Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Colorado Buffaloes Offense

He's baaaaaaack - Doug Pensinger

Previewing the Colorado offense, which will battle Cal's offense to avoid the title of the Pac-12's worst offense. Pillow fight!

"Oh, most definitely" - Paul Richardson, on whether he's excited to play Cal again

This weekend features one of those classic matchups between the negligible force and the trivially movable object. The Buffaloes are averaging 16 points per game in conference matchups and they have not scored more than 23 points in any conference game. There is no reason for any normal team to fear this offense. Unfortunately for us, the Cal defense is anything but normal. Cal's defense is arguably the worst in team history. Further worrying Cal fans is the return of a healthy Paul Richardson. We remember Paul's 284-yard performance against Cal in 2011 and you know he remembers that day. Will Paul run wild on the Cal defense once again? Let's see if you feel any better by the end of this preview.

Scheme

The Colorado offense has undergone some big transformations since the beginning of the year. It's hard to believe this was the nation's 7th-most productive passing offense in the nation after the first two weeks of the season. Since changing quarterbacks, Colorado has gone from a 50-50 run-pass balance to 57-43 weighted in favor of the run. This is not a huge surprise with a true freshman QB. Colorado will run plenty of concepts we've seen many times this season: zone read, power running, screens. The offense shouldn't keep anyone up at night (well, not for fans of normal teams), but they have enough playmakers that Cal's defense could get embarrassed again.

Before we look at some plays, I apologize for the lousy quality of these images. They're good enough for rock and roll, but they're not quite as sharp as the usual images. The video was also heavily compressed, so artifacts pop up all over the place when the camera pans quickly. That shouldn't be a major issue in terms of clarity, however.

Running Game

While Colorado's run plays do not have much variation, they are extremely varied in how they line up before the play. They'll line up in pistol, I-formation, offset I, and use any number of wide receivers and tight ends. Often they'll line up in a heavy set with 2 TEs and 1 or 2 backs. Sometimes they'll use pre-snap movement with one tight end moving across the line of scrimmage; sometimes they'll simultaneously move two tight ends or a TE and a FB across the LoS. If you see pre-snap movement, notice the direction the player(s) moved: Colorado will usually run the play in that direction. Let's get started.

QB Sefo Liufau is in the shotgun as Colorado lines up with 3 WRs, a TE, and a RB, Tony Jones. They'll power run to the strong side of the formation (the side with the TE).

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Colorado will double team the defensive end, double team the defensive tackle, and pull the left guard to serve as RB Tony Jones' lead blocker.

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The left guard manages to take out TWO defenders. This clears the path for Jones (circled), who still has two defenders bearing down on him. He bulldozes through them for a touchdown.

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In our next play Liufau is under center and Colorado lines up with 2 WRs and 2 TEs. On this play the RB Michael Adkins runs off tackle towards the boundary side of the field (top of the screen).

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The entire line does a kick-step left and blocks everyone in front of them. Each man blocks the defender in front of him while the guards move into the second level to take out a safety and LB. The boundary side outside linebacker is unblocked on this particular play.

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Liufau hands off the RB Michael Adkins.

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Adkins has one man to beat: the unblocked outside linebacker (circled).

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Adkins slips past the defender and has a clear path to the end zone.

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Colorado often leaves one of the edge defenders unblocked. This is common in the zone read, but they also do this on standard runs.

Liufau is under center once again in our next play as Colorado rolls out a heavy set. Colorado has 23 personnel: 2 RBs and THREE tight ends. One of the tight ends motions across the line of scrimmage. This is usually an indicator that the play will run in that direction.

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I won't illustrate every block because there are simply too many bodies. I'll illustrate the playside blocks, however. As they often do, Colorado pulls the backside guard. He's not the only lead blocker, though. The Buffs are bringing the whole cavalry: the pulling guard helps seal the edge, the TE in motion will take out the safety, and the fullback will take out the outside linebacker.

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Once again, this leaves one defender for the RB to beat, the strongside cornerback. The defender fails to wrap up Christian Powell, who punishes him.

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Powell slips by and scoots into the endzone for a touchdown.

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Colorado also runs zone read (both inside and outside). QB Sefo Liufau is athletic enough to be dangerous in the running game. He will usually hand the ball off to his RB, but he can burn a defense that does not respect his running ability. We'll illustrate a zone read play next.

Liufau is in the shotgun as Colorado lines up 2 WRs and 2 TEs.

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Liufau reads the unblocked defensive end. The LB keeps outside containment, which prompts Liufau to hand off to Michael Adkins.

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The blocking around the edge isn't great, so Adkins cuts in early. He slips through the hands of several defenders.

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Adkins (leftt) breaks about 1000 tackles and still doesn't go down.

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He goose-steps out of one more tackle and charges 20 more yards for a touchdown.

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Remember how in the USC preview I kept emphasizing Cal's need to make tackles? Let's hope they got all those missed tackles out of their systems last week, because it is imperative that Cal's defenders bring down these slippery RBs.

Our next play is a two-point conversion. The Buffs have attempted five conversions this season and they are typically successful.

Like Oregon, Colorado spreads out the opponent. If a numerical advantage exists, they'll run a 2-point conversion. Otherwise they will reconvene for a PAT. On this occasion, punter Darragh O'Neill likes what he sees.

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On the right side Colorado has four blockers against four defenders (leaving no one to stop the ball carrier). Better yet, that defender on the far right is waaaay out of position. What's he doing out there?

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Colorado triple-teams one of the down linemen and pulls another player over to clear out the middle. The Buffs bet that the circled players on the left will not be fast enough to catch O'Neill before he gets into the end zone. They were correct. O'Neill slips into the end zone.

