Coming into the 2016 season, nobody outside the state of Colorado, or the city of Boulder for that matter, expected the Buffaloes to be sitting alone atop the Pac-12 South leaderboard with just three games left to play. In fact, the Pac-12 preseason media poll insisted that Colorado would finish last in the South, and No. 11 of the 12 conference members — ahead of only Oregon State.
With last week's 20-10 win over UCLA, the Buffs (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) moved up to No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings and clinched their first winning season since 2005. The game, while ugly, demonstrated what has essentially been the theme for this Colorado team all year: close out tight games, especially on defense.
For a team that was averaging 39 points per contest before combining for 30 in their last two games; putting points on the board was not the problem. This has been the case during each of the first three seasons under head coach Mike Macintyre, who's offense has averaged 26.1 point per game during that time.
What's cost the Buffaloes in recent years, however, has been the defense. Coming into 2016, the Buffs allowed 34.7 points and 447.8 total yards per game during those three campaigns, carrying a record of 10-27 (2-23 Pac-12).
In 2015, Colorado ranked No. 105 in the nation in total defense, surrendering 27.5 points and 417 total yards per game. Against the pass, the Buffs were slightly better at No. 78 in the nation, allowing 218 yards per game through the air and a completion percentage of 57.2 with 6.5 yards per completion on the year. Their 14 interceptions proved good enough for a spot in the top 30, but the Buffs were still allowing two passing touchdowns per outing during the 2015 season, in which they finished 4-8 with just one conference win.
Nine games into the 2016 season and Colorado boasts the No. 9 defense in the country — No.1 in Pac-12 — holding opponents to 297 total yards per game and the 17.2 points allowed per contest ranks No. 12 in the nation — No. 2 in The conference, trailing only Washington (17.0). The success can be largely credited to the Buffaloes' secondary, led by All-Conference cornerback, Chidobe Awuzie, and standout safety, Tedric Thompson, that ranks amongst the top 10 in yards per game (No. 10 / 178.7), completion percentage (No. 8 / 51.2), and yards per completion (No.3 / 5.5). They are top 20 in interceptions (No.12 / 12) and passing touchdowns (No. 18 / 9).
The difference maker for this Colorado secondary has been the emergence of lockdown cornerback, Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon, a senior, has played in 18 games for the Buffs after transferring from Sacramento City College in 2014. Coming off of a quality performance last year, Witherspoon has elevated his game in 2016. With teams doing their best to avoid throwing at Awuzie, Witherspoon has seen the majority of pass attempts thus far, where he leads the conference in passes defended. He recorded at least one pass breakup in each of the team's first eight games, and was one of two players in the country to do so through the end of October. His lone interception, a game-saving takeaway in the end zone that sealed a 41-38 win over Oregon in Eugene, was arguably the most crucial play of the year for the Buffs.
Defense has been a major factor thus far, especially during the past two games where the Buffaloes haven't been able to find their stride on offense.
In the 10-5 win over Stanford in Palo Alto, the Buffaloes' secondary held quarterback Ryan Burns to 16 completions on 29 attempts for 170 yards. The Buffs finished with a season-high three interceptions, two of which came from Thompson, who also recorded 12 tackles during the game and was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. His two interceptions gave him 10 for his career, becoming the 13th player in program history to reach the mark.
Against UCLA, the defense was nearly identical, allowing 15 completions on 29 attempts for 185 yards and forcing an interception. The interception extended Colorado's nation-leading defensive takeaway streak to 22 consecutive games. In a game that saw four Colorado turnovers, UCLA was held to a season-low 10 points. Awuzie, the No. 11 cornerback in the country according to NFL.com, recorded a sack and a blocked field goal on a chip shot from the 26-yard line.
The Buffs go on the road to take on Arizona on Saturday night before finishing the regular season at home with a grueling two-game stretch vs. No.23 Washington State and No.25 Utah as they look to clinch the South Division and claim the program's first Pac-12 championship since joining the league in 2011.