The USC Trojans (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) begin a two-game road trip by visiting the Colorado Buffaloes (4-6, 1-5 Pac-12) on Friday, November 13 at 6 p.m. PST at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2. The Trojans have won all nine previous meetings with the Buffs – including four contests since CU joined the Pac-12 by an average of 28.5 points. In 2014, USC whipped Colorado, 56-28, at the Coliseum. In the previous Boulder encounter, the Trojans earned a 47-29 win in 2013.
Last Saturday, Ronald Jones’ 74-yard TD jaunt highlighted a USC single-game freshman rushing record of 177 yards, while Justin Davis rushed for two scores of his own to lead the Trojans to a 38-30 Homecoming victory over Arizona at the Coliseum. Just a week after suffering a broken bone in his hand against Cal, JuJu Smith-Schuster finished with eight grabs for 138 yards, including a game-turning 72-yard TD, while the USC defense held Arizona’s vaunted rushing attack to just 60 yards. Meanwhile, the Buffaloes were held to 231 total yards in just 53 plays (30 below their season average) in a 42-10 home loss to then-No. 9 Stanford.
USC interim head coach Clay Helton (4-1 at USC, including a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State) has fared well under the circumstances since replacing the fired Steve Sarkisian on Oct. 12. In Boulder, CU headman Mike MacIntyre (26-45 as a head coach, 10-24 at Colorado) is in third year of an effort to revive the Buffs’ once-fearsome program. However, injuries, youth, and a steady diet of oh-so-close losses continue to conspire against him. Colorado’s roster features 15 seniors, while the Buffaloes have played 19 freshmen.Colorado Offense
Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren’s group made a big leap forward in 2014 and has continued to mature in 2015. However, CU has put more emphasis placed on its rushing attack. Colorado ranks in the middle of the conference in both rushing (183.8 yards per game, fifth/Pac-12) and passing (241 yards per game, seventh/Pac-12). But combined, those totals rank the Buffs just ninth in the conference in total offense. Colorado’s scoring offense (27.9 points per game) ranks No. 10 in the Pac-12. The problems: third-down conversions, sacks allowed, and red-zone effectiveness. More was expected from QB Sefo Liufau. Though he’s climbing Colorado’s career charts in a number of categories, the junior’s development seems stuck in neutral, as he is completing just 61.7 percent of his passes with just nine TDs. Interceptions are still a bug for him – he’s thrown six – and though he’s rushed for 262 yards, he’s averaging just 2.5 per carry and has taken the bulk of CU’s 25 sacks allowed.
Nelson Spruce (272 career catches) owns the Pac-12’s and Colorado’s career receptions record and the school’s receiving yards record. In 2015, the reliable 6’1” senior has 67 grabs for an average of 10.9 yards per and two TDs. You can count on Liufau looking for him in big spots. Sophomore Shay Fields is the perfect sidekick – and deep threat – averaging 15.1 yards on 36 catches with a team-leading four TDs. However, he hasn’t been the same since suffering a high ankle sprain against Arizona on Oct. 17, missing one game and recording just four catches in the next two. Sophomore Bryce Bobo (22 catches) has tried to fill the gap, but is only averaging eight yards per catch. Classmate Devin Ross (21 catches, 14.9 yards per, two TDs) is solid out of the slot, while junior tight end Sean Irwin has just eight catches, but is averaging more than 21 yards per.
Colorado’s rushing attack has improved, but it’s still running back by committee in Boulder. Six players have at least 40 carries (including Liufau’s 105 and the injured Michael Adkins II’s 42 – he hasn’t played since week three with a hamstring injury). Sophomore Phillip Lindsay is the leader, averaging 4.7 yards on 107 carries with five TDs. But Lindsay has just 11 carries combined in the past two games. Meanwhile, true freshman Patrick Carr and sophomore Donovan Lee (who also has 19 catches while playing out of the slot) have combined for 46 totes for 195 yards during that time. Senior thumper Christian Powell (326 yards, 5.0 per carry) is the odd man out lately, with only 14 carries in the past five games.
