• UCLA travels to take on the Colorado Buffaloes, with the game set to kick off Saturday at 11:00 a.m. PST, and to air on the Pac-12 Networks.
• UCLA is 5-2, stopping its two-game skid with a win over California on the road last week. UCLA is 2-2 in the Pac-12 South.
• Colorado is 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the Pac-12 South. Speaking of skids, the Buffs are on a three-game one, having lost to Cal (59-56, 2 OTs), Oregon State (36-31) and USC (56-28). They previously had lost to ASU (38-24).
• The Pac-12 South standings are: USC (4-1), ASU (3-1), Arizona (2-1), Utah (2-1), UCLA (2-2), and Colorado (0-4).
• It doesn’t get easier for Colorado either. After facing UCLA, they’ll go up against Washington, #15 Arizona, #6 Oregon and #19 Utah.
• UCLA edged itself back into the rankings this week at #25. Spending the last two weeks out of the rankings was the first time in almost exactly two years UCLA has been unranked.
• In the overall series, UCLA is 7-2 against Colorado, having one the last three. It’s 3-1 in Boulder, with its last game there resulting in a 42-14 win. Last year, UCLA won at the Rose Bowl, 45-23. UCLA hasn't lost to Colorado since 2003.
• Among Pac-12 opponents, UCLA has played Colorado the least.
• In its fourth season in the Pac-12, Colorado has won just four conference games.
• Under Jim Mora, UCLA has never lost when leading at halftime. In games when it was ahead at the half, Mora’s Bruins are 21-0.
• During last week’s Cal game, Brett Hundley became UCLA’s all-time leader in completions, and the first player to go over 700 completions in a career. He’s currently third on the all-time list for touchdown passes, and second on the all-time school passing yards list.
• Hundley has has run for or thrown a touchdown in 33 of his career 34 games, with the only exception being the Texas game this year, when he was injured in the first quarter.
• Mike MacIntyre (49) is in his second year at Colorado, and has a 6-13 record with the Buffs. Last year, in his first season in Boulder, he went 4-8 and 1-8. Previous to being at Colorado, MacIntyre turned around a dismal San Jose State program, going 1-11 in his first season in 2010, to just two years later in 2012 posting a 10-2 mark. MacIntyre is a defensive guy, having spent some time in the NFL as a defensive backs coach before becoming the defensive coordinator at Duke before the San Jose State stint. He’s facing a pretty tough challenge at Colorado, but the general feeling is that MacIntyre is a good coach, is making headway, and has a chance to restore Colorado to respectability. Two weeks ago MacIntyre gained some notoriety when he chased down the Pac-12 officiating crew after losing to Oregon State to berate them before security intervened (he was fined $10,000 by the Pac-12). If you don’t recognize MacIntyre it might be because he lost 52 pounds in the off-season.
• Colorado and UCLA – along with San Jose State and Navy – will honor Houston Texans rookie offensive offensive lineman David Quessenberry Saturday. Quessenberry, who is the older brother of UCLA’s starting right guard Scott Quessenberry, is battling non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. David played for MacIntyre and many of his current staff at San Jose State, and his other brother, Paul, is the starting defensive end at Navy, which plays San Jose State. MacIntyre, then, thought it was a perfect day to honor the elder Quessenberry, so players from all four teams will wear a “DQ” decal on their helmets. Scott Quessenberry had previously dedicated his season to his brother.
• If UCLA wins Saturday it will be its eighth straight win away from the Rose Bowl, and improve Mora’s record to 12-4 in true road games.
• The record of UCLA’s remaining opponents is 21-13 (Colorado is 2-5, UA is 5-1; UW and USC 5-2, and Stanford is 4-3). If you take Colorado out of the equation, the record of UCLA’s last four opponents is 19-8.
• UCLA beat Cal last week for the first time since 1998, also the last season the Bruins won the conference.
• Colorado plays its games on campus at Folsom Field, which opened in 1924 and has a capacity of 53,613. It’s at an elevation of 5,400 feet.
• UCLA is currently favored by 13.5 points.
