KNOW YOUR ENEMY: Colorado Offense Preview

Greetings again fellow Cal fans, and happy almost-Saturday. After a mistake-laden yet satisfying win over the Fresno State Bulldogs at Candlestick, we're heading on the road this week to battle the Colorado Buffaloes up in Boulder. As a Californian living in Denver, I hold a special place in my heart for the failures and miseries of the Colorado sports teams. What can I say? Sports-talk radio out here is more entertaining when the local teams suck (thanks Broncos!), and the Buffs were pretty lousy the last couple years...under the now-unemployed Dan Hawkins.

Hawkins was shown the door last year before the season had even concluded, following an epic meltdown against a horrendous Kansas team. Enter Buff alum John Embree, bringing along a staff containing a couple fellow former CU footballers who want to help return the Buffs to their somewhat brief glory days; Eric Bienemy as offensive coordinator, and Kanavis McGhee as D-Line coach. But far more pertinent to Cal fans...Steve Marshall is now the O-line coach at Colorado! And in one of the most lopsided trades ever, Cal hired former Buffs coaches Eric Kiesau (WR's coach) and Ashley Ambrose (DB's Coach). If that seems like an even trade, then I've got a lovely mountain timeshare in Eastern Colorado that might interest you.

Embree and his staff are working hard to turn things around up in Boulder, instilling a new attitude and renewed work ethic that was lacking during the final days of Dan Hawkins' tenure. The Buffs had a tough opening game, losing to Hawaii in Oahu 34-17, but they're fired up for their home opener this weekend...and are likely looking to exact some revenge for the 52-7 pasting administered in the beautiful confines of Strawberry Canyon last year.

Who are the Buffs' key offensive players? What should we expect to see on Saturday? If you're looking for an arrogant writeup that goes heavy on snark and short on legitimate analysis, please read on.

 

2011 record: 0-1 (lost @ Hawaii 34-17)

Last Season: 5-7

2010 NATL RANKS-Offense:

Passing: 222.7 yards/game (58th)

Rushing: 136.83 yards/game (73rd)

Points: 24.2/game (77th)

QB:

STARTER

Tyler Hansen, Senior - 6'1", 215 lbs

For large portions of his first two seasons at CU, Hansen found himself backing up former QB Cody Hawkins, who was clearly better than Hansen...at being the head coach's son. Yeah, Dan Hawkins started his mediocre son as the Colorado QB. That kind of crap may fly in Pop Warner, but IT'S DIVISION ONE FOOTBALL! IT'S THE BIG-12! IT AIN'T INTRAMURALS! Sorry, low hanging fruit and all. Anyway, Hansen did garner some solid starting QB experience when Dan Hawkins received overwhelming pressure to actually, you know, play the best QB on the roster (Hansen started the last 7 games of the 2009 season and the first 7 games of the 2010 season before being injured). He has much better size than Cody Hawkins did, but so do most normal-sized men. He has good mobility (806 career rush yards), but in the Hawaii game he displayed a tendency to hold onto the ball WAY too long (7 sacks...SEVEN SACKS). Some unimaginative play-calling by newbie Offensive Coordinator Eric Bienemy didn't do him many favors either. I saw a Power I formation on damn near every first down, and a Shotgun set with 3 WR's split out wide on damn near every third down. Oh, and Steve Marshall is coaching the O-line charged with protecting him. STEVE! MARSHALL!

Don't get me wrong, Hansen has plenty of talent. He just suffered from a lot of inconsistency last week. He made some great throws, but also some errant ones. This is interesting because he displayed pretty good accuracy in his seven starts during the 2010 season (68.3% completions). His struggles in Week 1 could be chalked up to the following facts: he hadn't started a game since rupturing his spleen last October (rust?), and/or he was never able to get comfortable in the pocket because his O-line was on roller skates all game (also known as the STEVE MARSHALL EFFECT...ZING!). It is worth noting that depth may be a serious issue for CU if Hansen goes down: he's the only QB on the roster who has taken a snap in college.

