Mike Fafaul (Photo: Steve Cheng)

Game Week: UCLA vs. Colorado Full Preview

Nov. 1 -- Colorado is favored by 12 over the Bruins, which is such a turn from where these programs were trending two months ago...

Facts and Factors

• UCLA heads to Boulder to take on the Colorado Buffaloes Thursday.

• The game will be televised by Fox Sports 1 at 6:00 p.m. PST, with Joe Davis, Brady Quinn and Jenny Taft calling the action.

•  Colorado is 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12 South, which is currently good enough for first place.

• Colorado is ranked #20th in the coaches poll and #23 in AP Poll. 

• UCLA is 3-5 and 1-4 in the Pac-12. 

•  UCLA and Colorado's series goes back to 1980, with UCLA holding a 9-2 advantage.  

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•  Last year against Colorado in the Rose Bowl, UCLA blew an 18-point lead before escaping with a 35-31 win.  The previous year when UCLA traveled to Boulder it took the Bruins two overtimes to put away the Buffaloes, 40-37. 

•  UCLA has lost its five games by a total of 32 points, for  average margin of 6.4 points. 

• When Colorado became ranked earlier this month, it was the first time in 11 years. 

•  The four wins the Buffaloes have achieved in the Pac-12 this season so far are twice the total conference wins they won in the previous three seasons.

• If Colorado finishes the season with a winning record it will be its first since 2005 in Gary Barnett's last season when it went 7-6.  Colorado went through two coaches since Barnett (Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree) without a winning record.  That 2005 Colorado team actually started the season 7-2 but then lost its last four games. 

•  Mike MacIntyre (51) is in his fourth year as the Colorado head coach, with a record of 16-29 in Boulder.  MacIntyre got into coaching mostly because his father was a coach, George MacIntyre, who was the head coach at Vanderbilt in the early ‘80s. The younger MacIntyre was a defensive coordinator at various college football destinations, and also an NFL defensive backs coach.  MacIntyre's first head-coaching gig was at San Jose State, turning around the Spartans by his third year, going 10-2 and ending the season with a national ranking of #21.  He inherited a once-great but abysmal Colorado program, and the general opinion was that he had upgraded it but was still a ways away.  The consensus is that he's reached that "ways away" this season. 

•   If Colorado ends the season with a winning record, it will end the worst period in its football history.  With the 2005 season being its last winning season, the 11 straight years of losing is the longest streak of losing seasons since the program began in 1890. 

• From a results standpoint, the 2016 season is easily UCLA's worst under Jim Mora.  He has never had four conference losses in a season or had this many loses overall in the first 8 games of the season. If UCLA loses to Colorado, it will be the first time Mora lost four games in a row at UCLA. 

• UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley leads the nation in tackles for loss per game (2.0), collecting 13 tackles for loss in the last six games. 

•  Mora has now duplicated the conference record of previous UCLA coach Karl Dorrell at 24-18.  

Folsom Field

•  The Buffaloes play their home games on campus at Folsom Field, which seats 50,193 and uses a grass field.  This season Colorado has had its biggest home attendance since MacIntyre took over the program, averaging 44,977.   It's the fifth highest stadium in terms of elevation in the country, more than 5,440 feet above sea level.

•  Colorado is favored by 10 points. It's the first time Colorado has been favored over UCLA since 2003, when the #24-ranked Buffaloes came from beyond in the last few minutes to beat UCLA, 16-14, in Boulder. It was the first game of the Karl Dorrell era. 

•  The weather forecast calls for a perfect November day in Boulder, with a projected temperature of 68 and sunny. 

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. 

RB Phillip Lindsay (USA Today)

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.

DT Eddie Vanderdoes (Photo by Steve Cheng)

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.

ADVANTAGE: Even

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.

UCLA's Offense vs. Colorado's Defense

Quietly, Colorado's defense might be the best part of the Buffalo team. Colorado has seen some major improvements in the second year under defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, with the Buffs improving quite a bit against both the run and the pass in Leavitt's 3-4 system. The Buffs give up just 3.8 yards per rush attempt (best in the Pac-12) and 6.1 yards per pass attempt (third best in the Pac-12 behind Washington and UCLA, but still top 15). We talked a good deal about balance when we discussed Colorado's offense, but the Buffaloes are equally balanced on defense, and tough to do a whole lot against with great success.

