First look: Colorado

The Colorado Buffaloes are 2-1 in conference play and put a scare in USC at the Coliseum Saturday before falling 21-17.

Every season since Colorado entered the Pac-12 in 2011, the Buffaloes have consistently been in the cellar of the Pac-12 South.

Last in the Pac-12 South for five consecutive seasons, this year, the Buffaloes (4-2 overall, 2-1 in Pac-12) have a chance to break their stint at the bottom, as they currently sit atop the Pac-12 South tied with No. 21 Utah (5-1, 2-1) and Arizona State (5-1, 2-1).

Before their 21-17 loss to the USC Trojans Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Buffaloes were alone in first place in the division and were ranked No. 21 in the AP Top 25 poll.

“Obviously they’ve improved tremendously and doesn’t anything resemble anything I’ve seen last year,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “And that tells you they’ve developed their players and these guys, you can tell these guys are a football team that is playing very hungry.”

Colorado’s No. 21 ranking was the program’s highest overall since No. 17 in the Sept. 7, 2003 AP Top 25 poll. It was the first time Colorado was ranked since 2005.

Leading the Buffaloes is head coach Mike MacIntyre, who is in his fourth season with the program. Prior to his time with the Buffaloes, MacIntyre was the San Jose State head coach from 2010-2012.

“He (MacIntyre) impressed me when he was at San Jose (State) and what he did there,” Graham said. “I remember a game they played against Stanford that they almost won, it’s just their experience.”

In his first three years with the program, MacIntyre had a 10-27 overall record, with one conference win in 2013, zero in 2014 and one in 2015.

“Mike is one of those guys in this league that I have tremendous respect for,” Graham said. “I think what I’ve said all along, you guys probably thought I was crazy, but now you are seeing that this guy is an incredible football coach and they do a great job as a staff and they’ve developed some guys and we are playing a team that is capable of big plays and a team that is playing very good and good at home.”

Despite its struggles in conference play in recent years, Colorado has built a heavily-experienced team in 2016, which has in part led to its success at the halfway mark of the season.

Leading the offense is Colorado co-offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren, who is in his fourth year with the program. Lindgren served as the sole offensive coordinator for his first three seasons with Colorado, but now shares the title with co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini.

Chiaverini is in his first-year with Colorado, after coaching at Texas Tech for the past two seasons. Chiaverini is also Colorado’s wide receivers' coach and recruiting coordinator.

Building on Chiaverini’s experience at Texas Tech, the Buffaloes are running a high-tempo offense this season and are No. 2 in the Pac-12 with 485 plays run through six games for 3,027 yards.

Colorado also is No. 3 in total offense, averaging 530.2 yards per game and 6.2 yards per play.

“I think what they are doing offensively, I think they are playing extremely hard and the guys that they are playing now have been playing for three years so they were really young,” Graham said.

However, one of the Buffaloes most experienced players, senior quarterback Sefo Liufau, sprained his right ankle on Sept. 17 in Colorado’s 45-28 loss to Michigan. Liufau has not started since his injury.

Colorado freshman quarterback Steven Montez has taken over the signal-caller duties in the Buffaloes' past three games. Montez is 73-of-116 with three interceptions and nine touchdowns in six games played.

In four games played, Liufau is 56-of-79 with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Liufau had to step in for Montez in CU’s game against USC last weekend when Montez went down late in the first half. Liufau was 2-of-3 for 11 yards in his brief stint.

Montez returned and started the second half.  

MacIntyre told the Denver Post that Liufau was “still not able to run” like the team wanted him to and felt like their “best opportunity was Steven” to start the game against USC.

Last season, Liufau started the first 11 games of the season for CU before suffering a Lisfranc injury at the end of the first quarter of Colorado’s 27-24 loss to USC on Nov.13. Liufau had surgery on Nov. 20, which ended his season.

Liufau bounced back in CU’s 44-7 home opener win against Colorado State on Sept. 2, being named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week as he went 23-of-33 passing for 318 yards and one touchdown.  

Facing a division co-leader in the Sun Devils on Saturday, the Buffaloes have a chance to win a statement game that looks to be crucial in terms of how the Pac-12 South shapes up for the rest of the season.  

Last season, Colorado lost 48-23 to ASU at Sun Devil Stadium. Liufau was 25-of-40 for 389 yards with one interception and one touchdown.

