Game Preview: Colorado

One would struggle to find a bigger contrast in overall momentum than this weekend's matchup between Stanford and Colorado. The Cardinal are red hot, own the nation's longest active winning streak at 12 games, and have outscored their first four opponents by a combined 183-46.

On the other side, the Buffaloes have sorely disappointed in their first Pac-12 season, entering Saturday's matchup with a 1-4 record. Colorado has received a rude welcome to the conference, losing to California in overtime early in the season before falling victim to resurgent Washington State last weekend.

The Bootleg has you covered for this Saturday's matchup, scheduled for a 5 p.m. Pacific kickoff. Check out this week's key storylines, and come back on Saturday, when I'll be posting quarterly updates from Stanford Stadium on the message boards.

Last time out: After a slow start, Stanford rolled over UCLA last Saturday, bringing home a 45-19 victory that featured over 200 total yards on the ground. In its first official Pac-12 game (as the Cal game didn't count in the conference standings), Colorado fell in the closing minutes to Washington State, 31-27. To be fair, the Buffaloes probably have one of the nation's toughest regular-season schedules: 13 games, including road trips to Hawaii, Ohio State, Stanford and Arizona State, all without a bye.

Mismatch of the year: Unless Colorado manages to manufacture a decent pass rush, All-Galaxy quarterback Andrew Luck will have a field day shredding the hapless Buffs secondary. That unit faced questions before losing three of its players to injury, including starting cornerback Travis Sandersfeld. Currently starting for Colorado at cornerback are converted wide receiver Jason Espinoza and true freshman Greg Henderson. The unit gave up two passing touchdowns against Wazzu in the game's final three minutes, allowing Colorado to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Buffs bring offensive firepower: While the Colorado defense might be unable to stop my high school's offense (and trust me, my high school was not good at football), the Buffs' offense will bring some playmakers into Stanford Stadium. Chief among them is running back Rodney Stewart, whose play has steadily improved over the course of the season. Last weekend, Stewart racked up 132 yards on 26 carries. The Buffaloes don't have a bad passing game either, as quarterback Tyler Hansen has quietly been racking up good numbers, and receiver Paul Richardson has shown flashes of big-play ability, not least of all against Cal, when the wideout caught 11 balls for 284 yards.
"They've got a heck of a receiver," Stanford head coach David Shaw said of Richardson. "This will be the best receiver we've played this year. We've got to make sure we're on top of all our coverages, that we locate him and keep him in front of us."

Defense still faces questions: Despite a strong performance against UCLA, Stanford's defense has yet to prove itself against an elite team. Colorado won't provide that test, but the game should still serve as a good measuring stick as to how the Cardinal are adjusting to life without Shayne Skov. His main replacement, Jarek Lancaster, had a strong game against the Bruins, and will be one of the main players tasked with bottling up Stewart. The secondary looks set to get back starting cornerback Barry Browning (who sat out last weekend's game with back spasms), but it remains to be seen what effect Browning's return has upon the yardage yielded by this unit, which gave up numerous short passes underneath to UCLA.

Conference realignment drama continues: Though I generally don't like talking about off-field issues, it's hard to ignore the ongoing saga of conference realignment as it continues to play out across the country. Of course, Colorado is one of two new Pac-12 members, adding another interesting dimension to this weekend's matchup. Though the coaching staff lacks familiarity with the Buffaloes, Shaw insisted that the team's preparation for the game was no different than any other conference opponent. He also shared some of his thoughts on expansion in general.
"So far, it's been great for us," he said. "The conference, the way it's aligned right now, I think it's really exciting. The conference championship game is really exciting. The fact that I think our conference has not decided to expand is good, where we can all dig our heels in now and have an idea of what it's going to be like, at least for the immediate future."

Prediction: When the season began, it appeared that the Cardinal would not face a real test until late October, and the Buffaloes have confirmed those suspicions after repeatedly wilting under pressure. I'm still unsure about whether Stanford has an elite defense, but it's obvious that it's got an elite quarterback, and that's all that will be needed to defeat Colorado. The Card will have one of its trademark strong finishes in a fifth-straight blowout. Final score: Stanford 48, Colorado 21.

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