Even amid the injuries that Colorado has sustained to this point, the Buffaloes know that the list of excuses for their mistake-prone performances is growing short.
The importance of this year's homecoming game against the Arizona Wildcats was illustrated on Sunday afternoon after the team had returned from Tempe when sophomore tailback Phillip Lindsay organized a players-only meeting. On the outside, it would appear that the Buffs have reached a breaking point of sorts. At the moment, these next two contests appear to be the most winnable remaining on the schedule, and it's now or never for these players' stated goal of reaching a bowl game.
Hanging over those players' heads is a 13-game skid against conference opponents. In order to bring that dismal run to an end some things will need to change on both sides of the ball. Here are the three most critical facets the Buffs must improve in if they want to take down the Wildcats for the second time as Pac-12 foes.
This season, stopping Pac-12 offenses on the ground has been a tall task for even the most experienced and skilled defense. For the Buffs, the opposing team's dominance up front and an abundance of fast, highly-skilled ball carriers have contributed to their undoing on the field more than any other factor. On Saturday, CU will again face a highly potent rushing attack.
Arizona's rushing offense currently ranks 7th in the nation, as the 'Cats are amassing nearly 300 yards per game on the ground and averaging 6.5 yards per rush. Sophomore Nick Wilson is the feature back, and one of the most explosive in the country. Through six games he's averaging 5.9 yards per carry and has racked up 8 scores. As if Wilson weren't enough to scheme for on his own, head coach Rich Rodriguez possesses two other dynamic options in the backfield. Both Jared Baker and Orlando Bradford put together impressive performances in last week's 44-7 drubbing of the Oregon State Beavers, with the former rushing for 123 yards and the latter notching three touchdowns.
It will be an extensive undertaking for the young and thin Colorado linebacking corps to try and slow down that three-pronged attack out of the backfield in addition to contending with dual-threat quarterback Anu Solomon, who returned to action from a concussion last weekend. The Buffs will again be without the services of starting linebackers Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode, and have now lost capable replacement Ryan Severson to a high ankle sprain. Rick Gamboa will start in Gillam's place once again, he's quick over short distances and has shown solid instincts, but this situation now leaves two true freshmen and a sophomore converted from defensive end to fill the remaining void.
N.J. Falo has talent and athleticism enough to put himself in good positions and possesses a lot of potential, he saw action in the win over UMass and will likely get the start on Saturday night. Backing him up will be Christian Shaver, who saw extensive time last season but has not seen the field much in 2015. Waiting in the wings is grayshirt freshman Grant Watanabe, whose redshirt is definitely being pulled this weekend according to head coach Mike MacIntyre. His play will be one of the most intriguing factors and the performance of this group as a whole will go a long way towards determining the result. As promising as this crew appears to be going forward, I expect Chidobe Awuzie and Tedric Thompson to again be called upon often in run support this week.
This represents another area where injuries have forced the Buffs into an uncomfortable position. With left tackle Sam Kronshage out with a concussion last week against ASU (who was himself filling in for Jeromy Irwin who is out for the year) redshirt freshman John Lisella was given his first start on the right side as Stephane Nembot slid over to the left. Predictably, facing one of the nation's premiere pass rushes, things did not go well. Shane Callahan was inserted later in the game and the Colorado line was able to find some semblance of stability. Kronshage is available this week but if he is still limited I expect the offensive staff to go with Callahan on the right side for the majority of the game. The line, however it's constructed, will have to do a much better job of picking up blitzes and executing blocks on Saturday night.
Now, my thoughts on Sefo Liufau remaining in the Arizona State game late after, to most observers, the result was no longer in doubt. MacIntyre's reasoning is understandable. This team does not and cannot quit, they have to fight until the last whistle, and removing Sefo would, on some level, signal defeat because it's clear that this staff believes that he gives them their best shot at victory. (Because he does.) For a team still learning to win and whose psyche is still relatively fragile, only three years removed from games they routinely gave up on, this never-say-die maneuver likely counts for something.
But, from pretty much the moment he took the field as a Colorado quarterback, back on that same turf in Tempe two years ago, Sefo has been absorbing hard hit after hard hit after hard hit. That's the game of football as presently constructed, but it was tough to watch happen to the young QB in 2013, and it's even tougher to watch happen more frequently this season. Since the opener in Honolulu he's been bruised and dealing with pain throughout his body. Sefo makes no excuses, and most everyone who has watched him has acknowledged that he is one of the toughest to play the position collegiately, but there comes a point where the risk is greater than the slim reward, and the long odds. That point was late in the 4th quarter last Saturday night.
One large step this staff can take to help Sefo remain upright is to run the ball early and often, and put it in Phillip Lindsay's hands. Lindsay is currently averaging 5 yards per attempt and in the absence of Michael Adkins II has shown himself to be the primary playmaker out of the backfield. In the previous two games, Brian Lindgren and his offense have come out attempting to sling the ball. The first three plays against Oregon were all passes and the first nine against Arizona State were attempted through the air. Coincidentally, both sequences featured a Colorado interception that put the Buffs on the back foot early.
Just as it was last week, it's crucial that the Buffaloes get off to a fast start, something they rarely ever accomplish. It's going to be very difficult to play from behind against an Arizona team that runs the ball exceptionally well and possesses explosiveness on the outside. It will likely settle this offense down, and give the offensive line some much-needed confidence and rhythm, if they come out running the ball and are able to move it on a depleted Wildcat linebacking corps. From there, they can go to the play-action and utilize more read looks. This will also take pressure off of Sefo, who in addition to playing hurt has also been playing noticeably tight at times this year.
The Arizona defense plays opportunistically and can still be stingy, as evidenced in last week's thumping of OSU. Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 defense presents unusual looks and, even with Scooby Wright and Derrick Turituri likely out for this one, has the athletes to execute. The Wildcats will often present a three middle linebacker look, consisting of Jake Matthews, DeAndre' Miller, and Paul Magloire, to combat the Buffaloes' attempts to advance on the ground. They had a lot of success with this package against Oregon State, holding the Beavers to just 98 yards rushing. I'd like to think that Colorado's offense is far more potent than OSU's so this matchup is another that will play a large role in deciding the result.
When looking at the schedule before the season had started, this game, on paper, appeared to be the most winnable. It still is, but for entirely different reasons than expected. Colorado hasn't elevated its play to the level many thought they were capable of and the Wildcats seem to have taken a step back from last year's Pac-12 South winning performance. Arizona, like all teams, has its flaws and they were exposed by Stanford and UCLA. The Buffaloes played the Wildcats close until late in the game in Tucson last year as well. This is a team they know they can match up with.
Defensively, I expect the 'Cats to get their yards. Identifying and dealing with Rich Rod's spread may prove too much to handle for the young Buffalo linebackers. The key will be getting stops in the red zone (Casey Skowron was forced to kick three field goals from within the 20 yard line last weekend) and limiting Arizona enough on the ground to leave the playbook open for their offense. Colorado should be able to move the ball on a Wildcat defense that's allowing 419 total yards per game. For the Silver Buffaloes, this one will come down to line play, protecting the ball, and finishing the drives that Arizona can't.
I'm hesitant to pick this way after last week's showing but this may just be the game in which the Buffs find their footing on offense and finally, for the first time since November 16, 2013, win a Pac-12 conference game.
(This piece originally ran on Pacific Takes)