The Colorado Buffaloes (1-1, 0-0 Pac-12) and Colorado State Rams (1-1, 0-0 Mountain West) meet at Sports Authority Field at Mile High this Saturday for the 87th rendition of the Rocky Mountain Showdown. The longtime rivalry has faced setbacks in recent years but there's no bigger in-state match up than the Buffs and Rams. The game this year scheduled in the third week of the season, instead of the first, allowing both schools the ability to study each other with actual game film. Denver has hosted 15 games in the series since 1998, with CU holding an 8-6 advantage at Mile High.
Last year's game was a tale of two halves for the Buffs. After going into the locker room at halftime with a 10-7 lead, the Buffs defense couldn't find a stop for the Rams rushing attack of Dee Hart and Treyous Jarrells, who ran for 260 yards and three touchdowns, on the way to a 31-17 loss. Don't expect the same result this year out of CSU's backfield. The emergence of a retooled defense guided by Jim Leavitt hopes to keep the Rams in check in this year's meeting. The Buffs defensive front with Justin Solis, Leo Jackson and Derek McCartney look to contain CSU on offense and disrupt the timing for Ram quarterbacks Nick Stevens or Coleman Key. The Colorado State QB's will split time try to test CU's secondary early and often with a (potential) wide receiving corps of Rashard Higgins, Kivon Cartwright, Xavier Williams and Joe Hansley. Higgins returns for his junior season after leading FBS with 1,750 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in 2014. He missed last week against Minnesota with a sprained foot and CSU head coach Mike Bobo said he was "Very hopeful" the star wideout would be in the lineup come Saturday.
CU's secondary will have to play mistake free football against the talented Rams receivers. There have been numerous times during the first two games that CU's cornerbacks were behind on routes and didn't adjust well. A two-deep system with Ken Crawley, Tedrick Thompson, Afolabi Laguda, Ahkello Witherspoon and Ryan Moeller has made improvements against the pass under Leavitt. However, the unknown remains the ability of the Buffs to slow the Rams and force turnovers. All eyes will be on CU's defense and how they react to Stevens' handling of the offensive. Expect the Buffs to try and set the tone early in the showdown by playing very physical.
Linebackers Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode and the defensive line have played exceptional against the run. CU's ranked 44th in the nation after holding opponents to an average of 123.3 yard per game and just one rushing touchdown. The Rams have averaged 194.5 yards per game on the ground this season behind running backs Dayln Dawkins and Jasen Oden Jr. The Buffs will look to shut down the Rams backs and force Stevens to take to the air.
As for Buffs offense, quarterback Sefo Liufau was expected to excel this season after setting CU records for passing yards in a season (3,200) and touchdowns (28). It's been quite the opposite for Sefo so far and he's had to rely on the running back committee of Michael Adkins, Christian Powell and Phillip Lindsay. Last week against UMass, the Buffs ran for 390 yard and five touchdowns. It was their most yards on the ground since 2002. CU is currently ranked 8th in FBS on the ground, averaging 302.5 yards per game. They go up against a Rams defense who's suspect against the run, ranked 56th and allowing 131.5 yards per game.
Liufau will spread the field and, unlike the first two games, try and keep the offense more balanced. Receivers Nelson Spruce, Shay Fields, Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo are expected to be targeted more against the Rams secondary.
The offense will have to adjust without left tackle Jeromy Irwin after he suffered a torn ACL in last week's game. He'll be replaced by redshirt sophomore Sam Kronshage in his first ever start. The 6-foot-6, 285 pound lineman is ready for the task of protecting Sefo's blindside after playing 54 snaps so far this season. He'll have to keep Rams defensive end Martavius Foster out of the backfield. The key to getting the offense going for the Buffs will depend on protecting Liufau in the pocket. The offensive line didn't allow a sack against UMass and hopes to continue that trend going into Saturday. The Buffaloes will try and break the will of the Rams defense early, as they have not allowed an opponent a first down in the first quarter this season.
This will come down to a battle of offense. Not so much a shootout between the two schools with quick strikes, but controlled drives like a calculated chess match between Mike MacIntyre and Bobo. Defense wins the day.
More than 56,000 tickets for the showdown have been sold by both schools as of Wednesday night. The two schools split tickets from the game, with CU receiving 55 percent and CSU getting 45 percent. The Rocky Mountain Showdown is scheduled for a 5:05 p.m. Mountain time kickoff from Sports Authority Field at Mile High and will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Network.