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CU vs. CSU Preview: Can the Buffaloes control the trenches?

The Buffs and the Rams renew their rivalry for the 87th time this Saturday evening at the Field Formerly Known as Invesco.

Sefo Liufau's performance will be a critical factor in Saturday night's tilt at Mile High.
Sefo Liufau's performance will be a critical factor in Saturday night's tilt at Mile High.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, this is very much a rivalry and I'm not just saying that because I was both blessed and cursed to have grown up in Fort Collins. Currently, it's the only real grudge match that CU is involved in. (Aside from #HateWeek2K15, Buffs comin' for that ass Utah.) Perhaps this won't be the case five years down the road when the series goes on hiatus but for now this Saturday's matchup is of gigantic import.

The 2015 edition carries significant weight for this Colorado team, as much as it has at any point in the past few years. They'll have to overcome a staunch Ram squad that brings back 17 starters from last year's 10-win team in order to return the Centennial Cup to Boulder. More importantly, a win keeps Mike MacIntyre's third season on the rails and his team's bowl game hopes alive.

When Colorado Has The Ball

How Colorado's offensive line handles CSU's aggressive front seven may very well be the deciding factor on Saturday night. The Buffs have already encountered some adversity in this department, losing starting left tackle Jeromy Irwin for the season to a torn ACL. Sophomore Sam Kronshage steps in to fill his shoes having performed admirably in relief against the UMass Minutemen. The coaching staff insists they don't lose much with Kronshage in on the left side, and they may not when it comes to running the ball, but he'll truly be tested in pass protection. The Ram line will likely be the toughest the Buffs have seen thus far and they'll come out and stack the box while taking aim at Sefo Liufau.

Brian Lindgren and his offense will almost certainly try to establish the run early, I expect the first few series to be a battle of wills. Michael Adkins II has earned his role as the number one tailback having rushed for 209 yards and 3 touchdowns through two games. Once the defense has been softened up, following with the tandem of Christian Powell and Phillip Lindsay has proven very effective. At this point teams will likely opt first to counter that Buffalo ground attack and force Liufau to stay on his feet and beat them through the air. Through one game and a scrimmage (it really was) Colorado State's senior-laden defense has accumulated 21 tackles for a loss, 7 of which are sacks. If the Rams are able to somehow contain Colorado's backfield, Liufau will have to play confident, mistake-free ball while under a fair amount of pressure. He's been surprisingly effective when scrambling thus far and I imagine he'll do his fair share of running when the pocket breaks down.

CSU's linebacking corps, led by senior Cory James in the middle, has played well to this point combining for 28 tackles against Minnesota and largely holding the Gopher offense in check although that unit isn't explosive by any means. CU's trio of tailbacks will have their work cut out for them as they attempt to continue their run of dominance. Should the Buffalo linemen consistently win their matchups up front and allow their backs to go for 200+ on the ground, Colorado will be in great shape. If the ground game is somehow bottled up, and Liufau is under consistent duress and unable to set up his receivers to make plays the Buffs may be in some trouble.

When Colorado State Has The Ball

CSU may not have lost much defensively, but they certainly lost some key pieces offensively. Following the graduation of Garrett Grayson the Rams have yet to land on a number one, full-time quarterback. According to head coach Mike Bobo Nick Stevens will get his third start under center after having been pulled in the 3rd quarter in favor of strong-armed Coleman Key. Neither looked particularly impressive against the Gophers' stiff defense as they both threw an interception, Key's proving decisive in overtime. Each is still far from proven and if the Buffaloes bring some pressure to bear critical turnovers are in the offing.

Whomever winds up taking the majority of the snaps on Saturday night will be working behind a line with varying degrees of experience. This year's offensive line features three returning starters (four if you count right guard Jake Bennett's three starts at center last season) led by senior center Kevin O'Brien. The Rams are in the process of replacing left tackle Ty Sambrailo, one of their most important players last fall. Sophomore Zack Golditch has been tasked with filling those shoes at left tackle but they may also rotate senior Sam Carlson over to that side.  Even though sophomore running back Dalyn Dawkins has looked impressive thus far the Buffs have shown themselves to be stout against the run. I don't expect Colorado State's running game to be a deciding factor.

The CSU signal callers were without the services of All-American and Biletnikoff finalist Rashard Higgins against Minnesota and it remains unclear whether he'll go on Saturday. (For my money, he'll be playing.) Even if Higgins is unable to make an impact, the Rams feature two other targets who seem like they've been there for six years in Kivon Cartwright and Joe Hansley. Hansley in particular has done his fair share of damage to the Buffs and will need to be held in check in the slot primarily by Chidobe Awuzie. I'm guessing John Walker will see some serious time at corner barring a completely revamped performance from Ahkello Witherspoon and it will fall to Ken Crawley to check the Rams' number one option, whomever that's going to be.

Up front, the Colorado defensive line has improved a significant amount since last season. With fresh faces and healthy bodies they've been able to generate more of a push and disrupt the opposing offense more consistently. In addition to corralling the run efficiently, they've also more effectively pursued the quarterback, officially hurrying the passer 11 times and claiming five sacks. The uptick in line play has also been the driver behind Colorado's improved turnover margin, they can claim direct responsibility for two of CU's three picks and certainly had a hand in the third.

If CU can increase the amount of havoc in the backfield they should be able to force CSU's green quarterbacks into some critical mistakes. Last year, the Rams won on the strength of Dee Hart and their linemen as the Buffs were caught completely unprepared for the power run game. I don't suspect that will be the case this year with Jim Leavitt running the show. If the defense manages to maintain its current form this unit should be able to do enough to give their offense opportunities to win the game.

Special Teams

How many times has this game been re-directed or decided by a crucial special teams play? The emotional payoff of a big return or a blocked kick is amplified in this setting, and as close as this one is expected to be it's no stretch to think that the game will hinge on one big moment in this phase.

To this point Colorado's kick coverage has looked the best it has in recent memory. A long kick return wounded the Buffs in this matchup last year, that will need to be prevented this go-around. The Rams need to be forced to earn those yards on offense. Placekicker Diego Gonzalez has been nails through two games, going 4-4 and drilling two from 40 yards at sea level in humidity. Freshman punter Alex Kinney has hit a few duds but I think it's evident that he does possess a big-time leg, more reps and confidence are all he needs. He'll certainly be up for this one having graduated from Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins.

The Rams possess a quality kicker as well in Wyatt Bryan who drilled a pressure-packed 37-yarder to send last week's game in to overtime. Punter Hayden Hunt put in a nice showing himself last week as he booted the ball nine times against the Gophers for an average of 49.6 yards per kick. Field position will very much be a factor, the Buffs can't afford to give the Rams short fields as they may be working with long ones themselves.

Prediction

Ultimately, I think this year's contest comes down to how Colorado's offensive line contends with Colorado State's defensive front. If the Buffs can pound the ball like they have the first two games and are able to keep Liufau upright and turnover-free they'll be in a position to win. If not, a lot is going to be asked of the defense and the Buffs will find themselves in some difficulty. This will in all likelihood be a one or two score game throughout with a couple of lead changes. I see a critical turnover, perhaps late, proving to be the difference and the Buffs pull this one out by 10.