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.
Colorado’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
Colorado switched things up defensively in the offseason, replacing former defensive coordinator Kent Baer (who moved on to UNLV) with former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt. Leavitt, who was last seen coaching linebackers for the 49ers, was available after Jim Harbaugh moved back to Michigan, and he’s certainly an accomplished coach. He memorably took South Florida to unprecedented success in his 13-year tenure, which ended ignominiously after Leavitt was fired with cause stemming from an altercation with a player. In any case, he’s a good defensive mind who should be able to create a passably good defense in Boulder.
Eventually, at least. As it stands, Colorado’s defense is probably worse than its offense, and the Buffaloes have had issues in all phases. They’re better than they were last year, but that’s not saying a whole lot. This season, Colorado is giving up an average of 5.8 yards per play (down from 6.4 last season), which is good for 88th in the country. The run defense is especially bad, as Colorado gives up an average of 5.2 yards per rush attempt (105th). They are theoretically better against the pass (7.0 yards per attempt, 55th in the country), but that might simply be because teams are able to run so easily against them that they don’t elect to pass all that often, or in advantageous situations.
From a scheme perspective, Colorado has gone to more of a 3-4 look this season after being primarily a 4-3 team the last few years. As with most teams in the Pac-12, though, Colorado will often press one of the outside linebackers up to the line of scrimmage to give more of a 4-3 look. The Buffaloes are a bit better at bringing pressure than they were a year ago, and actually have 13 sacks through four Pac-12 games, so Leavitt is clearly compensating for a lack of great talent by bringing some more pressure. It hasn’t proven successful to this point, but they have generated some turnovers, including ten interceptions so far this year.
Of course, it wouldn’t be 2015 Colorado, or really 2015 college football, if there weren’t significant injuries affecting the play on the field. In the linebacker corps, Colorado was down two starting linebackers last week in star middle linebacker Addison Gillam (out for the year with a knee injury) and fellow inside linebacker Kenneth Olugbode (6’1, 220) (leg injury). Olugbode practiced this week, and is expected to play, but he’ll probably have a good deal of rust to knock off after sitting for the better part of a month. Redshirt freshman Rick Gamboa (6’0, 230) has filled in for Gillam, and has done a surprisingly decent job in relief. He’s the team’s leading tackler at the moment and has shown a good head for the game. Junior Jaleel Awini (6’2, 220) starts at weakside outside linebacker and on the strongside sophomore Derek McCartney (6’3, 240) gets the nod. McCartney is the linebacker who’ll most often press against the line of scrimmage and act as a fourth lineman. McCartney has three sacks this season, and along with junior backup linebacker Jimmie Gilbert (6’5, 230) is probably the best edge rusher on the team.
Up front, senior defensive tackle Justin Solis (6’2, 325) is one to keep an eye on. He’s a huge dude, obviously, so you’d expect him to be a run stuffer, but he’s actually shown some ability as a pass rushers, already recording three sacks this season. Colorado has some nice 3-4 size up front with Solis, junior Jordan Carrell (6’3, 280), and sophomore Leo Jackson III (6’3, 280), so you’d think they’d be a bit better at occupying blockers than they’ve turned out to be. Too often, Colorado’s big guys up front have gotten pushed around this year, which has put the linebackers on their heels quite a bit. Junior defensive tackle Samson Kafovalu (6’4, 260) and redshirt freshman Jase Franke (6’3, 270) are probably the key rotational players for the defensive line.
The secondary is probably the best unit on the defense, but we’re deep into “relatively speaking” territory here. Junior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (6’0, 195) is a legit player, and Colorado will move him around a bunch because he’s also an adept pass rusher and is good in run defense, in addition to being a more than solid cover corner. He actually leads the team in sacks this season with four and is the second-leading tackler. Usually that’s a bad sign for a corner, but he’s just so active and is always helping out in the run game, so it’s more a product of his ability. He’ll play nickel, and can even play some safety as well, so he’s very versatile. At the other corner spot senior Kenneth Crawley (6’1, 180) will start, and he’s had a nice enough year, recording six pass breakups so far along with one interception. Colorado isn’t very deep at corner, with several true freshmen in the three-deep. At safety, Colorado will start senior Jered Bell (6’1, 205) and junior Tedric Thompson (6’0, 205). Bell is that rarest of things, a sixth-year senior, and he and Thompson both have plenty of experience at safety. As we said, the secondary is the best unit on the defense, and there’s a good amount of experience and talent in the starting group.
UCLA’s offense had a really nice performance last week against California, with Josh Rosen in particular shining in a big way. His decision making has gotten much quicker over the course of the year, and against Cal, he made largely excellent decisions throughout the day. He was a little inaccurate, and had a few balls nearly picked off, but this was definitely another big step forward for him.
A huge part of his continued success, and the ease of his learning curve, has been the very good play from the offensive line throughout the year. Largely, the offensive line has been very good at protecting Rosen and creating holes in the running game, and after a couple of relatively poor performances against Arizona State and Stanford, the offensive line was much better against California. Conor McDermott actually sat out the game against the Bears, but Kolton Miller did a nice job in his place at left tackle, and McDermott could make it back to the lineup as early as this week against the Buffs.
Paul Perkins scared every UCLA fan when he went down with a knee injury against Cal last week, but soon after the game, we reported that Perkins’ injury was actually a bone bruise and that it’s a relatively minor injury. Jim Mora said today that both Perkins and Nate Starks (head) have been cleared to play this week, which should make UCLA’s running back situation very good heading into Saturday’s game.