Upside: mobility, experience

Downside: awareness, depth

What to expect:

I'm not real sure. Hawaii isn't a team known for possessing an awesome defense, and they were pressuring Hansen all game. Was last week an anomaly? I'm inclined to think so. Hansen is historically an accurate passer who can run if need be. Whether his injury last year has made him a bit squeamish is certainly a possibility. It would make sense that he will be better playing back in Boulder. But this week? I happen to believe that our defense is better than Hawaii's. If they rattled Hansen, we should be able to as well. Tyler's spleen remains intact, but Trevor Guyton and Ernie Owusu entertain themselves by using Hansen's gall bladder as a hackey-sack. FLYING DUTCHMAN!


RB:

STARTER

Rodney Stewart, Senior - 5'6", 175 lbs

Want to hear (read) a fun fact I heard on the ESPN2 broadcast of Colorado's game against Hawaii? Rodney "Speedy" Stewart led CU in rushing his Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior years. Neat stat, huh? And let's not ignore the clever nickname. We're 2 for 2 on unoriginal nicknames for small running backs, and we've only done two offensive previews this year! Just wait till I get to Presbyterian and their 5'3" running back James "Munchkin" Bunchkin. Okay, I made that one up. Barring an injury, I don't see any way Speedy doesn't also lead the Buffs in rushing in his senior year too. Like Robbie "Mighty Mouse" Rouse (who we looked at last week vs. Fresno State), Stewart is the Buffs' most proven play-maker on offense (1316 yards rushing and 10 TD's in 2010). Also like Rouse, he's really small. But unlike Rouse, he's very durable and is fine running between the tackles. And as he showed last week against Hawaii, he's a pretty capable receiver out of the backfield (4 catches for 98 yards). That's good, because he didn't find a ton of space in the running game vs. the Rainbow Warriors (52 yards on 18 attempts). He was also the only Colorado running back to get a carry last week. Doesn't speak well to their depth in my opinion.  They don't have a back on the roster who's over 200 pounds either.

Upside: speed, hands

Downside: size, depth

What to expect:

Look for Bienemy to try to find ways to get Stewart into space this Saturday. "Speedy" was most effective when he had room to make a play against Hawaii, whether that manifested itself through screen passes or outside runs. He can definitely make a defender miss in the open field, so sure tackling by our linebackers and secondary will be important. He struggled when he tried to run up the middle though, which can easily be explained by the fact that Steve Marshall is the Colorado O-line coach now. Sensing a theme here? I haven't even gotten to the O-line section of this post yet.

If he finds space, Stewart can hurt us. Expect Coach Pendergast to make bottling up the little running back the primary assignment for our front seven this Saturday. Regardless of whether this game goes Colorado's way or not, Stewart is going to get plenty of touches. He carried the ball 29 times last year against Cal, and we all remember how that game went.

WR:

STARTERS

Paul Richardson, Sophomore - 6'1", 165 lbs

Toney Clemons, Senior - 6'2", 210 lbs

Tyler McCullough, Freshman - 6'5", 205 lbs

Kyle Cefalo, Senior - 5'10", 170 lbs

With Colorado's all-time leading WR Scotty McKnight (50 receptions for 621 yards in 2010) moving on to bigger things (being cut by the Jets), the WR corps for CU has a lot to prove this year. What McKnight lacked in size, he made up for in productivity. Arguably the most dynamic and productive returning WR is Sophomore UCLA transfer Paul Richardson (34 recs for 514 yds, 6 TD's). Outside of Speedy Stewart, Richardson was the biggest weapon for the Buffs in Week 1...snagging three passes for 49 yards and two TD's. He's got good height and can make big plays, as indicated by his 15.12 ypc last year. Also returning with good experience is Michigan transfer Toney Clemons, who hauled in 43 catches for 482 yards and 3 TD's in 2010. Sadly for Toney, he had no catches against Hawaii last week. Clemons has really good size but hasn't been quite the big-play threat he was heralded to be upon arriving in Boulder.  In addition to Richardson and Clemons, look out for rangy true freshman Tyler McCullough, who at 6'5" is drawing comparisons from Colorado faithful to former Bronco Ed McCaffrey...which is about as original as comparing every small, white wide receiver to Wes Welker. Sigh. Kyle Cefalo also should see time as the fourth WR in the slot when the Buffs choose to spread out. This is a pretty good group.