The Buffs entered 2015 with three returning starters on the offensive line – tackles Stephane Nembot, a senior, and Jeromy Irwin, a junior, along with junior center Alex Kelley. But Irwin’s season ended with a torn ACL in CU’s second game. Nembot’s split 10 starts at the two tackle spots (the past five on the left side), while sophomore Sam Kronshage has started six and is listed atop the RT depth chart this week (redshirt freshman John Lisella II started there against Stanford). Things had been more consistent at guard, with sophomores Gerrad Kough (LG) and Jonathan Huckins (RG) starting the first seven, but one of each has missed the past three games with injury. Kough is questionable for Friday night, leaving junior Sully Wiefels likely to play, while junior Shane Callahan appears to have taken Huckins spot in the starting lineup.Colorado Defense
First-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt – the former South Florida head coach who spent the past four seasons as the San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers coach – replaced Kent Baer, who took the same gig at UNLV. Though Colorado’s rushing defense remains the Pac-12’s worst (allowing 208.9 yards per game, No. 110 nationally), the Buffaloes have improved against the pass, allowing nearly 40 yards fewer per outing than a season ago. CU ranks No. 4 in the conference in pass defense and eighth in total defense (428.2 yards allowed per game) – and the Buffs are allowing 11 fewer points per game than 2014 – 28.3 – to rank sixth in the Pac-12. Much of this improvement comes from being more opportunistic. Colorado is +3 in turnover margin this season (after finishing -10 in 2014) thanks to 17 takeaways. Its 11 interceptions rank No. 27 nationally. The Buffaloes also have 23 sacks after notching 22 total in 2014.
Up front in their fluid 3-4 set, junior Jordan Carrell (36 tackles, 1 sack) has played 81.5 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Senior Justin Solis has three sacks among 37 stops at the other tackle spot. Junior Samson Kafovalu (19 stops) also rotates in at tackle. Sophomore Leo Jackson III (30 tackles, two sacks) has seen the bulk of the time at defensive end, though he’s also capable of sliding inside.
Sophomore Derek McCartney moved from DE to rush linebacker on the strong side. He’s tied for the team lead with four sacks among his 50 tackles and is one of eight Buffs with an interception. When junior MIKE linebacker Addison Gillam went down with a torn meniscus in the season’s second game, few expected redshirt freshman Rick Gamboa to step in so spectacularly. All Gamboa has done is lead CU with 68 tackles – ranking fourth in the Buffaloes’ freshman-season annals. At the other inside spot, junior Kenneth Olugbode missed two games due to injury at midseason, but still has 57 tackles plus a pick-six. In his stead, freshman Grant Watanabe has picked up 26 stops in three appearances, including 14 in his college debut at Arizona on Oct. 17. At the WILL linebacker spot – which is often replaced by a nickel back in CU’s scheme, juniors Jimmie Gilbert (36 stops, four sacks) and Jaleel Awini (21 tackles) are splitting time – with Gilbert capable of sliding to defensive end.
The Colorado secondary has benefitted from a consistent starting group, including senior CB Ken Crawley. A returning starter, Crawley has 44 stops and an interception. Across the field, there’s junior Ahkello Witherspoon (38 tackles, two INT). Junior nickel man Chidobe Awuzie has actually started eight times and fills up the stat line – 63 tackles, four sacks, seven pass break-ups, two interceptions. Senior free safety Jered Bell, who missed 2014 with a torn ACL, replaced sophomore Ryan Moeller in the lineup three games ago. Moeller remains doubtful for Friday, still suffering from concussion symptoms. Junior strong safety Tedric Thompson remains a stalwart, with 66 tackles (second on the team) and an interception.Colorado Special Teams
Junior Diego Gonzalez has made all 30 PATs and has shown a big leg in making 16-of-23 FG attempts, including both attempts of 50 yards or longer. Sophomore Chris Graham handles kickoffs, with 17 touchbacks in 54 opportunities, but the Buffs rank No. 84 nationally in kick return defense. Freshman punter Alex Kinney averages 40.3 yards in 54 attempts, but has had two blocked. Spruce is the punt returner, but has had only seven chances (averaging 1.7 yards per). Lee has been solid, if not spectacular, as the kick returner, averaging 23.8 yards on 16 tries.USC Offensive Gameplan
With USC’s focus on running the football in wins over Utah and Cal, it was surprising to see the Trojans come out looking to pass the ball against an admittedly troubled Arizona secondary. As noted here last week, though the Wildcats have struggled mightily against the pass, Arizona’s biggest losses shared a common thread – being gashed on the ground. Certainly, Cody Kessler’s TD toss to Smith-Schuster was the turning point, but the Trojans didn’t stake claim on the outcome until they committed to Jones and Davis on the ground.
