Golden Spotlight: The Colorado Buffaloes

Cal fans, don't write the Colorado game off as a sure thing yet. Because based on their first victory, the Buffs look pretty good.

Colorado vs Colorado State 2010 (via buffvision)

Yeah, you'll say it's Colorado State. But we're not in any position to talk about easy victories.

Last season: 3-9.

Glass half-empty review: Offensive offense. One of the most anemic passing attacks in the country, as head coach Dan Hawkins's son Cody and current starter Tyler Hansen combined for 5.7 yards per attempt (108th in the nation), 52.9% completion percentage (107th in the nation) and about a 106 passer rating (111th in the nation). And arguably the running game was worse--113th in rushing yards per game, 116th in rushing yards per carry. Tailback Rodney Stewart only managed 73 yards a game, his backups combining for only around 30.

Glass half-full review:  People expecting the Bears to blow out Colorado best be wary. Dan Hawkins teams get outcoached often, but they rarely get blown out by their opponents. Last year, they lost the majority of their games by two scores or less. They dropped their final three games by seven, three and eight points, all to bowl-eligible teams (including almost-Big-12-champion-by-just-a-second Nebraska). They showed signs of life in Austin, holding a 14-3 lead two minutes before halftime and holding the Longhorns offense to only 17 points (the other 21 came from a pick-six, a punt block, and a punt return).

So if you're expecting Cal to cover that 7.5 point line with relative ease (which apparently many of you are, since the line's jumped to 9.5), you've been warned.

2010 Season Up To This Point: Beat Colorado State 24-3.

How much you should draw from this result: Colorado lost to Colorado State last year. Colorado had won 23 of the past 30 meetings. It's hard not to say Colorado wasn't amply motivated to take this rivalry game back.

Colorado State is also on a ten game losing streak dating back to last year, so you can't really tell whether the Buffalo shut-down of the Rams is that impressive. But it's safe to say Colorado's own is probably the best of the two 3-9 Colorado teams.

Colorado Run Offense

Rodney Stewart looks like mini Jahvid Best. He's a speedster, he breaks from side to side, he makes things happen in the open field. But I call him mini-Jahvid because he's too small to be anything more than a spotting scatback. Standing at only 5'6 (5'6!!!), Stewart goes down pretty quickly at first contact and will probably get bottled up by a physical front that keeps the holes tight.

To really get moving, Stewart's going to need help from his line to get him going, and they looked pretty weak against the Rams. Colorado State played Colorado straight up (seven men in the box), and the Buffs only managed to generate 3.3 yards per carry, Stewart with 67 yards total. It was a pretty timid effort.

It's surprising, because Colorado's linemen are big--each one weighing around 300 pounds. But it seems they struggle with their girth to get downfield and block for Stewart, who always seems to get piled on earlier than he should. If Colorado wants to get their offense moving this weekend, they're going to need more from the ground to get into the end zone.

Colorado Pass Offense

Hansen won the starting spot midway through last season after gaining the experience needed to run Hawkins's offense (no soccer dad mentality here!). He is definitely more athletic and more mobile, showing his ability to run on more than one play. He spread out the Rams with wide receiver screens (sound familiar?) before resorting to simple receiving routes, like crossing or stop routes that went away from the defense. He did make a bad interception, but he threw for two scores (relatively easy scores) and ran for another one. 

To get to Hansen, Cal's pass rushing defensive line will have to get through their big offensive line, primarily left tackle Nate Solder, who will do his best to shut down Cameron Jordan and the various defensive ends in the Golden Bear rotation. Solder had an excellent game against CSU, according to DavidAGerhardt of Ralphie Report.

Nate Solder is good both in pass protection, and in-line blocking and pulling. He's becoming the total package. I'm interested to see how well he anchors against bigger and stronger Defensive Ends, but I think his footwork and hand placement is catching up to his athletic ability. We'll know for sure after the Cal game, and then again after the Georgia game. But damn is he agile out in open space. There were a couple of adjustments he made while pulling that were SPECTACULAR. Holy cow. He wasn't perfect, but he's getting there.

Solder's performance against Cal's defensive ends could go a long way to securing his pro credentials. He's already getting looks as a first-rounder.

It's the rest of the offensive line that's a major concern in making sure their quarterback stays on his feet. One thing that Ralphie Report mentioned is the constant rotation at left guard and center due to their inconsistencies in pass protection.

Both Adkins and Keenan Stevens had some issues out there. Stevens had some mis-calls in protection and he got thrown around a bit by the Rams DTs. As did Adkins. Adkins was the culprit on the 2nd half sack of Hansen. The DE twisted around the DT and as Adkins tried to shift and pick him up, he fell down, giving the DE a clear shot at Hansen. Ryan Miller got back there and tried to help, but it was too late by then.

If Hansen gets the protection he need, he has a much, much improved receiving corps thanks to NCAA transfers. Most people who have followed the Buffaloes are probably familiar with Scotty McKnight. He's on the Biletnikoff Watch List, and for good reason.

A former walk on who will leave CU with most of the receiving records. He has become a legitimate WR, not just a possession type guy either. He has been given that title because he has generally been double-covered since he was our only receiving threat for much of his career, but he will get downfield this year. He is also a legitimate NFL prospect. Maybe not a high draft choice, but he is every bit as technically sound, intelligent and dedicated as guys like Wes Welker. He will probably lead the team in receptions for a fourth straight year, and he will be a security blanket for his QB.

This year though, McKnight is not the sole weapon. Thanks to transfers Toney Clemons (junior from Michigan), Travon Patterson (senior from USC), Paul Richardson (former UCLA commit), Colorado can spread the field more and give weapons for the young quarterback to work with and grow with during the season. Clemons is probably the most impressive of the bunch, as RR has gone on record as saying he will lead the team in receiving yards. Kyle Cefalo is a good change-of-pace guy who can go brutish and shed tackles when necessary.