Upside: size

Downside: experience, depth

What to expect:

Is Hawaii that good on defense this year? Really? They typically give up a lot of points, so I'm scratching my head a little bit that the big WRs for Colorado didn't have bigger days. Especially when you consider that they were playing from behind for much of the game. The Cal secondary will see a very different group than the Red Smurfs that Fresno State lined up. Much more length here. Richardson concerns me the most. They certainly have an ability to make plays, it's just a question of whether the ball gets there or not. It didn't last week. Maybe if Steve Marshall could actually coach the O-line worth a damn then Tyler Hansen and his WRs would have time to stretch the field (almost there, don't worry). But the added motivation of a home opener, revenge for last year, and seeking redemption for a quiet previous week may see this group come out hungry to make plays. None of that stuff really adds up to anything tangible though. We should be able to control the Buff passing game by keeping Hansen scrambling or on his back. I like how our Nickel package matches up with this WR group. Like Fresno State last week, our pass rush should force Colorado into short routes and limit the big play.


 

TE:

STARTERS

Ryan Deehan, Senior - 6'5", 245 lbs

Matt Bahr, Senior - 6'4", 260 lbs

Senior Ryan Deehan is the primary TE, and is used more in the passing game. Fifth-year senior Matt Bahr is bigger, and is utilized more as a blocker and in double TE sets. After totaling 25 catches for 249 yards and 1 TD last season, Deehan caught three balls for 29 yards last week against Hawaii, so he certainly appears to be a favorite target for Hansen. Whether its fair or not, judging by the mediocre rushing stats and woeful pass protection in Week 1...Bahr didn't have a great game. It's critical that these two stay healthy this season, because there's a Sophomore and two Freshmen behind them on the depth chart.

Upside: experience, run blocking

Downside: depth

What to expect:

Double TE sets should be pretty common on Saturday, as Colorado will likely need to ensure Tyler Hansen has time to throw. Deehan could be dangerous in the passing game, especially off of play action or designed rollouts.  Hansen will probably need a security blanket underneath, and that blanket is Deehan. Bahr's blocking assignments won't be any easier this week though against the Cal front seven.

OL:

STARTERS

LT- David Bakhtiari, Sophomore - 6'4", 295 lbs (injured week 1)

LG- Ethan Adkins, Senior - 6'4", 290 lbs

C- Daniel Munyer, RS Freshman - 6'2", 290 lbs

RG- Ryan Miller, Senior - 6'8", 295 lbs

RT- Jack Harris, Sophomore - 6'5", 295 lbs

The Buff O-Line unit suffered three huge blows since the end of last season. First, former Left Tackle Nate Solder was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. That's right, the same guy that Jarred Price molested at Memorial Stadium last year. He was a first rounder! Second, they hired Steve Marshall (POW!). And third, starting LT David Bakhtiari sprained his knee last week and is doubtful to play against Cal this Saturday. Replacing Bakhtiari is sophomore Ryan Dannewitz, who is not the player that Bakhtiari was. At the other tackle spot, Jack Harris saw his first collegiate snaps last week against Hawaii and the poor guy got abused most of the game. Serious issues at both tackle spots for CU. The interior of the line sees man-mountain Ryan Miller at Right Guard. Fun fact from the ESPN2 broadcast: Miller played every snap on offense for Colorado the last two years. He brings a lot of experience to this group that frankly, they need badly.  At the other guard spot, Ethan Adkins also brings plenty of experience to the line (11 starts last year and 9 starts in 2009).  Leaning on these two seasoned veterans is Redshirt Freshman Center Daniel Munyer. There were some issues with snaps between Munyer and Hansen last week against Hawaii that you can bet Steve Marshall will be addressing making worse this week (BAM!).

