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Colorado Buffaloes vs. Utah Utes: Day after thoughts

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Three takeaways from the Pac-12 South clinching win over Utah.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

"Eureka!" No, not the company that produces high quality vacuum cleaners but rather the expression derived from the Greek mathematician Archimedes meaning "I have found it!". An exclamation that accompanies some sort of discovery, like when James W. Marshall struck gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 leading to the California Gold Rush.

The Colorado football program struck gold when they hired defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt. In just his second season in Boulder, the 59-year old former South Florida head coach has turned the Buffs defense into one of the best in the nation. Leavitt's defense shined in the Buffs 27-22 win over rival Utah on senior night, and now the team picked to finish last in their division are Pac-12 South Champions and trekking to Santa Clara, California to play for the conference championship.

MOST VALUABLE BUFF: DEFENSIVE UNIT

It's difficult to signal out an individual in the Buffs (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) win over Utah, so the entire defensive unit earns this week's honors. Four times the Utes offense reached the red zone, only to be turned away with a mere nine points.

"I didn't have to tell them anything when they got down there," said Jim Leavitt following the game. "We talk about those situations. We practice them during the week. We have leaders who know how to react when those things happen. They know how to respond. That's what they did tonight." Last season the Buffs allowed a field goal or touchdown on 87 percent of opponents red zone possessions. Through 12 games this season, the Buffs have allowed the fourth-lowest rate of red zone scoring (69.4 pct.) behind only Vanderbilt, Michigan and Florida.

Colorado's defense also shut down Utah's top two playmakers on Saturday. In the five contests prior to Saturday's tilt in Boulder, Utes running back Joe Williams averaged over 200 rush yards per game. Williams managed just 97 rush yards on 26 carries versus a stout Colorado front seven.

Tedric Thompson (2 INT, 4 pass breakups vs Utah) and the Buffs secondary did their part as well, knocking down 10 Troy Williams passes and intercepting the junior quarterback twice. In doing so, Colorado has forced a turnover in 25 straight games, the longest such streak in the nation.

MOMENT OF THE GAME: CHIDOBE AWUZIE'S EFFORT & KENNETH OLUGBODE'S TOUCHDOWN

Momentum can change in an instant in College Football. Just as soon as the Buffs took a 7-point lead on Sefo Liufau's 6-yard touchdown pass to Shay Fields on the final play of the 3rd quarter, they almost gave it right back.

On the first play of the 4th quarter, Utah's Kyle Fulks - arguably one of the fastest players in the Pac-12 -€” received Chris Graham's kickoff at his 4-yard line, broke through the Buffs' coverage and raced up field. It looked like a sure-fire touchdown for the Utes, but Chidobe Awuzie chased him down and knocked Fulks out at the 3-yard line.

"I was thinking he was the fastest guy on the planet," Awuzie said. "Usually people don't outrun me like that, but he had some get-up. I was just lucky enough to chase him down and make a tackle." Three plays later, the Utes opted to kick a field goal, the Buffs holding onto a 20-16 lead.

Later in the 4th quarter, with Colorado clinging to that 4-point lead, another senior from San Jose, California stepped up big for the Buffs. Beginning a drive from their own 13-yard line, Joe Williams was bottled up on a run, the ball stripped by Rick Gamboa and returned for a touchdown by Kenneth Olugbode.

"Before the play even started, Rick was talking about 13 yards, that's not too far to get a touchdown," Olugbode said. "He stripped it and I just ran it in. We're always on the same page. It's just the way our defense works." That play resulted in a 27-16 lead for the Buffs which they would not relinquish.

NEED FOR IMPROVEMENT: CAPITALIZE ON TOUCHDOWN OPPORTUNITIES

While Colorado's defense shut down Utah's red zone offense, the Buffs offense missed on a couple of touchdown opportunities from inside the 20-yard line. Early in the 2nd quarter, with the game tied at 7 and the Buffs facing a 3rd and goal from the Utah 7-yard line, Liufau threw a pass behind an open Devin Ross on a slant route which should have been a touchdown. Instead the Buffs settled for a 25-yard Chris Graham field goal to take a 10-7 lead.

Later that quarter, the Buffs defense stopped Joe Williams on a crucial 4th and 1 forcing a turnover on downs at the Utah 34-yard line. Five plays later, the Buffs were faced with a 3rd and goal from the Utah 2-yard line. Liufau (the 2016 Buffalo Heart Award recipient, given to the senior that best demonstrated the determination, toughness and spirit of a Buffalo throughout his career) stunned the Utes defense on a beautiful play-action fake and then threw across field to a wide-open George Frazier in end zone, who dropped the pigskin like it was an egg. The Buffs would settle for another Graham field goal.

It's touchdown opportunities like these which the Buffs must capitalize on if they expect to accomplish their goal of becoming Pac-12 Champions.

NEXT UP: PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME - DECEMBER 2 at (5) WASHINGTON (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12), 7:00pm MT, FOX

With the win over Utah, the Buffs became the 5th different team in the last 5 years to win the South Division title and now face (5) Washington in Santa Clara, California Friday for the Pac-12 Championship. The Huskies are coming off a dominating 45-17 win over Washington State to keep the Apple Cup in Seattle. Led by quarterback Jake Browning (3,162 pass yards, 40 TD) and running back Myles Gaskin, (1,180 rush yards, 10 TD) Washington has one of the most balanced offenses in college football.

Despite the Huskies strength on offense, I expect Jim Leavitt's defense to keep the Buffs in this game. However, if the Buffs want to find gold by winning the Pac-12 Championship, Sefo Liufau and company can't turn the ball over and must take advantage of touchdown opportunities. That will be no easy task against a Washington defense that's ranked 17th in the nation.