• The weather forecast calls for a high of 78 degrees Saturday, clear and sunny.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Colorado’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
The defense really isn’t much better for Colorado. Under MacIntyre, who’s a defensive-minded coach, the Buffaloes actually showed some improvement in his first year, but this year has seen Colorado plateau, with the Buffaloes giving up an average of 6.2 yards per play in FBS games, a number good for 105th in the country.
Colorado runs mostly a 4-3, though the Buffaloes will work in the occasional three-man front. As has been the case for most Pac-12 teams over the last two years, the Buffaloes spend many games in nickel, and when Colorado goes nickel, they typically ditch a linebacker rather than a defensive lineman. The Buffaloes haven’t blitzed a ton this year, opting to play a mostly coverage-based defense.
The defensive line has been mostly weak all year, and teams have been able to take advantage with pretty explosive running days. The Buffaloes have one of the worst rushing defense in the country, with Colorado giving up an average of 5.2 yards per rush. By comparison, UCLA’s rushing defense, which hasn’t been great, is giving up an average of 4.1. Colorado’s front is mostly undersized, which is part of the reason they’ve struggled against the run. At the two ends, the Buffaloes start redshirt freshman Derek McCartney (6'3, 240) and sophomore Jimmie Gilbert (6'4, 230). McCartney, at least, is a pretty good athlete and acts as a kind of pass-rush specialist, with four sacks on the year. The defensive tackles, junior Josh Tupou (6'3, 325) and senior Juda Parker (6'2, 270), have acted more as space-eaters than anything, which would be fine if they played in more of a 3-4 system, but as it stands, Colorado needs one or both of them to start being more disruptive in the backfield. As of yet, that hasn’t happened. Junior Justin Solis (6'1, 305) is also part of the rotation on the interior, and freshman Christian Shaver (6'3, 235) and redshirt freshman Timothy Coleman (6'2, 250) will work in at defensive end.
Colorado’s defensive strength, inasmuch as they have one, is probably the secondary. Each of the four starters had some experience heading into the year, and they’ve been able to do a credible enough job this year, especially considering the Buffaloes’ difficulties up front in both the pass rush and the run game. Cornerbacks Greg Henderson (5'11, 185) and Ken Crawley (6'1, 180) are both multi-year starters, and both are solid coverage guys. The safeties have been frequently tested this year in both the run and the pass, and given the sheer number of times they’ve been involved in plays, they haven’t been quite as bad as opposing passing numbers might suggest. Both starting safeties, sophomore Tedric Thompson (6'0, 200) and sophomore Chidobe Awuzie (6'0, 190), are in the top three on the team in tackles, which generally isn’t a great sign for how the defense is doing up front. With a better front seven, it’s a fair bet that the secondary would look much, much better, but as it stands, they’ve simply been tested too much with no real assistance from a pass rush. Sophomore John Walker (5'9, 175) is the first string nickel back, and freshman Evan White (6'3, 195) and sophomore Ahkello Witherspoon (6'3, 185) will also work into the rotation.
UCLA’s offense had some struggles last week against a pretty bad California offense, but most of those struggles were due to some odd turnovers. Brett Hundley fumbled once and threw a bad interception, and the usually-reliable Paul Perkins also fumbled. The Bruins actually moved the ball very well when they weren’t struggling to hang onto it, but the turnovers have become a bit of a worrying sign. Hundley has turned the ball over five times in the last three games, with three interceptions and two lost fumbles. The three turnovers UCLA had against Cal turned into three touchdowns for the Bears.
Probably the biggest concern for UCLA offensively coming out of the Cal game is the health of Perkins. He sat out the majority of the second half with what appeared to be a wrist injury, and, while the injury didn’t appear serious, it’ll be something to watch if he is at all limited on Saturday. If he’s not at 100%, it’ll be interesting to see who works in at the third running back spot behind Jordon James and Nate Starks – will Craig Lee get his first game action as a Bruin?