Upside: Steve Marshall has likely ruined any possible upside this group has already (BOOM!).

Downside:  Steve Marshall, starting experience at Center and both Tackle spots

What to expect:

The experience inside did little to help the Buffs last week, as the Hawaiian defensive line spent enough time in the CU backfield that they could have dug a hole back there and roasted a pig if they wanted to. Miller and Adkins appeared just as guilty to me as their less seasoned counterparts too. The group, as a whole, got pushed around and generated very little room for Rodney Stewart to run inside. They also could not handle a four-man rush from Hawaii, which generated enough pressure to either force Hansen into a bad throw or see him take a sack on several occasions. Is any of this sounding familiar, Cal folks? Hmm?

"OH MY GOD! THAT'S STEVE MARSHALL'S MUSIC!!!!"

The Buffs want revenge for last year, huh? Well, I think it's safe to say Cal fans want revenge for last year too, and 2009 as well. Expectation? Sacks, hurries, and TFLs. OH MY.

IN SUMMARY:

In watching and then re-watching the Colorado-Hawaii game, I tried to remind myself of several things:

1.     Playing on Oahu is tough. The same Nevada team that did Cal in Reno last year traveled to Hawaii and lost.

2.     This Hawaii team might be really good, and their defense could be far better than years' past.

3.     It's not fair to judge this Colorado team by this one single game.

I think point #1 is a big one. The difference for Colorado between playing in Hawaii and playing in Boulder will be big; psychologically that should be a serious boost. Point #2? Remains to be seen, but I doubt Hawaii just magically found a defense that is better than the one Cal possesses. With regard to point #3, I've tried not to base too much of my analysis on last week, but what else am I supposed to do with several new faces and a brand new coaching staff? Take a look again at the numbers and national rankings of the 2010 Colorado offense (top of the article). Since then, they've lost a first round Left Tackle and the most productive Wide Receiver in school history. Is it really reasonable to expect so much more from the Buffs this year when those things are taken into account? Does a new coaching staff make you that much better that fast? Um, not when you just hired Steve Marshall as your O-line coach (KABLOOEY!) Plus, there certainly appeared to be some telling issues last week. Will the Buffs be able to effectively run on the Cal defense? Doubt it. Will they be able to pass effectively? Not if Hansen is hearing footsteps all game and worrying about his spleen.

The way I see it, any advantage the Buffs have in the match-up between their offense and Cal's defense comes in the form of the same tired, mildly worthless intangible/nebulous cliches: playing their home opener, new coaching staff=new attitude, letdown game for Cal, blah blah blah. I don't see it; not with this year's Cal team. 5-7 in 2010 doesn't afford you a letdown in the second game of the 2011 season...let alone your first real road game.  And Fresno State was pretty fired up last week. Hell, we even spotted them 7 points right off the bat. But several three and outs and a whole lot of punishment later, you take the fight right out of a team. My main concern? Altitude. Can we maintain a high tempo? I think with the depth we have on the D-line our big uglies will stay fresh. If they can't, we'll probably see a game similar to when Cal visited Fort Collins to play Colorado State in 2007. Get up big early, fade down the stretch...but win. I don't even see the altitude playing enough of a factor to save the Buffs on Saturday though. My prediction? 27-13 BEARS.

Got some thoughts? Let's hear them.

LINKS:

Football - Football Home - CUBuffs.com - Official Athletics Web site of the University of Colorado

The Ralphie Report - For Colorado Buffaloes Fans

cfbstats.com - College Football Statistics

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