After an early focus on the pass contributed to a slow start, and power rushing carried USC to victory late, the Trojans ended up with 38 designed rushing plays and 38 designed passes. Balanced, no doubt – and it also helped USC win the time of possession battle for a fourth consecutive game. But, for much of the first half, it felt like USC had gotten away – just a bit – from its newfound personality.
Returning to the tough, ground-based plan against Colorado, though, seems like a no-brainer. The Buffaloes have allowed at least 200 rushing yards in five of their past six outings – and in the sixth, UCLA averaged 5.3 yards per carry. CU has also been atrocious on third down, ranking 105th nationally by allowing opponents to convert 43.9 percent of the time. USC must exert its will on the ground. If it is successful, that will slow down Colorado’s suddenly decent pass rush. Grinding it out will also help the Trojan defense by limiting the Buffaloes’ offensive snaps – something Stanford did expertly last Saturday.USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense made stopping Arizona’s rushing attack priority No. 1 last Saturday – and USC succeeded in stifling the Wildcats. Arizona rushed for just 60 yards on 32 carries, including losing 27 yards on a season-high six sacks by the Trojan defense. Predictably, though, this led to Arizona’s Anu Solomon having a pretty big day, throwing for 352 yards and staking the Cats to an early 14-0 lead. However, USC adjusted enough to take away some of Solomon’s options, intercept him once, and put some serious pressure on him. And though Arizona continued to gain yards through the air, the Trojans stiffened at the right times, holding Arizona to field goals on three drives, helping build an insurmountable 38-23 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
This week, the Trojans see yet another spread offense with zone-read components in Boulder. However, this Colorado team relies more on the ground game than recent Buffalo squads. Even Liufau is more of a rushing option than he’s ever been, carrying the ball 72 times in six Pac-12 contests. And with Fields limited in recent weeks, the Buffs have struggled to stretch the field with the pass even more.
Expect the Trojans to get physical early with their front seven against a CU offensive line that’s seen some recent upheaval. It’s going to be a very similar look to what the Trojans presented against Arizona – except USC is unlikely to respect the Buffs’ receiving corps, outside of Spruce. Colorado’s been ineffective on third down on offense (No. 92 nationally). The menu for success: get after the Buffs’ ground game early; make Liufau a pocket passer who’s facing pressure; account for Spruce; and keep CU out of third-and-short.The Pick
Just four weeks ago, the Trojans were left for dead by college football media – cast aside as a clown show with a fired coach and an athletic director collapsing on the sideline. And that was before a come-from-behind, then come-from-ahead loss to their rival that dropped their record to 3-3. Today, they stand one winnable game away from a 7-3 mark and a not-unreasonable chance to represent the South Division in the Pac-12 championship game.
With a road trip to Oregon and a season-closing meeting with UCLA on the horizon, though, USC would be well advised to focus all of its energies on what sits in front of it in Boulder. It’s CU’s senior night, the Buffaloes have been close to pulling off a signature upset a couple times in 2015, and this is their last stand for bowl eligibility. The Buffaloes are capable of making this a nail biter if the Trojans aren’t ready.
Helton’s done a great job – so far – of having the Trojans prepared for each game as its own singular event. That’s something Sarkisian didn’t do in his short stint as the Trojans’ coach. Though USC has started slowly the past two weeks, it wasn’t due to a lack of focus on the opponent. Expect the Trojans to be ready to play – even in the frigid temperatures. If USC gets its run game going early and controls the pace of the game, the Trojans should be safely in front by the end of the third quarter.
USC 41, Colorado 24
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)