The Rocky Mountain Showdown is upon us once again. It seems like just yesterday that Woodson Greer was standing on the Colorado bench screaming "It ain't the same no more!" as the Buffs emphatically clinched their first win under Mike MacIntyre.
For CU, this game is always a must-win and that is very much the case this season. A victory here means they're well on their way to bettering last year's win total while a loss increases their degree of difficulty significantly.
Both programs bring a mixture of playing experience and youth into this year's version of the showdown. Let's take a look at two key position group clashes that have the potential to make or break this game for the Buffs.
Colorado will send out a young yet athletic crew to face a similarly green Colorado State offensive front.
For the Rams, only senior Ty Sambrailo comes in with any starting experience accounting for all 31 of the unit's previous starts. He'll be the key cog amongst an unproven group, playing left tackle and protecting senior quarterback Garrett Grayson's blindside. Freshman Jake Bennett will start at center and will likely bear the brunt of CU's interior efforts along with first time starter Sam Carlson at right tackle.
Colorado State's ground game was the focal point of their offense a year ago. Right now it's a bit of a wildcard after losing All-American and school record holder Kapri Bibbs, along with Donnell Alexander and Chris Nwoke. CSU will still come out and run a fairly balanced attack but their surprisingly deep receiving corps will likely be the new focus. Expect the Rams to target Rashard Higgins, Joe Hansley, Charles Lovett, and Jordon Vaden on the outside early and often, requiring that untested line to provide adequate pass protection.
For the Buffs, senior Juda Parker and junior Josh Tupou will be crucial in disrupting the Ram offense. They and their younger partners on the outside will need to consistently generate a push and penetrate the protection. If the ground game can be stymied, CSU will start airing it out in an attempt to move the ball on the strength of their senior QB's arm. It likely won't be enough just to pressure Grayson; he's too adept at making plays on the run and he has a large security blanket to look to in senior tight end Kivon Cartwright. They'll need to produce sacks or funnel him into awkward throws in tight spots against the sideline, freeing the secondary to make plays and force a turnover or two.
The Rams' Secondary vs. The Buffaloes' Receivers
Last year, this matchup spelled doom for CSU. Connor Wood and Paul Richardson combined to torch the Rams for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air. Wood finished with 400 total passing yards and 3 touchdowns.
Though the Buffs have lost the services of P-Rich, the passing game will not take a step back. Working with a stable of solid targets, quarterback Sefo Liufau can distribute the ball more evenly this season. Junior captain Nelson Spruce leads the receiving crew coming into 2014 with 99 receptions going for 1,096 yards. Freshman Bryce Bobo would appear to be the next vertical threat at CU. He has the size and speed to bust crossing routes open and to blow past corners to the deep ball. Don't be surprised if he has a breakout performance. Never to be slept on, senior D.D. Goodson will continue to work as a shifty burner at the "H" receiver position.
The Rams return all five of their starters in the secondary from a year ago, which can be looked at one of two ways. They have experience, but what do they have experience doing? They played aggressively and were subsequently burned for deep touchdowns of 45 yards or longer 11 times last season. They'll likely be improved this go-around but Mike MacIntyre and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren will make them prove it.
Colorado State's best defensive unit is far and away its linebackers, led by seniors Max Morgan and Aaron Davis. Morgan quarterbacks his defense and will be all over the field. They'll make it tough for Colorado's multi-faceted running attack to get to the second level, thus the Buffs will have to take to the air and trust in Sefo to get them down the field.
It seems that every year something wild happens on special teams. Back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns, punt return touchdowns, long punt returns flipping field position, shanked punts, makeable field goals missed, long field goals made, turnovers, it's all happened and there's no telling what impact these units will have on this year's contest. Special teams play is never as sharp as it should be in the first game. It's fair to expect some funky happenings.
Both sides of the ball are filled with unknown quantities. There's the possibility that this becomes a bit of a big play shootout that swings on a few turnovers. I think the Colorado offensive line holds firm against CSU's third new defensive line in three years and gives Sefo the time he needs to make plays downfield. Grayson and the Rams will be able to string a few long drives together but will otherwise be slowed by turnovers and pressure from CU's front seven. Along the way somebody will make a crucial special teams play, my money's on Colorado's kick returner Phillip Lindsay.
In the end, the Buffs claim their 63rd win in the series 38-24 by engineering effective drives through the air while doing just enough up front defensively to hinder the Rams' attack.