Gary Andersen, in year one as head coach at OSU, is looking for his first Pac-12 win and a performance that his young team can build off of. Mike MacIntyre, in his third year as head man in Boulder, is looking for his first Pac-12 road victory, and just his second conference win overall, as the Buffs arrive in Corvallis aboard whatever the opposite of a hype train is.
To this point, both sides have been beaten up on defense and have struggled to move and score the ball at crucial junctures. Colorado is the more experienced team, and has played their Pac-12 competition tighter. Oregon State possesses talent on offense, but is still trying to find the right combinations on defense. In the grand scheme of things, the Buffaloes need this win far more, will they play like it? Here's how the two programs match up.
When Oregon State has the ball
The majority of the Beavers' offensive production comes from the trio of freshman quarterback Seth Collins, senior tailback Storm Barrs-Woods (who is one of those guys that it seems has been at OSU forever) and sophomore receiver Jordan Villamin. While Villamin and fellow wideouts Victor Bolden and Hunter Jarmon pose legitimate threats, this offense has shifted the emphasis to running the ball under Andersen and offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin (of Jim McElwain-era Colorado State fame.)
OSU possesses a fairly experienced line led by senior center Josh Mitchell and junior left tackle Sean Harlow who've helped the Beavers to average 187 yards rushing per game on 4.5 yards per carry earning 8 scores. Those numbers may not be eye-popping, but compared to Oregon State's very pedestrian passing numbers (145 yards per game and 6 touchdowns) the shift in emphasis and ability is clear.
Even more telling, of the Beavers' 104 plays that have earned first downs 57 have come via the rush. Compare that to last year, when only 78 of 216 OSU first downs were won on the ground and it's apparent that Colorado's primary concern on defense this go-around will be the legs of Collins and Woods.
As we've seen over the past three weeks, for all of the improvement under Jim Leavitt, CU's defense remains very susceptible to mobile quarterbacks. That weakness played a significant role in the Buffaloes' defeats at the hands (and legs) of Oregon and Arizona. Fortunately for Colorado, Leavitt and his unit will receive a huge boost to their efforts to contain the Beavers' ground attack this weekend as senior linebacker Kenneth Olugbode returns to action after suffering a leg injury midway through the loss to the Ducks.
While Collins is still very young, he's shown flashes of greatness and true potential. To this point he's amassed 486 yards rushing on 90 attempts, good for a 5.4 yards per carry average with a long of 42 and 5 scores. The Buffalo linebacking corps will have to show better against this threat. Freshmen Rick Gamboa and Grant Watanabe will again see a fair amount of action and will have to put themselves in better positions to make tackles.
If Colorado can limit OSU through the air, and all signs indicate that they should be able to as the Buffs are allowing just 219 yards through the air per game, Collins and his running backs will be forced to make things happen on the ground. This game could very well be decided by how well OSU is able to attack Colorado's defensive front, watch for the effectiveness of CU's pressure and the play of the Buffalo linebackers.
When Colorado has the ball
This week, there will be no excuse for the Colorado offense to fail to score and move the ball late in the game. We'll know precisely what we have in this unit when it's all said and done in Corvallis on Saturday night. Oregon State's young, revolving-door defense was severely tested in its first three Pac-12 matchups, getting shredded by Stanford, Arizona and most recently Washington State. While the Buffs' attack is not on the level of those units, there are signs that offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren's group should be able to move the ball effectively on the Beaver defense.
As has been mentioned in previous weeks, it will be critical that Colorado gain ground running the ball. Per Brian Howell of the Boulder Daily Camera, the Buffs are 29 of 45 on 3rd down when needing 4 yards or less and 17 of 71 when needing 5 yards or more. This is a general football truism but it's especially relevant for the Buffs; they have to give themselves manageable 2nd and 3rd downs. This offense has shown that they are not capable of overcoming huge losses early in the series and working behind schedule.
The offensive line appears to have stabilized for the time being, with Stephane Nembot playing on the left side for the majority of the game against Arizona and Sam Kronshage seeing a full 87 snaps of action at right tackle. This line has been far more successful in blocking for the run than in pass protection to this point, although they were able to keep Sefo Liufau on his feet until late in the game last week. A healthy dose of Phillip Lindsay (who is now averaging 4.76 yards per attempt) will again be required, and I'd expect to see some more of Patrick Carr who has the speed to potentially break a big run.
Colorado's protection schemes will become more important if Oregon State's senior difference-maker Jalen Grimble is able to go on Saturday evening. Grimble has been practicing this week after sitting out the previous two games with a knee injury and poses a viable threat that must be accounted for at all times along the defensive line. If he's feeling fully healthy, he can also help make up for the fact that the Beavers are still breaking in three new starting linebackers, consisting of juniors Rommel Mageo and Caleb Saulo and sophomore Manase Hungalu. That linebacking corps has had a rough go of it on the ground thus far, as the Beavers are allowing an average of 198.5 yards rushing per game but they have played opportunistically, accounting for 6 of the 7 turnovers that OSU has forced this season.
Oregon State could also be vulnerable through the air, and if the Liufau of the Arizona first half shows up on Saturday the Buffs could put the Beavers in a hole early. Sefo looked the best he has in 2015, making confident throws, staying in the pocket, and leading the offense to three touchdowns by the opening minutes of the 3rd quarter. The loss of Shay Fields to a high ankle sprain hurts, but it represents an opportunity for Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo, both guys have the capability to step up and make explosive plays.
The Oregon State secondary is young and in flux. It looks as though senior cornerback Larry Scott will miss this game with a sprained ankle, a critical loss for OSU. Redshirt freshman Dwayne Williams is likely to start in his place after seeing his first extensive action last weekend against Washington State's pirate-raid. Backing him up on the outside is Kendall Hill, a junior who saw action against the Cougars as well. The Beavers will also likely go with sophomores Brandon Arnold and Justin Strong at safety for this one while Treston Decoud starts on the left side at corner and Cyril Noland-Lewis gets looks as the nickelback. Building the Dam has a more thorough breakdown of the secondary's travails posted here.
While it will be important to get the offense into a rhythm early, it will be even more critical to sustain that momentum into and through the 4th quarter. The Buffs broke down in the second half against both the Ducks and the Wildcats, going 5 straight possessions without a score last weekend allowing for Arizona to storm back and claim the game. The late stalls have proven fatal, and in order to notch a Pac-12 road win CU will have to, for once, put a consistent offensive effort together across all four quarters.
For the Buffs, the emphasis for much of the season has been on starting fast. Now, that must fully shift to finishing strong. If Colorado is unable to finish yet again this weekend, they will likely not get a better chance at a conference victory until 2016. A lot may be at stake this weekend, and as I say every single week, it's high time the Buffaloes (Golden once again this Saturday) finally locked down a Pac-12 victory.