Game Matchups: Utah D vs. Colorado O

UteZone breaks down what to expect when the Utah defense and special teams are on the field

No. 22 Utah (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) heads out on the road to face No. 9 Colorado (9-2, 7-1) in the final game of the regular season. Colorado is playing for the chance to play in the Pac-12 title game against Washington.

Utah is coming off perhaps their most difficult loss of the season, a last-second loss to Oregon. The loss eliminated Utah from the Pac-12 South division race. Colorado is rolling, playing perhaps the best football in the conference. The Buffaloes have won five straight games after defeating Washington State 38-24 last week. If Colorado has a weakness, it is a lack of depth. The Buffaloes play few players on either side of the ball, and have not had to deal with many injuries. They rarely play more than 15 players on offense and defense.

Colorado Offense

On offense, Colorado is balanced though they lean on the running game. They run the ball about 60 percent of the time. What makes Colorado difficult to defend is that they will run any play from any down and distance. They are not an explosive offense, but can methodically move the ball down the field, and they convert a high percentage of their third down attempts.

Quarterback Sefo Liufau is playing the best and most efficient football of his career in his senior season. Liufau has accounted for 2,340 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games. He is completing 67 percent of his passes and has thrown 10 touchdowns to three interceptions. He is also running more than he has in his career, netting 424 yards and six touchdowns—both stats place him second on the team. Most of his passes are short or intermediate routes, getting the ball out quickly to his receivers, though Colorado will take calculated shots down the field.

At running back, Phillip Lindsay leads the conference with 15 rushing touchdowns and is third with 1,081 yards. Lindsay is quick and explosive, a threat to break a long run on any down or distance. Lindsay takes most of the snaps, but will be spelled occasionally by Kyle Evans. Evans has gained 351 yards and scored three touchdowns on 83 carries.

At receiver, Colorado has three quality wide outs in Devin Ross, Shay Fields and Bryce Bobo. Ross leads the team with 56 catches, gaining 664 yards with five touchdowns. He is Liufau’s favorite target on third downs, catching 14 passes for 110 yards and 11 first down conversions. Fields is the deep threat and can beat any corner with his speed. Fields leads the team with 741 yards and eight touchdowns on 43 catches. Bobo is the quick, fast receiver who can make defenders miss. He has caught 41 passes for 543 yards and two touchdowns. Bobo is questionable for the game with a leg injury. If Bobo can’t go, Colorado will have to get creative to replace his production. Jay MacIntyre has the most receptions of the backup receivers, catching 27 passes for 328 yards and a touchdown, though he is listed as the backup to Ross in the slot. Johnny Huntley and Jaleel Awini are listed at Bobo’s outside receiver position, though Huntley has the lone reception for the duo, gaining 14 yards. Depth is a problem at receiver. Colorado does not use the tight end in the passing game, as the five who have played have combined to catch three passes for 20 yards and a touchdown.

The offensive line has had some struggles protecting the quarterback, having allowed 25 sacks. They are good in the run game and do a good job of getting to the second level and sealing off linebackers. There aren’t any real standouts on the line, though left tackle Jeromy Irwin is having a solid season. The right side of the line could struggle against Utah, as redshirt freshmen Tim Lynott and Aaron Haigler will have tough matchups.

Utah Defense

Utah’s tackling has been poor all season, and they were bad once again against the Ducks. Poor angles and sloppy fundamentals have been the main culprits, something Utah can’t afford against Lindsay and other Colorado skill players. Up front, expect Utah to go with a front of Filipo Mokofisi, Pasoni Tasini, Lowell Lotulelei and Hunter Dimick, with Pita Taumoepenu coming in on passing situations. Dimick and Lotulelei played well last week.

At linebacker, Utah lost Cody Barton for the season with a broken collarbone. True freshman Donovan Thompson filled in for Barton and played well in the run game, though he had problems playing his role in pass defense. Utah hopes to have Sunia Tauteoli back. If not, Utah could play with three safeties in passing situations, replacing Thompson with Chase Hansen and bringing in Jordan Fogal to play deep.

Utah’s secondary has been disappointing at times this season, especially the senior corners. Reggie Porter has been the most consistent corner, and he is having a solid season. Dominique Hatfield and Brian Allen have had great moments, but they have also given up big plays. Even Justin Thomas has not been as consistent at nickel this season.

Hansen took a step back last week in coverage, after improving for most of the season at dropping back into deep zones. He has been solid at strong safety this season and is at his best when he is allowed to play near the line-of-scrimmage. Marcus Williams is the best safety in the conference and has teams adjusting their passing game to throw deep to whatever side of the field Williams isn’t covering.

Edge: Colorado

Special Teams

Outside of depth, special teams are the Buffaloes Achilles’ Heel. They can’t kick, struggle punting and could be better in the return game. Colorado has used four field goal kickers. Diego Gonzalez started the season, making 75 percent of his kicks before injuring his Achilles after the third game. Davis Price and Chris Graham have combined to make 11 of 17 kicks Gonzalez. Punter Alex Kinney has also attempt a kick, missing a 31-yard attempt.

Kinney has been a below-average punter this season, netting 36.7 yards per punt with three touchbacks and a blocked punt. He can occasionally get off a long punt, and has been punting into some short fields, but his performance has not been good overall.

Isaiah Oliver is averaging 14.5 yards per punt return, gaining 160 yards on 11 punts, though 68 of those yards came on his touchdown against UCLA. Jay MacIntyre leads the team with 17 punt returns, averaging 8.9 yards per return. On kickoffs, Anthony Julmisse has returned 12 kicks for 259 yards.

Colorado could be better on coverage. They are allowing 12.6 yards per punt return and 25 yards per kick return. Against Michigan, Colorado allowed two punt returns for a touchdown, though one was a 6-yard return of a blocked punt.

Utah’s special teams are again struggling outside of the specialists. Mitch Wishnowsky has all by wrapped up the Ray Guy award as he has a big lead in net punting and is among the national leaders in every catergory. Andy Phillips hasn’t attempted a field goal in the past two games, and has made 14 of 17 kicks this season.

After three good weeks returning kicks in the middle of the season, Utah’s kick return game has returned to missing blocks and not allowing the return man much room. The Utes are averaging 17.75 yards per kick return the past three games. Utah’s punt return game has been non-existent in conference play, with Boobie Hobbs averaging 4.5 yards on 13 returns.

Punt coverage has had some difficulties recently, and has played a role in the Utes last two losses. Against Oregon, a 45-yard punt return set up a touchdown on the next play to pull the Ducks to within three, 14-10. Kick coverage has been solid. 

Edge: Utah

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