Like that other Mountain team UCLA played a week ago, Colorado is great at forcing turnovers and getting their hands on balls. The Buffs are averaging 2.4 takeaways per game, which is good for 7th in the country and 2nd in the Pac-12 behind Utah. They do that in large part by getting after the quarterback -- Colorado is a top 20 team in terms of sack percentage, right there with Stanford and Washington in that top tier in the league. So, basically, think of this defense as basically a stouter version of Utah's -- they'll force a similar number of mistakes, but won't get gashed nearly as much on the ground or through the air.

The Buffs are damn big up front, which helps. The three-man line averages about 305 pounds, with redshirt senior nose tackle Josh Tupou (6'3, 325) anchoring the group. Tupou doesn't show up a ton in the stats column, as is typically the case for nose tackles, but he has generated a surprising number of stops on his own (33 tackles) along with 1.5 sacks. Next to him, senior defensive tackle/end Jordan Carrell (6'3, 300) is another sizable load who's a bit more of a playmaker than Tupou. Carrell is mobile enough to put some pressure on the quarterback, with 3.5 sacks and five QB pressures this year, but he's also very tout against the run. Redshirt senior Samson Kafovalu (6'4, 295) is another experienced starter on the other side, and he is very similar to Carrell, in that he provides some pass rush element but is also very stout against the run. It's a sizable group, with each of those three having the size to make it difficult to run on the Buffs. Junior Leo Jackson III (6'3, 275) and sophomore Jase Franke (6'3, 260) are the main other two names to watch for, but the starting three get the significant majority of the snaps.

If there's a weakness on defense, it's probably in the linebacker corps, which is more of a relative thing than anything. The best player and athlete in the group is senior Kenneth Olugbode (6'1, 220), who leads the team in tackles and is asked to do a little bit of everything at times, from covering running backs to rushing the passer. He's capable of it all. Senior outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert (6'5, 230) is probably the next most important name to watch in this group. He lines up as a rush end quite a bit and is Colorado's best pass rusher, with 6.5 sacks this season. He has forced five fumbles already this year, so he's certainly one to keep an eye on. Mike linebacker has been an ongoing competition for Colorado this year, with sophomore Rick Gamboa and junior Addison Gillam (6'3, 230) splitting time, though Gamboa is taking the majority of the snaps. Gamboa took over for Gillam after he went down with a knee injury last year, and while Gillam might be slightly outplaying Gamboa this year (at least from a statistical perspective) it appears Colorado has mostly stuck with Gamboa. No other linebackers see a significant amount of time.

CB Chidobe Awuzie (USA Today)

The secondary might be Colorado's strength on defense, and the Buffs are yet another team who can make a claim for the best cornerback tandem in the Pac-12. Seniors Chidobe Awuzie (6'0, 205) and Ahkello Witherspoon (6'3, 195) have quietly developed into a pair of basically shutdown corners. The two have combined for 20 pass breakups this year, and they definitely pass the eye test. Safety play has also been pretty darn good, with senior Tedric Thompson looking like a potential All Pac-12 player this year. Junior Afolabi Laguda (6'1, 205) will line up at free safety and junior Ryan Moeller (6'1, 215) will move to nickel when Colorado goes to five defensive backs, and both of them have been solid as well. 

Across the board, it's worth noting that Colorado's defense might be the most experienced single side of a ball that we've noticed this year. On offense, we tend to think experience can be a little overrated, but on defense, having this many guys who have played this many games together has to be seen as a massive benefit.

UCLA's offense will once again be without Josh Rosen in this game, and that means Mike Fafaul will once again take the reins of the offense. Fafaul has been nowhere near as bad as we feared he would be after Rosen went down, and has actually looked more than competent at times. The issue, so far, has been turnovers. At times, like last week, the offense asked him to do a little too much, and so many of his interceptions came on throws that he really shouldn't have been asked to make -- downfield throws into tight windows. But you can also see his overall lack of game reps showing, as he has made some costly decisions at times.

WR Theo Howard (Photo by Steve Cheng)

That said, he has also made some very good throws, and has been competent enough for the offense to generate points. What hasn't been competent, and what was altogether abandoned against Utah, is the UCLA running game. It's a completely open question what UCLA will do going forward -- whether the Bruins decide to go with 60+ passes from here on out, or if they try, once again, to revive the rushing attack. Given UCLA's offensive line issues, and Colorado's strong defense, we're not sure this would be the game to do that, but we'll see.

