Much like 2014, the Buffaloes' 2015 season has gotten off to a bitterly disappointing start, but unlike last year expectations were raised (by nearly everyone, including the team) significantly coming in to September. Colorado's bowl hopes, however slim to begin with, have taken a significant hit right out of the gate. The chase back on to pace has to begin with a victory over the Minutemen on Saturday.
Those Minutemen come to Boulder as perhaps the most experienced FBS squad in the nation. It's not high-level experience but this team is confident, well-coached, and knows its identity. Defensively, the Buffs will again have to contend with prolific quarterback Blake Frohnapfel and dynamic receiver Tajae Sharpe, two players who probably have the talent to be playing at a mid-tier P5 program. Last year in Foxborough, Frohnapfel threw for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns on 20 completions, 5 of which went to Sharpe for a total of 83 yards. The Buffs avoided the explosive and devastating play from Sharpe in the last meeting, they'll need to do so again on Saturday.
It'll be very interesting to see how Ken Crawley matches up (if and when he draws that assignment) with Sharpe after what has to be considered a brutal showing last Thursday night. He put himself in better positions as that game went on but only after he was beaten soundly for two touchdown grabs, infamously making a supremely ill-advised attempt to strip the ball before wrapping up on Marcus Kemp's 79-yard score. The rest of the secondary looked as advertised, Ahkello Witherspoon's pass interference penalty aside, and the defense as a whole put forth the most encouraging performance of the night, led by the play of Chidobe Awuzie and Derek McCartney.
The Buffs will likely keep two safeties deep to begin with and force UMass to show what they have in their ground game. Last week Colorado's run defense looked as sound as it has in the past year but they'll be tested by a more experienced and coherent offensive unit this Saturday. The Minutemen line is anchored by senior center Matt Sparks, who is flanked by four large juniors. After starting five games last season and averaging 72 yards per contest Shadrach Abrokwah will likely receive the bulk of the work on the ground. Additionally, Jamal Wilson returns to the depth chart after breaking his right ankle against Vanderbilt last year, I'd expect him to see a fair share of action as well.
It will be critical that the Buffalo front 7 put pressure on Frohnapfel, he's too accurate to be given time consistently. However, that may prove tougher to accomplish then it was against Hawai'i. If Jase Franke has another monster game and Derek McCartney and Jimmie Gilbert can provide disruption on the edge the Buffs should have some success in the Minutemen backfield.
This brings us to Colorado's pass protection. Yikes. The Buffalo offensive line turned in its worst collective performance in over a year on Thursday night in Honolulu, grading out a full 17 percentage points lower than last year's Plus Play Percentage average. Stephane Nembot had the best go of the struggle, turning in a PPP% of 46.2, very much a sub-par performance. (PPP is the number of positive plays, going above and beyond, divided by total plays. Plays can also fall under the neutral or minus categories.) With Gerrad Kough listed as probable after tweaking his ankle, Jonathan Huckins, Sam Kronshage, and Shane Callahan will have to significantly improve their play to get CU's offense firing at the level it needs to. Importantly, they'll have to do a better job of picking up the blitz and dealing with the varied stunts that UMass is sure to throw at them.
While running for his life, Sefo Liufau had one of the worst games in his career as well, throwing another costly pick and failing to establish any rhythm or tempo through the air. He's openly admitted as much, saying "I think I sucked in the beginning of the game."
Liufau will need to utilize Nelson Spruce as a decoy more often instead of locking on to his favorite target and progress to his second and third reads, who were oftentimes open in Hawai'i's secondary. Unfortunately, he lacked the time and the wherewithal needed to get the ball where it needed to be when pressured. Playing at home, with the need for adjustments starkly clear, I expect Colorado's offensive line to play significantly better, and I expect offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren, who shoulders a large amount of blame for Thursday's clunker, to be able to call a better game.
The opening performance at Hawai'i was at once more of the same and the inverse of what we saw last season. All of the familiar facepalm-inducing mistakes were there, including but not limited to crucial turnovers, horrific decisions on special teams, poor timeout management, and the now requisite astoundingly unlucky bounces. On the flip side, the passing game was stymied, the Buffs moved the ball effectively on the ground (before abandoning the run in crucial second half moments) and the defense held strong up front, even forcing two interceptions of their own.
At this point, I think the only thing that would shock me on Saturday is a full, dominate 60-minute performance from the Buffaloes. Colorado should beat UMass at home, by at least two scores, but as we've all learned over the past few years no game is a given for this program. I see the Buffs covering the 13 point spread without doing so comfortably.
Winning in Hawai'i was always going to be difficult but it seemed, and sounded like, this program was finally ready to put together the type of performance that can put away a game like that. Maybe the players were tight, maybe they felt the weight of their offseason words after the opening punt block and the quick Warrior touchdown and conversion that followed. Perhaps this team is still not mentally ready to take on the responsibility of winning a close ballgame, to make the necessary plays and avoid putting the result in the hands of the opponent or the officials
In the end, this was just one game played under very abnormal circumstances and this team has shown themselves to be better than they were last Thursday night, it could be that we're all reading too much into it. Whatever the reasons are, and the only thing I am sure of is that there are many, any immediate mental obstacles will need to be overcome on Saturday. Far more onerous tests loom and the Buffs dearly need a convincing victory over the Minutemen to move forward.