Looking at the schedule before the season began, this game represented the surest of the sure losses. As this season progressed, it continued to look even more likely that this matchup would be the one no-hoper on the slate. Although this Colorado team is light years removed from their 2011 and 2012 predecessors, those two 48-point Stanford whippings left their mark.
In 2015 the Buffs again match up poorly with the Cardinal. Though Colorado has improved across the board, they still have a large gulf to overcome up front in the trenches. Stanford's offensive and defensive lines control games as well as any two units in the nation, and they now possess a true game-breaker in Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey.
Colorado's patchwork offensive line will be dealing with one of their toughest assignments yet in Stanford's stalwart front seven which ranks 28th in the country in rushing defense while on the other side the CU defensive front will be up against the nation's 17th-best ground attack led by dual-threat quarterback Kevin Hogan. If the Buffs are to again put themselves in a position to pull off a monumental upset this weekend, they would do well to learn from both Washington State's successes against the Cardinal and their own failings in Pasadena last weekend. Here's what Colorado needs to accomplish on both sides of the ball in order to hang with Stanford.
When Stanford Has The Ball
They're going to pound it. It's what they do best. Hogan and the Cardinal amassed only 86 passing yards in their 30-28 victory over the Cougars in Pullman last weekend. This was partially due to the conditions (rainy) and partially due to the loss of their best receiver Devon Cajuste. Mostly, that paltry number was due to the fact that they really didn't need to throw it. Like, at all. Stanford is averaging 221 yards on the ground per game and a healthy 5.1 yards per attempt. Against Wazzu they finished with 226 yards rushing, 112 of those came courtesy of Kevin Hogan.
Against a Colorado defense that's allowing 201 yards per game on the ground, they're going to pound the rock and they are going to do it with their two dynamic ball carriers behind an excellent and all-encompassing offensive line.
That Cardinal line is comprised of four seniors and a sophomore who have started every single game this season thus possessing that single most important offensive line quality; continuity. Aside from the fact that they've played nearly every meaningful down together, each individual came to Stanford highly skilled and tailor-made for the power run game.
For example, here we see left guard Joshua Garnett seeking and destroying, with two other large roving human projectiles flanking him:
That's terrifying, and is something the Colorado linebackers and defensive backs are going to have to contend with when trying to slow McCaffrey and Hogan in the second level. Stanford's linemen are like fast and stout mini-Ents out there blowing up orcs.
Next, we have Exhibit B, displaying what Stanford will do to you when they want to move the ball forward into the end zone:
Ahahaha look at this. It's amazing pic.twitter.com/RdmDHkviyd— Brian Floyd (@BrianMFloyd) October 25, 2015
David Shaw and his offense do not care what you're bringing on defense. They will deploy their full strength and they will roll at you straight up, no disguises. Colorado's defense has done an admirable job of bending but not breaking down in the red zone to this point in the season, it's going to take a Herculean effort to avoid getting shattered on Saturday.
The three Buffalo defenders who will prove most critical this weekend are defensive tackle Justin Solis, linebacker Kenneth Olugbode, and defensive back Chidobe Awuzie. That might seem obvious but if CU is going to have any success at all in limiting Stanford's gains on the ground these three are going to have to consistently make plays at each level.
Last weekend, Wazzu repeatedly stacked the box with 8 defenders and dared Hogan to throw to beat them. In doing so, they caused two early turnovers and jumped out to leads of 15-3 and 22-10. Unfortunately for the Cougs, those leads disappeared in large part due to the fact that they could no longer contain the Cardinal rushing attack.
Jim Leavitt will likely bring some similar looks at the outset in an attempt to limit McCaffrey and force Hogan to beat them on his own, which he is very capable of doing. It gets said every week but the Buffaloes have to find a way to contain the mobile quarterback. Hogan's legs doomed Wazzu and the same fate will await the Buffs if they're again unable to at least somewhat limit what he can accomplish while on the run.
There's no single scheme that's going to force Stanford out of what they want to do. You may have success for 30 minutes bringing 8 and stacking the box but, as Wazzu discovered, the Cardinal front will eventually wear you down. Ultimately, success against this team comes down to winning individual battles at the point of attack, and that's a tall task for this Colorado defense.
When Colorado Has The Ball
The other two factors that sealed Washington State's fate were their four field goals in the first half and their two interceptions in the second. No Pac-12 game is going to be won with five field goals, and teams like Wazzu and Colorado simply can't afford to come away with just 3 points on each of 5 trips to the opponent's side of the field.
The Buffs learned what happens when you miss early opportunities the hard way last weekend against UCLA. Yes, CU had their chances on the last three drives and yes, this offense must eventually do better in two minute situations like those but that game was truly lost in the first half when the Buffs came away from four trips to the red zone with only 6 points to UCLA's 7.
Should Colorado find themselves in the red zone, they must capitalize. It won't be easy, Stanford's defense is allowing just 128.6 yards on the ground per game and ranks 32nd in scoring defense allowing just 21.5 points per game. That Cardinal front, like their offensive counterpart, is made up of three seniors and a sophomore, and are backed up by a very effective and experienced linebacking corps featuring the nation's second-leading tackler, Blake Martinez.
The Buffs could very well find it more difficult to make progress on the ground on Saturday, but they may be able to gain significant yardage through the air. CU's efforts in pass protection will be slightly hindered with the absence of Gerrad Kough, who sustained a concussion in the loss to UCLA. Redshirt freshman John Lisella II and junior Sully Wiefels will likely be called in to action again this week. Working in the Buffs' favor is the average Cardinal pass rush. Stanford ranks just 90th in the nation in sacks, so Colorado might (a very large might, I know) be able to manage that pressure well enough, and last week the Cougars outgained the Cardinal 442-312, throwing for 354 yards on the Stanford defense.
Now, this Colorado offense is decidedly not on the level of a Mike Leach air raid attack but Sefo Liufau and his receivers did find some rhythm in the Rose Bowl and Nelson Spruce and Devin Ross featured heavily in the Buffalo successes between the 20's. A healthier Shay Fields will also help their cause. If CU is to score 28 points or more (a necessity), they'll need steady production out of Sefo and his receiving corps. Most importantly, they must make plays when in position to do so. That means no killer turnovers and no critical drops. As we all know, this team's margin for error remains nowhere near wide enough to allow for any missed opportunities.
The day will come when we won't have to talk about Colorado home games in terms of everything that must go right in order for CU to pull off the upset, but today is not that day. The Buffs must limit the explosive plays that could come from McCaffrey and Hogan by loading the box and they must protect the ball. CU may get theirs on offense, but Stanford's rushing attack will more than likely prove too much for the Buffalo defense to handle. If Hogan and McCaffrey have huge days, the Colorado offense will be hard-pressed to keep pace.