Colorado’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
Mike MacIntyre has had three very miserable years as the head coach of Colorado, and it was nice to see him earn his first conference win in nearly two years last week against Oregon State. Of course, that win is probably just window dressing for another very disappointing year, and the disappointment for the Buffs so far this year has centered largely around the offense.
Many expected this year’s Colorado team to be a better product than last year, especially on offense, with a third-year returning starter at quarterback, a decent stable of running backs, and some solid receiving options. It hasn’t happened though, with the Buffaloes actually averaging fewer yards per play (5.1 — 86th in the country) than last year, when the Buffs averaged 5.2. The rushing offense hasn’t been as good, with Colorado averaging just four yards per rush after averaging 4.2 last season, and the passing offense has had only incremental improvement, going from 6.2 yards per attempt a year ago to 6.8 this season.
The scheme is still very similar to last year, with mostly a spread look but plenty of pro-style elements built in, including some power runs. Colorado still uses a good amount of zone read, and if there’s a significant change from last year in terms of style, it’s that junior quarterback Sefo Liufau (6’4, 240) is running the ball considerably more. Already this season Liufau has carried the ball 84 times after recording just 69 carries in the entirety of last season. A lot of that, though, has come because Liufau is often forced to scramble due to a porous offensive line.
We’re going to do the rare thing and lead off our unit analysis with the offensive line, since it’s really been the key to Colorado’s offensive woes. Both starting guards from last season graduated after last year, and left tackle Jeromy Irwin suffered a season-ending knee injury in early September. The replacements have not performed particularly well, and there has been a near-constant shuffling along the line for the entirety of the season. The results have not been pretty; Liufau has already been sacked 20 times for 136 yards, which means that he’s often getting hit and sacked near the deepest part of his drop. More to the point, 16 of those sacks came in the first four games of Pac-12 play, as Colorado has started to have to deal with tougher defenses.
Redshirt junior center Alex Kelley (6’2, 315) and redshirt senior right tackle Stephane Nembot (6’7, 320) are the two returning starters in the group. Nembot has had to bounce between left and right tackle since the beginning of the season, but he’s expected to slot in on the right side this week, which is a better fit for him, and he doesn’t have super quick feet. In his one start at left tackle against ASU, the offensive line gave up eight sacks. On the left side, redshirt sophomore Sam Kronshage (6’6, 285), who missed the ASU game with a concussion, could also be out for this one after suffering a shoulder injury last week against Oregon State. If he’s unable to go, redshirt freshman John Lisella (6’4, 290) could get the nod. Lisella started against ASU as well, and was the culprit on a few of ASU’s sacks. Even the two maligned guards, redshirt sophomore Gerrad Kough (6’4, 295) and true sophomore Jonathan Huckins (6’4, 315), are questionable for this game with injuries. Kough has a neck injury that sidelined him against Oregon State, and Huckins was hurt late in last week’s game against Oregon State. Redshirt junior Shane Callahan (6’6, 305) will likely fill in for one of them, but if both are injured, it’s anyone’s guess who could start at the other guard spot.
So, in short, Colorado’s offensive line was a mess to start the year, and it’s gotten messier with each passing game. That hasn’t made life easier on Liufau, who’s in the midst of putting together a pretty disappointing year statistically — though he has had an uptick in performance in the last three games. In total this year, he’s completing 61.5% of his passes for 7.19 yards per attempt, and in the last three games he has really boosted those numbers, completing 65% of his passes with 8.18 yards per attempt. So, as his offensive line has fallen apart and he’s been getting hit a lot more, he has actually started to play better. This lends more evidence to Brandon Huffman’s theory that Liufau might be the toughest quarterback in recent Pac-12 history.
Colorado’s running backs looked like a fairly talented group at the beginning of the season, but they just haven’t been given much to work with up front and junior starter Michael Adkins (5’10, 195) was injured in the third game of the season. Adkins was averaging five yards per rush through the first three games, but has been sidelined since with a hamstring injury. The starter now is sophomore Phillip Lindsay (5’8, 180), who’s a smaller back but is pretty quick and is an effective receiver out of the backfield. Senior Christian Powell (6’0, 235) also gets a good amount of carries, and, given his size, he’s an ideal power back. He’s actually averaging five yards per carry this year to Lindsay’s 4.8, but the thinking is that Lindsay gives Colorado a little more explosive play threat with his speed and ability to catch the ball for big gains. Sophomore Donovan Lee (5’9, 175) has seen more time with Adkins out, and he’s a potential big play threat, with the longest run for Colorado this year at 59 yards.