At receiver, Devin Fuller suffered a head injury against Cal, and he’s still questionable for this week. He had probably the best game of his career against the Bears, with over 100 yards and two touchdowns, so hopefully he makes it back soon to continue to build on a very nice season so far. Thomas Duarte has emerged as Rosen’s favorite target this season, with 10 catches for 141 yards last week. Duarte had 33 catches, which is already five more catches than he had the entirety of last year. Rosen has shown a propensity for throwing over the middle, which is where Duarte operates, and the two have clearly built a connection. That’s not to say that Jordan Payton has been cast to the wayside, though. Payton, even in a game where he was relatively quiet, still had six catches for 60 yards last week, which puts him at 37 catches for 547 yards this season. He had 67 catches last season, and he’s on pace to get somewhere near that total again this season.
UCLA’s offense is a very good one right now, and if Josh Rosen continues to progress through the next three games against weak defenses, the Bruins could have one of the nation’s best offenses heading into the final stretch against Utah and USC.
With Perkins and Starks back, and UCLA playing well on the offensive line last week even with McDermott out, and with Colorado’s defense probably being as bad, if not worse, than Cal’s, this shapes up to be a very similar matchup for the Bruins. As we said last week against Cal, UCLA can and should be able to run all over the Buffs, and if the Bruins wanted to go to a conservative, run-first game plan for whatever reason, they could probably do so and still win this side of the matchup more than comfortably.
That said, we saw last week against Cal that, even though the matchups might have dictated running the ball, UCLA went to the air a ton (47 attempts for Rosen), and we wouldn’t rule that out again. While Colorado has some talent in the secondary, and can rush the passer a bit, linebacker play has been spotty enough for the Buffs that Rosen could find a lot of room to work with in the soft middle of the defense, and out on the edge (again, much like the Cal game).
Again, as against the Bears, we’d anticipate UCLA being able to get much of what it wants against the Buffalo defense. There isn’t a particularly scary matchup, and if UCLA comes ready to play, this side of the matchup shouldn’t be much of a contest.
Junior Diego Gonzalez (6’0, 215) is Colorado’s placekicker, and while he’s a perfectly adequate college kicker, he’s no Ka'imi Fairbairn (imagine that sentence just last season!). Gonzalez is 12 of 17 this year, and while he isn’t perfectly accurate, he has a big leg, and has made two kicks from 52 yards this season. Fairbairn, on the other hand, has missed just one kick this season (a 50-yarder) and has made kicks from 60 and 53. He’s also the best kickoff guy in the country, if you like that sort of thing. Advantage: UCLA.
Alex Kinney is Colorado’s punter, and he’s not very good. He has had to punt 45 times this season, which is about what you’d expect from Colorado, and is averaging just 37.8 yards per punt. UCLA made the switch at punter last week, bringing in receiver Kenny Walker and benching Matt Mengel, who struggled earlier this year. Walker was pretty good in his two punts, using a rugby style that netted a 37.5 yard average. Walker also gives UCLA the added danger of the fake with his speed, so for that reason, we’ll give the slight nod to UCLA.
Colorado doesn’t have much of a return game to speak of, with Donovan Lee mostly handling kickoffs and not breaking any big ones of note. UCLA, of course, could be without Fuller this week, who has handled the majority of kickoffs and punts this year. Without him, Ishmael Adams could see a return to full-time return duties. He hasn’t looked great this year, but this could be a breakout game for him. In terms of kick coverage, Colorado is pretty good, allowing 22 yards per kick. UCLA has been a little porous this year, so we’ll give a very slight edge in the return game to Colorado.
Compared to last year, UCLA is in a very familiar spot, losing two games at the beginning of October and then rebounding to beat Cal. Now, like last year, UCLA will face Colorado as the Bruins attempt to start a winning streak they hope will carry them into late November.
Last year, Colorado proved to be dangerous, and took the Bruins to double overtime before UCLA prevailed. That game was at Boulder, though, and it was a different, healthier Colorado team than this year. UCLA also was still trying to figure out an identity at that point, with a close win over California the previous week.
This year, UCLA essentially blew out Cal last week, and looked significantly improved on both offense and defense. Colorado is also one of a few Pac-12 teams that is even in the conversation with UCLA in terms of injuries this year, and the Buffaloes have nowhere near UCLA’s depth to deal with those injuries.
Colorado might be able to move the ball some against UCLA, particularly if the running game can get going. Liufau can probably gash UCLA for one or two big runs in this game, since UCLA has shown no ability to deal with a running quarterback this year. But largely, we expect UCLA to be able to take advantage of Colorado’s offensive line issues and get some pressure on Liufau, which will limit Colorado’s offense and force the Buffaloes into more than a few stalled possessions.
On offense, UCLA should be able to do exactly what it did last week: break off big chunks of yardage in the running game and then keep up a steady diet of short and mid-range passes throughout the game. Colorado will probably bring some pressure, so UCLA might not get many opportunities at big, downfield plays, but there should be enough open underneath the safeties that UCLA should have a very efficient day moving the ball.
It’s hard to picture a way that Colorado wins this game. The Buffaloes are depleted, and just simply aren’t very good in any phase of the game. This week and next should give UCLA time to get healthy and ready for what should be a fun final three weeks of the season.