Colorado's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
Year four for Mike MacIntyre has been pretty close to storybook so far. The Buffaloes are 6-2, with the only two losses coming on the road against No. 2 Michigan and a USC team that, whatever its record says, has a sincerely pronounced talent advantage over Colorado and basically every other team in the Pac-12. Colorado has made significant improvements on both sides of the ball, and according to at least Bill Connelly's S&P+, the Buffs rank in the top 25 in both offense and defense.
Offensively, the Buffs are pretty balanced, with a generally good rushing attack and a slightly passing attack. They average 4.5 yards per rush attempt (top 40) and a very good 8.3 yards per pass attempt (top 25). They don't turn the ball over much at all, averaging just one giveaway per game, but they do give up a fair amount of sacks (QB sack percentage of 7.26%), but that could be largely because Colorado is very willing to run its quarterback.
The amazing thing for Colorado is that the Buffs are 6-2 despite being without senior starting quarterback Sefo Liufau (6'4, 230) for the entirety of both of Colorado's wins over Oregon and Oregon State, and was also sidelined for a portion of the Michigan game. He was available for the loss to USC, but only took a few snaps as redshirt freshman Steven Montez (6'5, 225) got the start. Liufau started the last two weeks, though, and appears to be back to full health. So far, Liufau is having by far his best year statistically, completing 67% of his passes without throwing an interception so far (over 135 attempts). Last week against Stanford, he didn't look as sharp as he did either against Arizona State or at the beginning of the year -- he was skipping a lot of balls, and just looked a little out of sync. If Liufau goes down for any reason, Montez showed in his play during the stretch Liufau was out that he is more than capable of leading the offense to pretty spectacular performances. In his three full games of action, he completed well over 65% of his passes and threw seven touchdowns against three interceptions.
At running back, you might think that starting junior tailback Phillip Lindsay (5'8, 190) is a typical scatback given his dimensions, but he plays with remarkable toughness, and seems to relish contact. Lindsay is averaging 6.26 yards per attempt this year with nine touchdowns and 745 total yards. He's also an accomplished receiver, with 22 catches for 227 yards and a touchdown. He is absolutely Colorado's number one offensive playmaker. Redshirt sophomore Kyle Evans (5'6, 175) is his primary backup, and he's much more of a traditional scatback. Evans is averaging 4.29 yards per attempt and has six catches as well. Redshirt junior Donovan Lee and freshman Beau Bisharat (6'2, 215) will also get some time.
The receiving corps wasn't exactly heralded coming into this year, but they've been a pleasant surprise, with talented, athletic playmakers at each of the starting positions. The go-to guy has been redshirt junior Devin Ross (5'9, 185) who has 42 catches this year and has shown a knack for finding soft spots in coverage and getting open for first downs. Junior Shay Fields (5'11, 180) has been an explosive playmaker for the Buffs, with nearly 20 yards per catch this season, much of that coming after he already has the ball in his hands. The other starter in the group is junior Bryce Bobo (6'2, 190) who's a long, athletic outside receiver who has the ability to win jump ball situations and also has already made a couple of very acrobatic catches this year. Sophomore Jay MacIntyre (5'10, 190) is the only other receiver really worth mentioning -- the coach's son has 16 catches this year for 174 yards and is a shifty playmaker. Colorado will use a tight end, but for the most part, the Buffs only use them for blocking purposes.
The offensive line has been good enough. As we mentioned, the Buffs are a pretty good rushing team, but they do give up a fair amount of sacks -- some of that is probably on the scrambling nature of the quarterbacks (Montez and Liufau are the third and fourth leading rushers on the team, respectively), but some of that blame has to go on them as well. It's a pretty old and seasoned group, though, as is the case for much of this team overall. From left to right, the Buffs will start redshirt junior Jeromy Irwin (6'5, 295), redshirt junior Gerrad Kough (6'4, 295), redshirt senior Alex Kelley (6'2, 305), redshirt freshman Tim Lynott (6'3, 300), and redshirt junior Sam Kronshage (6'6, 295).
UCLA's defense, from BYU to Washington State, was starting to look like one of the elite units in the country, but last week against Utah, the Bruins took a nosedive. UCLA's pass defense was still respectable, but the run defense grew suddenly very porous, with the Bruins giving up over 300 yards on the ground to the Utes after looking solid against the run in the previous five weeks.
Watching the game now a couple of times, there were a few issues, but mostly, it was a schematic problem. The Bruins didn't put enough guys in the box against a team that was lined up in big sets most of the game, and, coupled with that, UCLA's defensive linemen and linebackers picked a bad game to suddenly start to struggle a bit more. The hope is that it was a one-off performance, and the Bruins can get back to looking like a very good defense this week.
As we reported Sunday, Eddie Vanderdoes suffered an ankle injury at practice on Saturday, and he had a wrap on it when we saw him Sunday. He was walking on the ankle, but you have to imagine he'll be some degree of banged up on Thursday. UCLA's defense without Vanderdoes for much of game two against UNLV was not great, so that's something to monitor. The star of that defensive line has been Takkarist McKinley, who's now drawing notice as a potential first round pick in the NFL Draft. He has seven sacks now on the season after putting together a monster performance against Utah last week, and is playing at a very high level.
The secondary has been the most consistent aspect of the defense, but the Bruins could really use the return of Nathan Meadors. We're uncertain if he'll be back this week, but in his absence, UCLA's corner play hasn't been quite as stellar, and it seems to have put some added pressure on the safeties with some of the shuffling of chairs. Even still, UCLA's secondary is one of the better units in the Pac-12, and, at least statistically, one of the better units in the entire country.
This should be a really fun side of the matchup, assuming UCLA's defense actually shows up (unlike last week). Colorado's offense is well-coached, and they have some very good playmakers, but in terms of overall athleticism, UCLA certainly has the advantage. Though Colorado's offensive line isn't bad, this is another game where we could see McKinley having a big, disruptive performance.
Colorado does have that great equalizer in college football, though, in a mobile quarterback. Liufau is adept at avoiding pressure and buying time with his legs and, when necessary, taking off and running. The Buffs also have a variety of screens and dumpoffs they like to work into their offense, which basically requires that UCLA play with good discipline and not over pursue.
The Buffs shouldn't be able to run on UCLA the way Utah was able to last week, and UCLA showed earlier in the year that it can handle mobile quarterbacks fairly well via one of the linebackers spying. That said, this is probably the most balanced offense UCLA has faced this year, and the Bruins won't be able to just load up and take away Colorado's fastball, because the Buffs can pass or run with relatively equal efficiency.
One wild card is that UCLA's defense could very much be affected by what UCLA manages offensively. If the Bruins go Air Raid again, with all its inherent inefficiencies, that could put some extra strain on the defense that could tilt this matchup in Colorado's favor.