Game Week: Colorado's O vs. UCLA's D

OCT. 22 -- The Buffaloes look to be slightly improved on offense from a year ago, but with Paul Richardson gone, Colorado is still searching for another receiver to stretch the defense...

Colorado’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

Mike MacIntyre has had a tough beginning to his career at Colorado. The Buffaloes went 4-8 last year, with just one win in Pac-12 play, and, this year, Colorado sits at 2-5 (0-4 in conference) and seemingly in real danger of throwing up a goose egg for conference wins, with a tough slate of games remaining.

So far this year, it’s been difficult to pinpoint one specific area where the Buffs have had difficulties; it’s been more of an all-encompassing struggle. Offensively, Colorado is a bit improved from last year, averaging 5.2 yards per play versus 4.9 yards a year ago, but both numbers are anemic, especially by Pac-12 standards. What’s more, the Buffaloes have actually played some of the weaker Pac-12 defensive teams already, so there’s every reason to expect their offensive numbers to regress back toward last year.

Sefo Liufau
As was the case last year, Colorado runs mostly a spread offense that utilizes a good amount of pre-snap motion to find favorable matchups. As with California, it’s largely a pass-first offense, which may be more due to personnel than preference. Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau (6'4, 230) has actually put up some good numbers so far this year, and looks to have improved from last season, increasing his completion percentage by six percent while drastically improving his touchdown-to-interception ratio. Where he has dropped off a bit, though, is in his yards per attempt. He’s down to 6.29 yards per attempt this year as the Buffaloes are largely without deep threats in the passing game. Though Colorado will run a fair amount of zone read (or, at least plays that look like zone reads) Liufau rarely keeps the ball, and isn’t a huge threat in the running game (though he is good for a few scrambles every game). He’s got a good arm, but can be prone to making bad decisions trying to force balls downfield.

The big loss for Colorado in the offseason was receiver Paul Richardson. Richardson had the deep speed to provide Liufau a way to attack high safeties, and without Richardson, there really isn’t another player with that kind of ability. Junior Nelson Spruce (6'1, 195) has taken on the role as the productive No. 1 receiver, and he’s been excellent in many ways. He’s an incredibly reliable target, with excellent hands and great route-running skills, but he doesn’t quite have the speed to be a deep threat – he’s more like a really high-level possession receiver. He’s not slow, by any means, but speed is not his primary asset. Spruce is far and away the No. 1 receiving threat on the team, with already 71 receptions through seven games, for nearly 115 yards per game. Behind him, true freshman Shay Fields (5'11, 170) is the next most productive receiver, at just 36 catches this year. Fields is used primarily in the underneath game, where he can use his great quickness to make defenders miss. Sophomore D.D. Goodson (5'6, 170), the other starter in the receiving corps, is a diminutive threat with some good quickness, but press coverage has caused him some issues at times this year. Redshirt freshman Bryce Bobo (6'2, 190) and senior Tyler McCullough (6'5, 215) are really the only two major cogs in the rotation for the Buffaloes, with McCullough having the size to cause some mismatches downfield. He’s not much of an athlete, though, which limits him.

Colorado has a pretty even rotation of running backs, with four backs already having 40+ carries this year. Junior Christian Powell (6'0, 230) is the lead guy, and he has the power to cause defenses some issues even if they body him up. He has decent enough speed, probably more than you’d expect just looking at him, and has the ability to hit the second level and run away from linebackers. Behind him, senior Tony Jones (5'7, 185), sophomore Michael Adkins (5'10, 195), and redshirt freshman Philip Lindsey (5'8, 175) all will get pretty equal time. Adkins is likely the fastest of the bunch, with some real home-run speed, but he has been bottled up for most of the year. Colorado will use its running backs in a variety of ways, with zone reads, power runs, and typical I-formation or single-back runs all part of the offense.