UCLA's receiving corps has been dropping balls all year, but was slightly better against Utah, though there were still some drops. Hopefully their upward trend continues, and hopefully we get to see more of the younger receivers now that the season is effectively over.

ADVANTAGE: Colorado

Based on a couple of statistical metrics, Colorado might have the best defense UCLA has faced this year, and that's not a good recipe for success given UCLA's offensive woes. The Buffs are balanced, and they have a very good secondary, so it's easy to imagine Fafaul having a much tougher time than he even had against Utah, when he was picked off four times.

We'd still advocate passing more than running, but the rushing attack probably has to be part of the equation in this one. Colorado could get after Fafaul pretty badly, and unless UCLA wants to burn a redshirt, keeping Fafaul upright has to be a priority. 76 drop backs in this one would not be a good idea if keeping him upright is a goal.

We can see UCLA scoring a little on Colorado -- even with that experienced defense, UCLA has some athletes at receiver, and Fafaul has been good enough to expect that he'll be able to move the offense down the field at least a few times for scores. But we'd be shocked if UCLA scored anywhere near what it did against Utah -- that was probably an anomaly, and this defense is probably better than Utah's.

Special Teams

Colorado's kicking situation is not good. The Buffs lost their starting kicker Diego Gonzalez to an achilles injury earlier this year, and then one of his backups, Davis Price, could be out this week with an illness, leaving junior Chris Graham (6'3, 240) as the likely starting kicker. Graham is 4 of 7 this year on field goals, with three misses from 48, 40, and 42. His long is 36, and we have to imagine that Colorado will be going for it in 4th and short situations between UCLA's 25 and 40. 

Sophomore Alex Kinney (6'1, 205) is an average punter, with a respectable 42.73 punting average. He's only downed 7 of his 40 kicks inside the 20. He had a lot of issues earlier in the year getting punts off against pressure, with Michigan basically winning that game on three punting issues for Colorado. He has cleaned it up since then, though, and been much better of late.

Jay MacIntyre is a very good punt returner for the Buffs, with an average of about 9 yards per return. Freshman Tony Julmisse (6'1, 185) handles most of the kickoff returns, and he has very good speed. He hasn't broken off a big one this year yet, but that seems like it could be coming.

UCLA's special teams are not good either, so this is probably going to end up an even matchup. The Bruins benched both of their freshman kickers last week, since both J.J. Molson and Austin Kent have been struggling, and we'll see if they end up playing much in this one. Molson still handled kickoffs, for what it's worth.

The return game has also not been good for UCLA, and hopefully, as we wrote in our stories last week, UCLA starts to experiment with different guys at kick and punt returner, because Ishmael Adams has not been doing a good job.

ADVANTAGE: Even

Prediction

This is actually a pretty interesting game. While we haven't been bullish on UCLA's chances in a game in weeks, the -12 line on this one in favor of Colorado does give us some pause. While the Bruins aren't anywhere close to the team many people thought they were to start the year, they still do have an athletic advantage over a team like Colorado, especially defensively. The last team that had a pronounced athletic advantage over the Buffs was USC, and the Trojans more or less dominated that game, winning 21-17 in a game that felt nowhere near that close.

We think UCLA should be able to limit the Colorado offense quite a bit. The Bruins are fast to the edge of the field, for the most part, and so much of Colorado's offense is built on quick stuff in and around the line of scrimmage, which should play into UCLA's generally very good pursuit ability. This also isn't a road-grading offensive line, so UCLA's defensive line should be back to looking fairly stout this week. We absolutely think UCLA can limit Colorado to something under its season averages offensively.

The issue for the Bruins is offensively. Colorado's defense doesn't necessarily have an athletic advantage over the Bruins, but they are a much more cohesive unit than UCLA's offense is at this point, and we could definitely see this defense cause Fafaul more issues than he has experienced in a game this year. The secondary is very good, and the pass rush is very good, and that combination could make this a disastrous game for Fafaul, since he'll very likely have no running game to lean on. He'll still probably put together some drives, but we think this could be a game of inconsistency at best for the UCLA offense.

So, in essence, we think UCLA's defense could get back to playing well, but the offense might have one of its worst games of the season. If the defense played a truly elite game, the Bruins could win, but we're not sure they're capable of that sort of play -- very good, yes, but elite, no. Like many games this year, we think it'll end up a one-score game, but with Colorado on top.

Colorado 31
UCLA 23


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