We've reached Thanksgiving week again, and with it comes the familiar matchup with everything on the line against our hated rival in red, Utah.
We're obviously not to that point yet but Saturday's game (I wonder how long it will take for CU to regain its Friday after Thanksgiving privileges?) holds plenty of meaning for both teams. Utah is trying to avoid losing 4 of its last 5 and sliding backwards into bowl season after their fantastic start, while Colorado is trying to avoid the ignominy of going winless in conference play. A victory for the Buffaloes would provide a much-needed boost of positivity and optimism heading into what will be a pivotal 2015 season. In order to send their seniors out of Folsom as victors, CU's offensive line will need to slow down Utah's excellent defensive front.
Colorado's Offensive Line vs. Utah's Defensive Line
The Utes' fierce pass rush is led by senior havoc-wreaker Nate Orchard, who is currently tied with Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha for most total sacks in the nation with 18, which is just two less than CU has achieved as a team. Orchard possesses one of the fastest bursts off the line in the nation and he's adept at utilizing his hands to occupy opposing offensive linemen as he's quickly working his way around the edge. Aiding Orchard's cause on the opposite end is Hunter Dimick who has registered 52 total tackles and 10 sacks on the season and end-turned-linebacker Jason Fanaika who has recorded 46 tackles and 3 sacks. If it's not one of those three breaking down the opposition's protection and severely disrupting the quarterback, the interior of the Utes push will be causing issues led by Sese Ianu, Lowe Lotulelei and Viliseni Fauonuku. This crew, with some help from their linebackers, leads the nation in total sacks with 49 on the year, which is good for a slightly ridiculous 4.45 per game average.
The Buffalo offensive line has played steadily this season, showing incremental improvement over last year and allowing the offense to operate at a relatively higher level. For what it's worth, CU's offense is averaging 60 yards more per game this season over last and has already eclipsed last year's net yardage total by 400 yards. CU's pass protection has looked similar to last year however as the Buffs have allowed just 9 fewer recorded quarterback hurries through 11 games than they conceded in all of 2013 and have also given up 20 sacks to this point, the same amount allowed last season. Those numbers are mostly a result of the stiffer opposition that they've faced in the second half of the season. The line has played well enough to put its offense in a position to win in each of Colorado's close losses.
Most importantly, the Buffs have been able to keep their core group of 5 largely intact. Alex Kelley and Stephane Nembot have been the bulwarks, playing all 925 offensive snaps that the Buffaloes have taken. Daniel Munyer, the team's most consistent force up front, has played 912 snaps, and the other two regulars Kaiwi Crabb and Jeromy Irwin have missed only one full game each. Nembot will be the critical cog come Saturday, as he'll be lining up across from Orchard. If he gets beaten off the edge consistently it's going to be difficult for Colorado to effectively move the ball, as they'll likely be facing 3rd and longs more often than not.
This Utah defensive attack will be one of the toughest the Buffaloes have faced, aside from Washington's front which they handled fairly well until late, and as the Utes struggle to move the ball at times it will be critical that Colorado's linemen manage the pressure and give Sefo Liufau and his receivers time to make plays and force Utah to score with them. (I'm assuming Sefo's starting and playing the full game, barring anything calamitous.) In their resounding win last weekend, Arizona actually managed to hammer Utah on the ground, amassing 298 yards and controlling the line of scrimmage. It'll be interesting to see how well CU can run the ball and which back will have the most success. I'd guess that Philip Lindsay will see the bulk of the carries as he seems to be the healthiest of the Buffalo ball carriers at the moment but Christian Powell will likely see action and it would be really nice to see ToJo go out with a solid performance.
In order for the Buffaloes to finish this disappointing season on a positive note and send their seniors (who've been through some serious tribulations) off with a win, the offensive line will need to find a way to keep their quarterback upright and allow their receivers and tailbacks the time and space to make headway. If they can place the onus on Utah's less than explosive offense to answer back they'll be in a better than decent position to pull out a sorely needed conference victory.