Colorado’s offensive line is generally average, but it’s actually been pretty good at giving Liufau a clean pocket this year – he’s been sacked 12 times, but in terms of sack percentage (how often the quarterback is sacked per times he drops back to pass) Colorado is top 25. The Buffaloes have been slightly more vulnerable off the edge, particularly at left tackle, with sophomore Jeromy Irwin (6'5, 295) replacing departed Jack Harris. It hasn’t been a great run-blocking unit, though it has improved a bit from a year ago. Sophomore Alex Kelley (6'2, 305) replaced Gus Handler at center, and he’s been solid so far this year. The old man of the line is senior right guard Daniel Munyer (6'2, 295), who’s a three-year starter and team captain. At left guard, senior Kaiwi Crabb (6'3, 295) is the starter, but there’s a chance we’ll see some of sophomore Auburn transfer Shane Callahan (6'6, 300), who worked in for 21 snaps against USC this past weekend. Junior Stephane Nembot (6'7, 295), the huge right tackle, returns after starting every game last year.

UCLA’s defense is fresh off probably its best performance of the season, when you factor in degree of difficulty. Against a California offense that, coming into the game, had been one of the most prolific in the country, the Bruins more than held their own, and if not for some untimely turnovers by the offense, likely could have kept the Bears to somewhere south of 20 points.

Takkarist McKinley
The big changes for the Bruins came on the defensive line. Takkarist McKinley started and played considerably at defensive end, and his speed and athleticism on the edge caused Jared Goff some real issues. McKinley, though he didn’t impact the box score greatly, was constantly in the backfield, forcing Goff into uncomfortable situations. Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who has started at defensive end for the entire year, spent much of the game inside, working almost as a three-technique, and the move clearly worked to a large degree, as Odighizuwa was able to use his strength and quickness to beat Cal’s interior linemen into the backfield. The two moves combined to give UCLA probably its best, and most consistent, pass rush of the season.

Even aside from the line, the defensive scheme was clearly geared toward being more deceptive. UCLA blitzed from some odd places, and also showed blitz several times before pulling back into coverage, giving Goff mixed messages. All of those schematic and personnel tweaks seemed to flummox Cal’s offense, which never seemed to get into a rhythm.

The secondary had a few issues, most noticeably with Fabian Moreau again struggling on a couple of blown coverages, but given the degree of difficulty, with Cal having arguably the best receivers in the Pac-12, it was mostly a good day there as well. Moreau suffered a stinger during the game, and it remains to be seen whether he will be limited during the game on Saturday.

Generally, though, it was an excellent and encouraging performance for a defense that had been much-maligned for most of the year. If the line continues to play the way it played last Saturday, and UCLA’s coaches continue to be innovative in how they use personnel and disguise defensive play calls, the UCLA defense could bounce back nicely over the last five games of the regular season.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

UCLA’s defense showed last week what it can do against a pass-first offense without much of a running threat at quarterback, and we’d have to imagine that the Bruins will be able to use a similar gameplan against the Buffaloes this week. Liufau, who’s a good thrower and a very tough player, is not quite the quarterback that Jared Goff is, and will likely be prone to a few more mistakes in the face of pressure.

Colorado also does not have the deep playmakers who could really test UCLA’s secondary. Nelson Spruce, like we said, is more of the excellent route-runner type than a deep threat. And what’s more, he’s really the Buffaloes’ only significant threat in the passing game. If UCLA can get any kind of pressure from four or five players, there’s every reason to think that the Bruins could afford to bracket Spruce with both a cornerback and a safety.

Colorado’s offensive line is probably a bit better in pass protection than California’s, so if we had to guess, we’d imagine that UCLA will have to do a bit more blitzing than they did against the Bears to generate a similar amount of pressure. That could open up a few opportunities for Liufau to hit some receivers, but without any real game-breakers, Colorado would have to be much more efficient than it’s been this year to consistently sustain the long drives it’ll need to score.

We’re sure that the Buffaloes are going to score some points, but if UCLA’s coaches scheme against Colorado the way they did against California, the Bruins should take this end of the matchup.

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