The Buffs finally get out of the dregs of PAC-12 scheduling with this early evening contest at Arizona, starting at 6 PM M.T. Both teams are coming off unexpectedly lopsided losses, with CU getting dropped by 15 at home against Washington and Arizona losing by 10 to an inconsistent UCLA team. Let's see what happened last week.
The game started so well. The slow start that has defined the last few CU games was gone, and in its place was a 17-7 lead. Shaq Thompson was running wild, but everyone else in their offense was kept in check and the ball was moving wonderfully against the vaunted front seven of the Huskies. The Buffs walked into halftime with a field goal lead. Then it went to hell. A second half characterized by three turnovers gave Washington a commanding lead that they never gave up. While still performing better than expected (at least by my standards), this team earned the ire of many fans by giving the game away. That has been a common theme this year with Colorado. In most of the games played, the Buffs are competing well and staying with the opponents ( a far cry from other years). However, there is always a tipping point where it just falls apart for the team. The called back interception against OSU, the missed field goal and 4th down stop at Cal, the interception late in the UCLA, this youthful team makes a youthful mistake and the other team capitalizes. It's infuriating, frustrating, and encouraging that there finally is a tipping point in a game, not just domination. However, the excuse is wearing thin. Coach Mac's conference record is not too sparkly, and he'll have to show Buff faithful he can win one of the last three games on the schedule, however unlikely that may be.
This offense goes as Anu Solomon goes. Ka'deem Carey gashed the Buffs every time they played the Wildcats, and they breathed a sigh of relief when he went away. In his place, Solomon and the duo of Terris Jones-Grigsby and superfrosh Nick Wilson run the read option to great success, and every Colorado fan who hasn't given up on the season yet or switched to basketball should be worried about their great running game matching up against the rush defense (defense is a strong word). Solomon is at his best when he keeps plays alive, in the awkward space between run and pass. He extends plays, makes things happen that have no business happening, and can take off when needed. He has been a revelation for a team that didn't have a quarterback until late into summer camp. The talent he throws to is some of the best in the PAC-12. Cayleb Jones is a rangy athlete who has the ability to light up any night and Austin Hill, who caught the famous hail mary against Cal, can stretch the field and has proven to be dynamic for the Wildcats. Semaije Grant in the slot can cause some problems with his speed and he consistently gets a lot of YAC. Despite their struggles last week, this offense is explosive and will do some damage against the Buffs. Once again, the read option will be a huge part of their game planning, and as of right now, CU has not proven they can stop it consistently. Expect a lot of the run game in Tuscon, with a few big play passes to lighten the load on the running backs. They have a large, experienced offensive line, with the right side carrying a little more heft. The Buffs will have to sell out to stop the run, and in doing so, they expose themselves to big plays from the opportunistic receivers.
This is a strange defense to study. They run a 3-3-5, giving up beef in the front for more coverage in the back, which I would argue is a good idea in this conference. Their front three are much less devastating than Washington's, with all of the players weighing under 280. This should give a mightily improved CU offensive line a chance to push people around a bit and get the run game. Getting past the second level is going to be much more difficult. In the middle is what many hoped this year's Addison Gillam would be like. Scooby Wright is the wrecking ball for this defense. At 246 pounds (if only, Addison, if only. Get better soon), Wright has the power to scrape off blockers and make the play, as well the instincts to get there in the first place. He also gets after the quarterback, registering 12 sacks already this year. All three starting linebackers are over 220 pounds and 6'1, leaving many jealous and bitter that they can have nice things and keep them. All three, like the rest of the team, are opportunistic and aggressive, pouncing on their reads whether they are right or not. This creates a lot of boom or bust in a bend-don't-break scheme, making for an explosive combination. Manning the cornerback positions are Jonathan McKnight and Jarvis McCall Jr. (who was injured against UCLA), though true frosh Cam Denson looks to get plenty of play. McCall is a giant (6'2) and I imagine he would covers with Spruce, but no one truly ever matches up with Nelson. The key to the secondary and defense are the spur and bandit positions. These safety-linebacker hybrids are tasked with bringing the wood and dropping back in coverage. William Parks plays spur while Jared Tevis, and with both at six feet and about 200 pounds, they are big enough to matter in run support and nimble enough to run with some of the slower receivers. Playing a more familiar free safety role is Jourdon Grandon, who will stay deep more often than not. This defense is almost built to give up yards, but not touchdowns, and it seems that we have finally found a match for Tyler McCulloch in these Spurs and Bandits. I bet Lindgren will spread it out more than usual against this team to try to get the linebackers moving side to side instead of north and south, and then try to run it more than usual. Michael Adkins is on a tear, Phillip Lindsay, sans fumbles, has been rumbling, and Tony Jones has been decisive. Lindgren will bully the front three and then spread out Scooby and the rest of the Mystery Gang to create some big holes.
