Week three of the college football season is always interesting with most teams playing their last non-conference game and the real contenders starting to shine. Saturday, the Colorado Buffaloes (2-0, NR Pac-12) head to Ann Arbor looking to upset the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines (2-0, NR Big Ten). Almost 22 years ago, the Buffs were led by quarterback Kordell Stewart, who shocked the world leaving Michigan fans truly blue. The last-second hail mary pass remains one of the greatest plays in football history and lives up to its nickname as the "Miracle at Michigan."
Colorado could pull off another upset on Saturday and here's how it might happen.
1. Play mistake-free football
CU quarterback Sefo Liufau has worked hard in the off season, not only on strength and conditioning, but limiting the number of turnovers. He hasn't thrown a pick through the first two games and his career stats suggest the interception per attempt ratio is more controlled compared to his freshman season.
|Sefo Liufau (Career)
INT per pass attempt
|INT's inside both 20's
|INT's on own side
CU's passing game will be defined by Liufau's ability to control the clock and make smart decisions when the pocket breaks down. The Wolverines defense is one of the best in college football under new defensive coordinator Don Brown, who boasted the No. 1 defense in college football last year at Boston College. The secondary crew of cornerback Jourdan Lewis and safeties Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas will try to force Liufau into mistakes, especially with the emergence of Jabrill Peppers at linebacker. Colorado will need a solid outing from the offensive line and running backs to pick up blitzes from Michigan as a whole.
CU's defense could have a perfect combination against Michigan's offense and quarterback Wilton Speight. The Wolverines running game has struggled so far in the season, ranked 44th in the nation and averaging 212.5 yards per game. The offense overall is ranked 37th, averaging 267 passing yards per game. Michigan's offense could become one dimensional without a stable running game, leaving Colorado's secondary of Chidobe Auwzie, Tedric Thompson, Afolabi Laguda, Ryan Moeller and Ahkello Witherspoon to cause trouble for Speight. A steady push from the Buffs defensive front will allow one of the best secondary's in the Pac-12.
2. Hold the edge in film study
Players from both Colorado and Michigan have noted in post game interviews about the importance of film study in preparation for Saturday. The key match up for the Buffs will be on offense.
The Wolverines defense utilizes a "sight" technique by dropping a cornerback off his man and allowing the safety to work inside-out. One cornerback plays slightly away from his receiver, on the same side of the ball with a coverage safety. A linebacker crowds the opposite side of the line, forcing the quarterback to find an opening. This coverage is similar to a "red-dog" style and can disguise the outside linebackers in pass rushing situations, giving players like Peppers and Lewis an advantage.
Michigan uses this scheme often and the quickness of the defensive line can "bait" the quarterback into sacks. Colorado can be effective by either calling an audible for a faster wide receiver like Devin Ross or Shay Fields to position on the single coverage side of the field (out pacing a defender stride-for-stride), or running hurry-up counter plays often and keeping the defense scrambled on assignments.
The game plan for the Wolverines could change this week in preparation of the athleticism and speed of the Buffs receivers. If the Buffs offense comes out firing on all cylinders, it could force Michigan to abandon this for more one-on-one man coverage.
CU's running game could be successful with an offensive lineman pulling as a lead blocker towards the weak side of the defense. Michigan plays a sometimes over-aggressive style on defense and will have to account for Liufau's dual-threat abilities.
3. Apply pressure on Wilton Speight
Michigan's faces a top ten defense for the first time this season. Colorado is ranked 7th in total defense (161/ ypg avg.) and allows opponents an average of a touchdown per game. A high priority for the Buffs will be containing Wilton Speight, who was named the Big Ten offensive player of the week for his 312 yards passing and four touchdowns against UCF. How CU picks apart Michigan's offense starts with keeping Jake Butt in check and allowing the secondary to handle responsibilities against wide receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Since CU runs a 3-4 base, the approach for Speight's will be different from the defenses of Hawaii (4-3) and UCF (Multiple). Buffs linebackers Kenneth Olugbode, Derek McCartney, Rick Gamboa and Jimmie Gilbert are key factors for the defense being able to utilize multiple pass rushing options. CU mush stay aggressive towards Speight and shorten this game into a defensive battle.
4. Get in a flow on offense
CU's offense was consistent last week against FCS opponent Idaho State, scoring nearly at-will as they rolled to a 56-7 win. Let's see if the Buffs can carry that momentum against the toughest opponent on their schedule. So far this season, CU has scored on 16 of 28 (57.1 %) possessions with 13 touchdowns and 3 field goals. With two touchdowns each, Michigan's defense has scored the same amount of touchdowns it has allowed opponents and twelve times have held teams to 3 plays or less in a drive. The Buffs have to find a rhythm to disrupt UM's defense with consistent, long drives along with winning the time of possession fight.
5. Don't allow the "Harbaugh" factor to be intimidating
There's nothing special about Michigan's head coach Jim Harbaugh. Sure, he's a good personality for the media and is also a mentor and coach to his players. Although, there's nothing outstanding about him. He never won a national championship or Super Bowl as a player and still hasn't reached that peak as a coach. The over beaten persona of his recruiting techniques keeps people talking and he does everything he can to stay in the conversation. At the end of the day, Harbaugh is just another man who coaches football. Nothing more and nothing less.
One person for CU who could break Harbaugh's psyche-- defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who coached under him with the San Francisco 49ers until early 2015. Harbaugh was asked about the meeting with the Buffs and how he anticipated Leavitt's style of coaching and said that expects CU to be "aggressive" on defense.
Harbaugh has fond memories of growing up down the street from former CU coach Bill McCartney, who left Michigan in 1982 after coaching under the legendary Bo Schembechler. Harbaugh's father, Jack Harbaugh, was a defensive assistant at Michigan with McCartney and the two families grew up in the same area.
Jim Harbaugh grew up down the street from former Colorado coach Bill McCartney. "They always had the best cereal," he says.— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) September 12, 2016
No doubt the best thing about the match up between Colorado and Michigan is the history.
Both schools are intertwined together going back to the days of Schembechler, who was instrumental in McCartney's career. The longtime voice of the Buffs, Larry Zimmer, and McCartney attended the same fraternity at Missouri, Pi Kappa Alpha, separated by five years. That was the start of a lifelong friendship between the two, who both left Michigan and retired from their respective positions at CU.
The Buffs and Wolverines meet Saturday at Michigan Stadium with kickoff scheduled for 1:30 p.m. MT. TV: Big Ten Network, Radio: 850 AM KOA.