If the Bears have their usual success in plugging up the run, Cal could be in their nickel formation early and often trying to defend these multiple options. There's a lot more skill and an athletic look to this lineup that wasn't there in year's past.

Colorado Run Defense

This offseason, I highlighted Colorado's secondary as the strength of their team. Perhaps I should have looked at their front seven, which dominated the Rams. I don't care what team you are, giving up under 2 yards per rushing carry is impressive, even if you know Steve Fairchild will run the ball on 1st down no matter what the score.

All four starters from the defensive line return, but none of them jump out at you. But they took care of the Rams with great instincts and ability to close up running lanes easily, getting into the backfield and gobbling up Rodney Carter. Shane Vereen will have his work cut out for him if he gets that kind of protection.

The linebacking corps has no clear leader, but sophomore Jon Major might be the best guy out of all of them.

He's starting to look like the guy we all thought he would be when we signed one of the top LBs in the country and the best player in the state. He is recovering nicely from the nasty knee injury, and looks to be as fast as he was before, if not even a little faster. He can run and hit and he is really instinctive. He still has some technique stuff to work on, like shedding blocks and he could stand to be better at tracking guys in coverage, but I am being pretty nitpicky with him. He's awesome. This year he should be good, and he could be great the year after that. He should be one of the next noteworthy CU LBs that Cabral has pumped out. He seems to have a starting position pretty well locked up, but they definitely will do some rotating with guys to keep them fresh. Like I said, he could stand to improve in coverage a bit, and they guy behind him is a former safety.

Colorado Passing Defense

For those waiting for Kevin Riley to get tested, this is the first big one. The two cornerbacks form one of the strongest tandems he'll face all season long, both with genuine professional talent.

  • Jalil Brown, Sr: They've been working hard on creating turnovers, so I fully expect Brown to get his hands on plenty of passes this season. I wouldn't be surprised to see him be among the Big 12 leaders in picks at least through the pre-season, if not at the end of the year as well. He's one of the strongest DBs we have, and isn't afraid to come up to make a tackle. Has very good size and speed, and should be even better in coverage this season. He looked better in fall camp than he did at any point last year.
  • Jimmy Smith, Sr: He is finally doing what he needs to do to become great. He is dedicated, intelligent and he finally knows exactly what he's doing out there ... He is the complete package. He's tall, has long arms, is both fast and quick, is smart, knows how to use the sideline like an extra defender and can hit. There isn't really much he can't do.

Smith had two picks, ten pass breakups and seventy tackles last year; Brown two picks, fifteen pass breakups and sixty-six tackles. They combined for another seven tackles and a pick in the season opener and kind of look like the 2008 combo of Syd'Quan Thompson and Darian Hagan.

The pass defense did force three interceptions last week on quarterback Peter Thomas. But that was a redshirt freshman Colorado State was throwing out there, and most of those were rookie throws. So a lot of the pass defense could depend on the front seven's ability to get pressure. Colorado did go to a four defensive end front on third downs to try and get more athleticism and get past the linemen), with marginal success. Major can also go back and cover tight ends pretty well, which would lead to some interesting matchup issues against Cal's two tight end sets.

One note: Parker Orms, the hard hitting safety who would've really solidified this unit's foundation, is out for the year with a torn ACL. That's a tough loss for the Buffs, but Travis Sandersfield came in and played very well in his place, even snaring an interception. Don't expect the Buffaloes to be easy to pass on by any measure, and don't be shocked if Kevin Riley has a tough Saturday. This game could come down to which defense blinks the most, because both units will probably make the offenses work hard for their points.

Colorado Special Teams

Their senior kicker Arik Goodman does not inspire confidence. In Boulder, he finally put it together last season, nailing 7 of 9 field goals. Away from the silver state though, he's a headcase. In his Buffalo career, he's 9 of 20, 45% in road games. Last season alone, he nailed a mere 3 of 9. You could expect a lot of 4th and short situations on Cal's side of the field where Hawkins thinks twice about sending Goodman out onto the field. His kickoffs away from Boulder also don't provide much promise, decreasing by an average of six yards on the road compared to home games.

Ralphie Report detailed him quite well.

Goodman has shown us time and again that he can't deal with the pressure of game-day. He always looks good in practice, but then his technique starts to falter during games, and he lets misses affect him way too much. He starts to pick up his head before he's kicked the ball, twisting his body and throwing off his accuracy. You need to keep your head down and watch where the ball WAS, not where it's going. You do that pre-snap. He may just be too high-strung to be a successful college kicker.

Yikes. And we thought we had kicking woes.

Freshman punter Zach Grossnickle is a good upgrade over the worst punting unit in the Big 12 last season, improving the average punt a good three yards from about 38.07 yards (awful) to 41.43 yards (average) in the season opener.

However, the punt return game should be much improved. After finishing 117th the year before in punt return yardage (a meager 3.33 yards averaged per return), the talented Patterson has taken over responsibilities, and it showed with 11.5 yards per punt return, including the highlight in the video above at 5:44 where he juked out a few Rams.

Conclusions

So even if the Buffaloes went 3-9 last season, don't go sleeping on them on Saturday. There's a lot of new talent (both from within and without) that's injected Colorado with plenty of ability, ability that could definitely spring an upset in Memorial.

And if you do sleep on this and think Ralphie's Boys are ripe to be railroaded?  Well, I'll be shaking my head when you come crying later this weekend and spew on about how we didn't do our job right. Just remember that the other team plays football too.

(Thanks to norcalnick and Kodiak for their help with compiling this, and of course Ralphie Report for their invaluable posts on Colorado football)

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