CU's Oline vs. UA's Dline - Advantage: CU. This line is once again coming off their best performance, effectively neutralizing a hounding Huskies front seven, and they look to take on one of the smaller groups in the PAC-12. As long as they pick up the inevitable A-gap blitzes from Scooby, Sefo should be kept clean and the run game should be rolling.
UA's Oline vs. CU's Dline - Advantage: Slightly UA. This unit has done very well so far, leading a potent rushing attack and keeping Solomon relatively clean. The Buffs' defensive line has improved dramatically since the beginning of the year, but they still aren't quite there, and their inexperience with the read option might be deadly here. For now, the strong and experienced edges of Arizona's defense make them the winners in this matchup.
CU's QB vs. UA's DB's - Advantage: Push. Sefo Liufau has been an enigma. He is good for 5 or 6 horrible, just awful, plays in a game, but by and large he does a great job running the offense. Given recent comments by Coach Mac regarding Sefo and the reads he has to do at the line of scrimmage, I'm willing to extend the learning curve a bit more. This secondary will pounce on mistakes, but also give up some big plays. Sefo should have another great stat line after this one.
UA's QB vs. CU's DB's - Advantage: UA. Anu Solomon should do very well against this secondary, especially with how many resources CU will have to use stopping the run. With Tedric Thompson and Terrel Smith both still likely out, it does not look pretty for the coverage unit in this game.
CU's Skill Players (WR, TE, RB) vs. UA's Back 7 (LB's and DB's) - Advantage: Push. This position group is the strongest it's been for Colorado this season, with Nelson Spruce and Shay Fields still doing work and the RB committee picking up some slack. The only problem is, Arizona's back 7 has serious talent. Led by Scooby Wright, they should do just enough to stop the Buffs from consistently winning the one-on-one matchups.
UA's Skill Players vs. CU's Back 7 - Advantage: UA. While the main two wide receivers should struggle against Kenneth Crawley and Greg Henderson, their potent secondary weapons should do just fine against an injury-riddled secondary. As far as running backs go, if they get into the second level, oh boy. Kenneth Olugbode is steadily improving, and Brady Daigh is good at stopping runs at the line of scrimmage, but they should still be child's play for Jones-Grigsby and freshly healthy Wilson.
Special Teams - Advantage: Push. Without Lindsay's fumble and the disaster that was the punt return for a touchdown, this was actually a very good special teams game for CU. LIndsay consistently ran it back to the 30 and coverage was pretty great when there. The problem was the splash plays, as it always with this team. I expect another solid effort against a solid but unspectacular unit.
The Buffs have not been a road team in recent years, and have also not been an Arizona team in recent years. This is a bad sign for this game. Coming off a game they SHOULD have one, not could have one (big difference), they will play angry, and play hard, but ultimately I believe this shootout lies in Arizona's favor. Solomon and company should run over CU, and when that doesn't work, Rich Rod can always string together a passing drive. Another disappointing loss in a disappointing season. I will say this one goes 42-30 in Arizona's favor, unfortunately. Another win as far as margins, stats, and the eye-test goes, but a loss in the only column that matters; what else is new with this team?