Buffs defense, who's held opponents to an average of 16.5 points per game.
The Ducks are out of the Associated Press' Top 25 rankings for the first time since Sept. 20, 2009, following one of the worst home losses in school history. The 62-20 thumping by No. 10 Utah added injury to misery, with Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams playing with a broken right index finger on his throwing hand. The transfer from Eastern Washington didn't play the week prior and was benched in the second quarter vs. the Utes due to poor execution, not injury. Either Adams or backup Jeff Lockie will start under center, depending on how confident Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich feels about giving the starter another nod.
Regardless of which quarterback gets the start for Oregon, the CU secondary should match up well against the Ducks receivers. Buffs defensive back Ken Crawley will attempt to blanket Ducks leading receiver Bralon Addison, in a similar way that he slowed Colorado State's Rashard Higgins. The three inch height advantage for Crawley over Addison will play a factor as well. On the other side of the secondary defensive back Chidobe Awuzie has yet to have a break out game and will have his hands full against Ducks receiver Charles Nelson.
The status for Oregon WR Byron Marshall is unknown at this point. He was carted off the field with a right ankle injury last week and isn't going to be available against CU. Marshall ranks 10th all-time in Oregon history for touchdown receptions with 27. The Ducks tandem of Nelson and Dwayne Stanford should be able to pick up the slack in Marshall's absence.
The biggest key to the game will be the Buffs efforts on defense trying to contain the Ducks high-flying rushing attack, led by Royce Freeman. Oregon's ground game is ranked 5th nationally, averaging 285 yards per game. Freeman's 551 all-purpose yards with six touchdown accounts for one-fourth of the Ducks offensive output. He finished last year's game vs. Colorado with 105 yards and two touchdowns. The Buffaloes, however are much improved from last season on defense and are ranked 60th nationally against the run, averaging 147.7 yards per game. The core of Derek McCartney, Justin Solis and Addison Gillam have to hold Freeman in check to control to keep the game within check and get the Colorado offense back on the field.
More questions than answers have arisen regarding CU quarterback Sefo Liufau's performance against Nicholls. He didn't practice the entire week prior due to a shoulder injury and looked unpolished during the game. It was noticable that some passes Liufau threw sailed past his targets and he hesitated going down field. Depending on the severity of the injury, it might have an effect on the consistency for the Buffs offense. Oregon's 116th ranked defense is among one of the worst in the nation, allowing nearly 41 points per game.
The Ducks secondary is the weak link as the 7th worst in the nation, allowing an average of 301 yards per game. The coverage by corners Glen Ihenacho, Juwaan Williams and Tyree Robinson has been comparable to a screen door on a submarine. Fourteen of the twenty touchdowns allowed by the Ducks this season have came through the air.
A healthy Lirufau will try to exploit Oregon's disparaged secondary with receivers Nelson Spruce, Shay Fields and Devin Ross. CU also shouldn't have issues being able to run the ball with Phillip Lindsay, Christian Powell and newly added Donovan Lee. The Buffs on the ground are 10th in the nation and average 272 yards per game and lead the conference in runs on first down.
MacIntyre will know later in the week if Michael Adkins III and Patrick Carr will be available. Both running backs missed Saturday's game with injuries. The Ducks defense will have to find a way to stop the Buffs running back committee and that starts with LB Joe Walker, DE DeForest Buckner and DL Alex Balducci. Oregon's defensive front is the 9th worst in the Pac-12 against the run, giving up an average of 4.8 yards per carry, but they've also already faced Michigan State and Utah.
Saturday's meeting will come down to a battle between the Buffs "beat 'em up" defense and Oregon's "Mach-10" offense. We'll see a true identity emerge from the work that new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and secondary coach Joe Tumpkin accomplished during the off season. If the defense can apply pressure to Oregon's quarterback (Adams or Lockie) and force difficult throws, that'll be a huge win for CU's secondary. The Buffs should consider Kicker Diego Gonzalez over Chris Graham to handle kickoff duties. Diego's monster leg would be a key factor in driving kicks out of the end zone and limiting the Ducks, who lead the nation in kickoff returns with an average of 22.2 yards per attempt.
Buffs Coach Mike MacIntyre knows Oregon's 2-2 record doesn't reflect on the type of football team the Ducks are. He's game planning for a Top 10 caliber opponent and expects Oregon to come out swinging after the 42-point loss. A fourth consecutive win for CU would be the longest streak since 2002.
The Colorado Buffaloes host the Oregon Ducks for another installment of #Pac12AfterDark being nationally televised on ESPN this Saturday, October 3rd. A "Sliver and Black attack" will take over the seats at Folsom Field and tickets are still available at www.cubuffs.com.