Oregon State comes into Boulder sitting at 3-1, having recently suffered an offensive shutdown at the hands of the USC Trojans in Los Angeles. Colorado returns home still stinging from their double-overtime loss to Cal in Berkeley. Which side can rebound to win this game and how will it happen? James Crabtree-Hannigan and myself sat down to hash it out.
PG: Oregon State's offense took care of business in their nonconference schedule and then ran into a bit of a defensive buzz saw last weekend in Los Angeles. How would you rate their performance thus far this season? What have been the relative strengths and weaknesses of Sean Mannion's crew?
JC-H: The offense, for the most part, has been adequate. As you mentioned, they obviously hit quite a road bump last week, and it's hard to tell what was caused by USC and what blame is placed on the offense. In terms of on the field play, the only problems have been pass protection and, due to a couple injuries, receivers getting open. Mannion didn't play well against the Trojans, but the aforementioned problems had something to do with that.
The biggest problem for the Beaver offense is Mike Riley. He seems to have lost the ability, or maybe desire, to call a balanced offense. Last year the ground game was ineffective, but that's not even close to the case in 2014. Against Portland State it was an unwillingness to run in the red zone. Against USC, an unwillingness to run at all, despite running backs Terron Ward and Storm woods averaging 5.6 yards/carry.
Colorado lost a wild game against Cal last week. What went right--and wrong--for the Buffs in Berkeley, and how much of that do you think carries over to this week?
PG: The Buffs seem to be right on the precipice of putting a complete game together but it hasn't happened yet. For all of the amazing plays Sefo Liufau and the offense made, the defense gave up just as many to the Bears. But despite the defense's inability to get a stop in the second half, the Buffs were still only 2 or 3 offensive plays away from escaping Berkeley with a win.
As far as what worked well for the Buffaloes, Nelson Spruce and Sefo Liufau worked very, very well. (Spruce for Biletnikoff 2014: Vote Early, Vote Often) Going forward, this offense is going to air it out and ask questions later. Cal's defense certainly doesn't rank anywhere near the top half of the conference but to put up nearly 450 yards and 8 touchdowns through the air on anyone is impressive. What's not working so well for this unit is the running game. Each tailback has shown flashes but the Buffs have yet to establish a consistent attack on the ground. This, and unoriginal playcalling, have caused Colorado to really struggle in short yardage and goal-to-go situations. Coming up short on four attempts at the goal line is inexcusable and in order to be in a position to beat better teams like OSU the Buffs will need to find a way to more consistently gain those difficult yards.
Oregon State presents significantly tougher defensive test and I don't expect Liufau to replicate last week's numbers. However, I do think the Buffs will be able to continue relying on the pass to work the ball down field. Spruce will likely get his requisite quota of 2 touchdowns and the rest of the receiving corps will do their jobs, the question is how well can the Buffs run the ball and how much will that matter?
The Beavers' defense has been somewhat of an unsung strength this season. Who are the difference makers on that side of the ball and how well can they defend the pass?
JC-H: The thing about the defense so far this year, is that there isn't one area that really jumps out at you. Every position group does their job, does it quite well, and when it's all put together it turns into an impressive defense. The linebackers are experienced, the secondary sticks to receivers, and the line can get after the passer and plug up holes in the run game.
Unfortunately, the defensive line took a beating against USC, with Noke Tago suffering a season-ending knee injury and Jalen Grimble being forced to miss 3-4 weeks and have surgery on his knee. The Beavers are deep at defensive tackle, but of course it still hurts to lose two of the most productive contributors at any position. Still, neither of them were world-beaters so their absence will be felt more in exhaustion due to a new rotation than a sudden lack of play-making ability.
As far as difference makers, Obum Gwacham has turned into a force in the pass rush game since his position switch from wide receiver to defensive end. You'll see him on obvious passing downs and he's becoming more and more accountable to pick up a sack in every game. Michael Doctor is a 6th-year senior who starts at linebacker and really does it all for the Beavers. He'll fly around the field and is a big part of swarming ballcarriers.
The pass hasn't hurt the Beavers much at all this season. Again, they haven't used a magic bullet or anything, it's really just quite simple. There aren't many (if any) huge holes in the defense, and that leads to quarterbacks without many windows to find, or time to find them. Cornerback Steven Nelson will likely be assigned to lock down Nelson Spruce, and I expect them to pretty much neutralize each other. Shay Fields' matchup, however, will be a bit more vulnerable, and so expect some more safety help to his side of the field, while Nelson is left on a bit of an island. I don't expect the Buffs to cross 300 yards passing against Oregon State.
Obviously, giving up 56 points isn't a sign of a great defense. What's been beating the Buffs' defense, and how well will that line up with what the Beavers want to do on offense?
PG: The issues on the defensive side of the ball stem largely from youth, inexperience and having to continue to overcome a bit of a talent disparity. The Buffs are just beginning to reload after a decimating three seasons prior to Mac's arrival. Kent Baer is a proven defensive coordinator but his players are just now starting to understand and execute his 4-3 base system.
The defensive line has been the weak link this season and that has spelled doom in each of Colorado's three losses. The Buffaloes have played 8 or 9 guys along the line trying to find a combination that can produce pressure and only two of those players are upperclassmen. Juda Parker and Josh Tupou anchor the interior and have played well in spots, stifling Hawaii and forcing pressure on UMass and ASU in the second halves of those games, but they haven't consistently been able to plug holes and disrupt protection. Derek McCartney, a redshirt freshman, has shown flashes of being a menacing presence on the left end but he's not quite there yet. The Buffs are giving up over 170 yards of rushing per game, too many, and that begins up front. Storm Woods and Terron Ward could be in for a big day.
The secondary on the other hand has been the strength of this unit. Greg Henderson is as close to a shut down corner as CU has and his counterpart on the other side, Kenneth Crawley is starting to live up to his recruiting hype. He's a strong, physical defender who excels at making plays in space. At safety, Tedric Thompson has emerged as the main playmaker on this defense. He and John Walker, who slots in at nickelback, will be roaming the middle of the field providing run support and covering the deep routes. It will take a stellar game out of this crew to slow down the Beavers' offense, which I don't expect to lay dormant much longer.
So, how do you see this one playing out?
JC-H: The Buffs will keep it close in the first half, might even have it tied going into halftime. But I see the the Colorado defense wearing down and the Beavers taking the win in the 2nd half. Mike Riley will see the light and commit to running the ball in the 2nd half, and the Beavers win it, let's go with 31-16. The Beaver defense locks down in the 2nd half as they did against SDSU, and in the end they beat an inferior Buffs team.
That said, if receivers are still injured, and the Beavers consistently try to force the passing game, the Buffs could stick around and end up pulling the upset in Boulder.
How do you see this game shaking out?
PG: I think it stays close in the first half as well. CU's offense will likely find a few big plays through the air while Oregon State will be able to run the ball well, allowing Sean Mannion to regain his form. The Beavers have far more experience on both sides of the ball and I think that pays off for them down the stretch. I think Colorado's defense gives up one too many long drives to Mannion, Woods and Co. while the Buffalo offense is frustrated by a smart, seasoned defense. The most likely scenario sees the Buffs coming up a score or two short at the final whistle.
However, there are more than a few plausible ways for the Buffs to pull off the upset but they'll have to play the complete game that, thus far, they have only talked about. Sefo Liufau and his team have demonstrated that they do have some fight. If the game is close in the 4th quarter, I wouldn't at all be surprised if they find a way to rally and claim this one.