The Colorado Buffaloes travel to the Los Angeles Coliseum this Saturday to take on the Trojans of Southern California as 19 ½ point underdogs. In years past, this game would automatically be a no-hoper, the kind of game where I'd just be happy if the Buffs didn't get blown out by more than 28 points. But this year, after two consecutive close calls and obvious and measurable improvement on both sides of the ball, it feels like the time for CU to claim a breakthrough victory is drawing near. If it's to be this weekend, Colorado would do well to follow my 5-step plan on how to pull off a major road upset.
Step 1: Come Out Swinging
When entering a large, hostile environment you need to have your mind right when you're boarding the plane the day before. The attitude that the team will take the field with has already been established during the week and it begins to manifest itself the minute the road trip starts. So hopefully the Buffs are of the mindset that they're flying to Los Angeles to do one thing and one thing only; win a football game. They can't be overwhelmed by the enormity of the stadium or the fact that it's a ranked USC team they'll be facing. From all that's been said, and from their play over the past three games, I think Mike MacIntyre has begun to instill that kind of belief and confidence in the locker room.
Immediately after kickoff, whether they get the ball first or the defense takes the field, it is imperative that they land the first punch. The Buffs got run out of the stadium two years ago and they need to immediately show that they believe they now belong. A defensive stop, however it comes, would make that statement and a sustained drive ending in points of any kind would also say "Hey, we can actually play football now and we think we can beat you." From a football standpoint, the Buffaloes cannot afford to be playing catch up right off the bat. Getting the right foot forward straight from the gun gets you started up the path on Road Upset Mountain.
Step 2: Withstand the Counterpunch(es)
No team worth it's salt takes a punch lying down at home and a team like USC will absolutely strike back harder. This comes down to matching and bettering the other side's effort and energy. Let's face it, the Trojans are going to score. But, the Buffs need to make them work for it, make it a struggle and disrupt any rhythm they try to establish. Buck Allen is going to come out of the gates hard and fast and you can bet that Cody Kessler will be targeting his weapons Juju Smith and Nelson Agholor more this week than in previous weeks. CU should be ready for that. The Colorado linebackers and defensive backs will need to stay aggressive and play with confidence. They can't afford to hesitate on Saturday. On offense, Sefo Liufau and his receivers need to continue doing what they do best and answer any points that USC puts on the board. If the Buffs can hold the Trojans to a field goal once or twice and then match or better those scores while possessing the ball, they'll enter the second frame in great position to move steadily farther up the trail. At the least they need to limit any damage and stay within two scores in the 2nd quarter.
Step 3: Go Into and Come Out Of Halftime Strong
Many a game has been lost in the moments leading up to and immediately following the halftime break. Just last weekend Oregon ran away from UCLA in the opening minutes of the 3rd quarter, even after UCLA received the ball to start the 2nd half. Before you knew it, the game was out of reach when just minutes ago it had been very much in doubt. CU has to come out of halftime sharp and ready to prevent the Trojans from hitting the accelerator. This is an area that we've seen Colorado falter in all too often over the past few seasons and it's again an issue this year as the Buffs have been outscored 61-31 in 3rd quarters through their first six games. That's going to need to change.
Again, a quick stop by the defense or a sustained drive from the offense will settle the half down and give the Buffs a chance to catch their breath and play at their pace. Maybe the two squads trade punts for a few possessions, that's fine. As long as the Buffs stay within a score or two through the 3rd quarter, that's a victory in and of itself. The effort to get to this point must be sustained, things can slip away all too fast in the penultimate frame as the Buffs have shown over the years. Should they manage to hang in there and enter the 4th within 10 points, we'll have reached Anything Can Happen territory, where the final base camp is made before attempting the summit.
Step 4: Create and Receive Ridiculous Breaks
Turnovers usually play a large role in deciding any game but they take on magnified importance when playing a ranked team on the road. A CU turnover or two and their chances are probably nullified. A USC fumble, or interception, or both and the Buffs suddenly have an edge. A late fumble sealed Oregon's fate when Arizona took them down two weeks ago and Arizona caught a few other interesting breaks throughout that game. I hate to have to mention this but it's essentially a guarantee that the #Pac12refs will insert themselves into the game somehow and your only recourse is to pray to whichever God you worship that their anarchistic whims will benefit your team, or at the very least even it out when it's all said and done. I shiver just thinking about the possible chaos.
The Buffs are a serious underdog for a reason and they probably will not be able to sustain their highest level of play for an entire 60 minutes of game action. They will need lucky bounces, missed USC field goals, a special teams play, or opportune turnovers to even out the scales and then possibly tip them in their favor. The later these things happen, the better. They become exponentially more important and CU will certainly need all the breaks it can get as it prepares for the final push over the treacherous top of the mountain.
Step 5: Finish It
Finishing it is not something the Buffs have been able to do against quality opposition. Against Colorado State, they started fast but faltered just before the half and were subsequently run over in the second half. In Berkeley, the Buffs jumped out to a 14-point lead and went into halftime up by the same margin but then the second half started and Cal went on a 3rd quarter run to even the game. (These steps aren't just for road upsets I suppose, they're important for winning any football game played anywhere.) Facing a deficit against Oregon State, the Buffs rallied and brought it close but fell behind again in the 3rd and early 4th quarters. They were in a fantastic position to win that game on the final drive but stumbled once again letting victory slip through their hands. This team does not yet know how to win a tough, close game. They're right there, camped just below the summit, it's even in view from time to time when the clouds break. But they haven't broached it yet.
On Saturday, if the Buffs are in a position to tie or win the game with under 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter, we'll see what this team is (and was) capable of in 2014. Talking about it is important, but at some point they're going to have to go out there and do it. There's no better time than now. USC is relatively down by their standards, they have weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball and their offense is not nearly as explosive as it could and should be. (Buck Allen excluded, he's good.) CU's offense is playing with rhythm and confidence and should be able to move the ball effectively through the air. The Buffaloes will have to find some way, any way, to cling to the cliff and hoist themselves up over the precipice to finally claim that signature Pac-12 victory. It may not be this Saturday, but it's coming. Hopefully sooner, rather than later.