“When we’ve played them we’ve been fortunate enough to win, but it’s been a challenge,” Graham said. “He (MacIntyre)’s done a lot to get those guys going and I think he’s a guy that gets his team to play at a high level.”

ASU stalled Colorado’s run game, only allowing 49 rushing yards last season. Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay had nine carries for 43 yards and two touchdowns.

Former Buffaloes' wide receiver Nelson Spruce led the receiving corps with six catches for 88 yards, with then-sophomore wide receiver Shay Fields also caught five passes for 103 yards.

Despite losing Spruce to graduation, Colorado is No. 4 in the conference in passing offense averaging 306.3 yards per game. During his time with the Buffaloes, Spruce set 41 program records and two Pac-12 Conference records. In his career, he had 294 receptions for 3,347 yards and 23 touchdown catches.

This season, Colorado has a group of wide receivers talking the bulk of the load, with three players having 20 or more catches through six games.

Junior wide receiver Devin Ross leads the receiving corps with 32 catches for 412 yards and five touchdowns. Fields has 25 catches for 492 yards and five touchdowns and junior wide receiver Bryce Bobo has 27 catches for 331 yards and two touchdowns.

“They have great speed at wide receiver, great speed,” Graham said. “These guys are legit. They have three receivers who are legitimate playmakers.”

In the run game, the Buffaloes are No. 5 in rushing offense in the Pac-12, averaging 198.2 yards per game, with Lindsay leading the way for Colorado in his junior year. Through six games, Lindsay has 81 carries for 395 yards and six rushing touchdowns. He also has 17 catches for 196 yards and one receiving touchdown.  

“They got their tailback, they want to run the football and are balanced there and they have two quarterbacks who have played at a high level as well,” Graham said.

On the defensive side of the ball, Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt is in his second season as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Colorado. He was previously the linebackers coach with the San Francisco 49ers for four years.

Prior to his NFL stint, Leavitt spent 13 seasons as the coach at South Florida. In his 13 seasons with the Bulls, Leavitt had a 95-57 overall record.

Leavitt introduced a new 3-4 base scheme for the Buffaloes in 2015. Prior to Leavitt, Kent Baer -- who left Colorado to become the defensive coordinator at UNLV -- had the Buffaloes line up in a 4-3 defense.  

With an emphasis on playing aggressively on defense, Colorado has 14 sacks, tied for No. 5 in the Pac-12 and seven interceptions in six games with a return average of 12.7 yards.

Colorado’s defense forced four turnovers against USC, but its offense was only able to convert one of the opportunities into a score. Through six games, the Buffaloes have a plus-seven turnover margin.

“The difference in their team is how they’ve played defense,” Graham said. “They are attacking on defense and they are playing with a lot of emotion.”

Colorado ranks No. 23 in the country in total defense, and No. 2 in the Pac-12 allowing opponents to gain 331.8 yards per game and 4.81 yards per play.

Senior inside linebacker Kenneth Olugbode leads the Colorado defense with 44 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and one fumble recovery.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker missed the Arizona and Arizona State games last season with an acute compartment syndrome injury to his right shin, which he suffered late in Colorado’s 41-24 loss to Oregon on Oct. 3. Last season, Olugbode had 64 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, one interception and one fumble recovery.

Joining Olugbode in the linebackers corps is sophomore Rick Gamboa. The 6-foot, 230-pound inside linebacker had 78 tackles with one tackle for loss last season after replacing an injured Addison Gilliam at the Mike linebacker position. Gamboa has 34 tackles, one tackle for loss and one interception this season.

Senior outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert rounds out the trio of linebackers, leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss, with 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Gilbert has 24 tackles in addition to four forced fumbles for the Buffaloes.

The Colorado secondary is also stacked with veteran players, namely senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who had a breakout year last season. Awuzie led the Buffaloes secondary in 2015 with 84 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions and one forced fumble.

Awuzie was named a Second-Team All Pac-12 performer by the AP and the league's coaches. This season, Awuzie has recorded 27 tackles for two tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and one forced fumble.

Last season, the Buffaloes surrendered only 218.2 passing yards per game, good for the second-best mark in the conference. It was a noticeable improvement under then-first-year defensive coordinator Leavitt compared to 2014, when the Buffaloes gave up 256.2 yards per game.

This season, Colorado has made even bigger strides with a veteran backline defense, only allowing 185 passing yards per game, good for No. 2 in the Pac-12.

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