At receiver, Thomas Duarte went down with a hamstring injury during the game against Cal, and there’s no word yet on whether or not he’ll be fully able to play on Saturday. If he’s unable to go, though, another option for UCLA emerged this past weekend – Mossi Johnson. The true freshman receiver had some big moments against the Bears on Saturday, and looks the part of a playmaker out of the slot. If Duarte cannot play, Saturday could mean a potential starting opportunity for Johnson.
The Bruins have been fairly good this year on offense, despite some inopportune turnovers, and there isn’t much that Colorado does that should be scary to UCLA. The Bruins can probably use much the same game plan they used against the Bears last week – short passes, heavy dose of the running game, and high tempo -- and come out with a fairly comfortable win on this side of the matchup.
The big key for UCLA, actually, will be building some better habits on offense heading into the final four games of the regular season. The Bruins have really struggled with turnovers over the last three games, and, while the critical mistakes against Cal didn’t end up costing them the win, UCLA can’t afford many mistakes against Arizona, Washington, USC, or Stanford.
Colorado, if we had to guess, will try to load up to stop the run and force Hundley to pass more, since dropping seven or eight is really becoming a death sentence against UCLA’s running game, particularly if Perkins is healthy enough to be effective. Even with a loaded box, though, Colorado’s defensive line is still pretty weak, so there’s a chance UCLA could still run effectively even if the Buffaloes stack against it.
If the Bruins game plan the way they did against California last week, and use the same short-passing, quick-tempo offense they used against the Bears, then this should be a pretty easy matchup for UCLA to win.
Colorado’s kicker, senior Will Oliver (5'11, 190), has been really ineffective this year. He’s only attempted nine field goals this year, and made just five of them, with the four misses coming from between 39 and 45 yards. Right now, Colorado doesn’t seem particularly confident in him beyond 40.
The punting game has been better, with senior Darragh O’Neill (6'2, 190) averaging 45+ yards per punt, with 16 of his 35 downed inside the 20. He’s only had three touchbacks all season, which is a pretty good number considering how often he’s been asked to punt.
Colorado isn’t great on kickoff or punt returns, with Spruce getting the majority of the reps at punt returner thanks to his excellent hands. He isn’t much of an explosive threat, though. Phillip Lindsey is the kick returner, and he’s been consistent, if unspectacular, this year.
For UCLA’s part, Ka’imi Fairbairn had a nice bounce-back game against California last week, making three field goals. He’s been reliable within the 40 yard-line this year, but beyond has been an adventure. It does seem that the UCLA coaching staff is starting to realize his limitations a bit more, though, which is a good sign, and should make him look more effective.
UCLA’s punting game has gotten significantly better since the first few games of the year. Matt Mengel has brought his average punt yardage up to almost 40, and he’s actually only booted two balls into the endzone out of 32 kicks this year, which is very good.
The Bruins have excellent return coverage as well as an elite kick returner in Ishmael Adams. Adams has become such a weapon, in fact, that Cal spent virtually the entire game last week pooching kickoffs almost completely to keep the ball out of Adams’ hands. Naturally, Mossi Johnson, of all people, almost scored on one of the few times that Cal actually kicked deep.
If we had to reassess UCLA’s entire schedule at the halfway point of the season, this matchup would probably be rated the easiest or second-easiest game for the Bruins (depending on how you feel about Memphis). Colorado didn’t improve much (if at all) in the offseason, while Cal, Memphis, Virginia, and the other seemingly weak teams on UCLA’s schedule all improved to some extent.
UCLA, particularly with the changes in personnel on both sides of the ball, should be able to win most of the matchups on the field. More to the point, if the schematic wrinkles on defense are an indication of future game plans, we should see a defense over the last five games of the season that plays more in line with what we were expecting from the beginning of the year.
Colorado isn’t a completely awful team; Spruce can cause some issues with his ability to run efficient routes and catch everything thrown his way. If UCLA elects to play more of that bend-but-don’t-break style of defense that we saw through the first six games of the year, then we might see the Buffaloes stay in the game longer than they should.
But without explosive playmakers on offense, and with a pretty passive defense, it’d be difficult for us to see a way that Colorado scores enough, or limits UCLA’s offense enough, to make this a close game.