The receiving corps is once again led by now-senior Nelson Spruce (6’1, 205). Spruce isn’t on pace to top the otherworldly catch numbers from a year ago, but he’s still having a nice season, with 51 catches for 563 yards. Teams have done a better job of covering him this season, especially in the red zone, but he’s still a polished route runner who can make tough catches in traffic. Second leading receiver Shay Fields (5’11, 175) is also on the injured list for Colorado after suffering a high ankle sprain against Arizona two weeks ago. Without Fields, Colorado doesn’t really have a true No. 2 receiver, so some combination of sophomore Bryce Bobo (6’2, 195), sophomore Devin Ross (5’9, 180), and Lee will have to take up some of the slack in the pass game. None have made a particularly big impact this year. Junior tight end Sean Irwin (6’3, 245) has only caught seven balls this year, but he has the ability to get open over the middle for big gains.
Overall, it’s a pretty poor Colorado offense that has really struggled with injuries and bad offensive line play.
UCLA’s defense is fresh off of its most encouraging performance of the season last week. The Bruins held a good California offense well below its season averages in most categories, and did so with a much more aggressive style of play that bodes well for the rest of the season.
In the secondary, UCLA was much more aggressive, putting its cornerbacks in press man coverage often, and it paid off, with Marcus Rios and Johnny Johnson both having very impressive games against the talented Cal receivers. The secondary as a whole played very well, with Ishmael Adams and Tahaan Goodman also having good games.
The tight play downfield helped contribute to UCLA’s best pass rush performance of the season. UCLA recorded five sacks against the Bears, with 2.5 coming from Aaron Wallace, who was filling in for Deon Hollins (knee). Wallace did a very nice job on the edge, and showed more speed than he’s often given credit for. UCLA also got a great deal of pressure on the interior from Kenneth Clark, who was a force, once again, in the middle. UCLA has started to move him back from the line, which has aided him in allowing him to get a little more momentum before engaging an offensive lineman. UCLA also stood up the defensive linemen pretty often in that game, which allowed them to stunt a little easier, which helped the pass rush as well.
Of course, it wouldn’t be this season if there weren’t injuries. In addition to Hollins sitting out the game, starting middle linebacker Isaako Savaiinaea, who was really starting to come into his own over the last few games, went down with a high ankle sprain and is questionable for this week. Kenny Young will likely replace him in the starting lineup, and Young has struggled so far this year.
In any case, UCLA has to be encouraged by the performance against Cal, and the hope is that the Bruins can continue that strong play against the Buffaloes this week.
Even with UCLA’s strong performance last week, we’d have some trepidation saying that the defense has an advantage over many offenses in the Pac-12. That said, Colorado has so many issues offensively that it seems pretty obvious that UCLA’s defense is the better unit.
Cal’s offensive line wasn’t good, but Colorado’s is arguably the worst in the conference, and the injuries have only exacerbated that. UCLA can and should be able to get pressure consistently with four, and if Hollins returns for this game, he could have a big performance off the edge against whatever combination of tackles he’s faced with. Clark, on the interior, could make life miserable for an interior unit that has gained no cohesion this season.
It’s also a pretty good matchup in the secondary. Colorado’s best receiver, Nelson Spruce, is more of a possession guy than a speed guy, and if UCLA’s corners cover him as aggressively as they did Cal’s receivers, they could limit him significantly. If Spruce has issues getting open, and UCLA’s defensive line is able to get some pressure on Liufau, it could be a very long day for the Buffs.
Liufau is running the ball more this year, and UCLA has shown a pronounced inability to deal with running quarterbacks this year, so that’s a concern. But, again, Liufau isn’t a traditional running quarterback, and isn’t very fast — he’s more of a big body who can get some yards when he needs to. We wouldn’t be stunned if he hits UCLA for a 20+ yard run at some point, but we wouldn’t anticipate him being able to run with consistency.