Since Colorado and Utah began Pac-12 play in 2011 each of their three matchups have been decided by just one score. There hasn't been much more than pride (and one ugly road losing streak) on the line in those contests but they've been hard fought and I expect this year's version to be no different. The bowl-bound Utes are fielding one of the best defenses in the conference but have hit a bit of a skid in their past four games. The Buffaloes are a team good enough to drag themselves to the brink of victory, but no further. Here's what will need to happen if the Buffs are to finally claim a conference triumph in 2014 and move forward into the new year with a positive result to build on.
As detailed on Wednesday, it will be imperative that the Buffalo offensive line protect Sefo Liufau from what is arguably the nation's best pass rush. I expect the two senior linemen, Kaiwi Crabb and Daniel Munyer, to play out of their heads in their last game at Folsom Field but the difference will be made on the right edge where Stephane Nembot will be contending with Nate Orchard. If the pass protection holds up, Sefo and his receivers should be able to have some success against the Ute secondary. A D.D. Goodson touchdown wouldn't be too much to ask for, would it? Last week, Arizona gashed the Utah defense on the ground for nearly 300 yards and while the Buffs certainly won't see that kind of success it will be important that the CU tailbacks at least fall forward and consistently gain positive yardage. It would be great to see Tony Jones make a few plays but I expect Phillip Lindsay and Christian Powell to receive the bulk of the carries. If the offense can give themselves manageable 2nd and 3rd downs via the ground game they can neutralize Utah's pass rush to a small extent and string together first downs.
Utah's offense does exist, even if it's moving very slowly it is still alive and should be considered dangerous. Travis Wilson remains their starting quarterback and rightfully so as he is capable of making big plays and is about as tough as quarterbacks come. He can scramble effectively and possesses the arm strength to sling it down field. The Utes' other critical playmaker is junior running back Devontae Booker who is averaging 114 yards rushing per game and is second on the team in receptions with 34. Aside from Washington State's defense, CU's unit is the most vulnerable that Utah will have faced in the Pac-12 this season. Booker will likely get his as Colorado's run defense has been far from solid for major chunks of the year. If the Buffalo defensive front can somehow apply pressure of their own on Wilson they can help out their secondary and limit the damage that he and his most threatening target, Kaelin Clay, can inflict through the air.
Turnovers have been the bane of the offense's existence this season but they haven't been talked about enough in relation to the defense. It seemed back in August that one strength of this unit would be its ability to turn teams over but that hasn't been the case. Ever since the game in Berkeley the Buffs have constantly been on the back foot and when they have received turnovers, as they did in the Washington game, it wasn't of their own doing. Injuries have had a lot to do with this, as Tedric Thompson remains CU's only player with an interception, but the opportunistic defensive play that we saw flashes of in 2013 has not been there. It's probably too much to ask but if, for once, CU can win the turnover battle by forcing a critical Ute giveaway or two, they can actually win this game and not just come thisclose.
A large part of the success that Utah has had on the defensive side of the ball stems from the play of their Australian punter, Tom Hackett, who is a finalist for the Ray Guy award and may even be the favorite to win it. Hackett is averaging 46.5 yards per kick and he and his punt team have pinned opposing offenses inside their own 20 yard line 34 times on 73 kicks. Should the Buffs force Utah's offense to stall out, they'll in turn be forced to march the length of the field to produce scores. Colorado's senior punter Darragh O'Neill has been having one of his best seasons as well, producing 25 kicks downed inside the opponent's 20 and averaging 44.6 yards per boot. There's a high likelihood that this game becomes a punter's duel that will eventually be decided by field position. Aside from posing a threat at receiver, Kaelin Clay is also one of the most dangerous return men in the conference. He's taken three punts all the way back for touchdowns and has housed one kickoff. If there's an area that this game could swing on in an instant, it's the Buffs' kick coverage. If Clay is able to bust a few returns open and give his offense a short field the Colorado offense will be forced to play catchup instead of dictating its own terms.
I fully expect this game to unfold the way all too many have this season. The Buffs will enter the 4th quarter in position to scrape out a victory but something, whether it's turnovers, shoddy tackling, or a big special teams play will hold them back from summiting the wall that's stood in front of them all year. If you've made it this far, thanks for reading this season. It's been an honor and a privilege to write these weekly features. One last time, here's to the Buffs flipping the script and claiming the Pac-12 victory that's been far too long in coming and here's to brighter fall Saturdays in 2015.