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Because Colorado lines up in so many different formations, it is imperative for Cal to identify the play immediately after the snap. Colorado does not have a ton of different running plays, so diagnosis should be relatively simple. Sefo is mobile enough that Cal must keep outside containment on all zone read plays. We've seen zone read against Northwestern, Portland State, Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA, Washington, and Arizona. Hopefully by now we've learned to contain the QB (though I won't hold my breath). Finally, the Bears need to make their tackles. This isn't a great running offense, but they'll burn the defense if the RBs break through poor tackles.

Now let's take a look at the Colorado passing game.

Passing

True freshman Sefo Liufau took over as starter against Charleston State and has been moderately successful since. To make his life a little easier, he has one of the best receivers in the nation, Paul Richardson. Yes, that Paul Richardson. They use a combination of deep routes, crossing routes, and screens; they also use playaction to open up the passing lanes. Paul Richardson accounts for 49% of the Buffaloes' receiving yards and 64% of their receiving TDs. If Cal stops Richardson, the Colorado passing game should flounder.

Below Liufau is in the shotgun as Colorado lines up with trips.  The Buffs move one of the trips receivers across the formation pre-snap. This pulls the safety towards the bottom of the screen.

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The motion man stops near the hash mark and the middle of the field is now WIDE open.

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From bottom to top the motion man runs a go route, the inside receiver steps outside and runs a go route, and Paul Richardson runs a crossing route. The motion man's go route pulls the safety down the field while the crossing routes of Richardson and the inside receiver create traffic to slow down Richardson's defender.

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It works, as Richardson's defender is out of position (and not even visible in this frame), leaving Richardson open for an easy pass. Sefo obliges his open receiver.

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Richardson's poor defender has no hope of catching him.

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Richardson spots open space and crosses back across the field.

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He burns the defense for a touchdown.

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Richardson keeps running, all the way to Fort Collins.

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Bye, Paul!

Moral of the story: don't let Paul Richardson get open in the middle of the field. His speed and elusiveness practically guarantee a TD if has that much room to operate.

In our next play, Colorado lines up in the pistol with 3 WRs and a TE. They'll run nearly the same routes as they did in the above example. Will UW's defense fare any better?

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From bottom to top, the outside WR runs a crossing route, the inside receiver cuts outside and runs a go route, and Paul Richardson moves laterally before the snap before running a post route.

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Here's an interesting wrinkle: Colorado pulls the left guard to help the RB block anyone who slips past the line.

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Naturally, Richardson beats his man and is open. Liufau gets good pass protection and delivers an accurate pass.

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Richardson's defender misses the tackle and Paul cruises into the endzone for a touchdown.

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Once again, if Paul Richardson catches a pass in the middle of the field, he will score a TD. I really hope the Bears double-cover him all day. The rest of the Colorado receivers aren't good enough for this strategy to have much downside.

In our next play Liufau is in the shotgun and Colorado lines up with trips left and a WR on the right.

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As we saw in the last two plays, Colorado uses route intersections to create confusion among the defenders. Two of the receivers in trips run quick hitch routes while the innermost receiver runs an out route. The receiver at the top runs a crossing route. With all these short routes, Colorado should easily pick up the 3 yards necessary for a first down.

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Luifau passes to the WR at the top of the screen, but the pass is deflected into the air. The circled safety rushes in to catch the interception and return it for a TD.

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This is what happens when Colorado doesn't pass to Paul Richardson.

Let's take a look at one last play. Colorado lines up the heavy set again, this time on 4th and 1. It must be a run, right?

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Nope, Colorado will try to get UW to bite on the run while the boundary side tight end runs a go route and the fullback tries to slip into the gap opened up by that go route.

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Liufau gets greedy and throws to the TE. The UW defender gave the FB enough space for Liufau to deliver a first-down pass without worrying about the route getting jumped and intercepted. Liufau's overthrow sails past his receiver and directly to a UW defender.

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Liufau is still just a true freshman. Surely the Cal defense is competent enough to prevent a true freshman from having a career game...? We will see on Saturday.

The Cal defense has seen most of these passing concepts before. Colorado will use screens, intersecting routes, and horizontal/vertical stretching to get Paul Richardson alone in space. Richardson is fast enough to beat defenders downfield; this is another option for the Colorado offense, particularly on playaction fakes. And just to induce some extra agita in Cal fans, Colorado will occasionally use TEs, FBs, and RBs in the passing game.

Let's reacquaint ourselves with Paul Richardson and the Colorado offense.

Personnel

Quarterback

Sefo Liufau: 6' 4", 210 lbs, True Fr.

Sefo Liufau made a good first impression on me when he decommitted from Sark and the Huskies to join Colorado this past offseason. Despite being a true freshman, the former four-star recruit has the physical tools to play immediately. He's big and physical yet he has great athleticism that enables him to run swiftly on designed runs and when the pocket breaks down. Not surprisingly, Liufau took over mideseason to replace an increasingly ineffective Connor Wood. The Colorado offense runs more with Liufau as the QB. Liufau is a threat on the zone read plays and he gets about four intentional carries (i.e., not sacks) per game.

He carries himself with an authority and a maturity not common in true freshman. Against UCLA he was the victim of a few late hits and he had no problem getting in Anthony Barr's face to confront him. He even shoved the 245 lb. linebacker. He did not want to start a fight, but he made it clear that he was not going to be pushed around by Barr. Despite the repeated hits by the UCLA defense, Liufau remained poised and continued to play solid, mistake-free ball. He's not always so poised, however. Last week against UW he occasionally tried too hard to make a play when all his receivers were covered. That's not too surprising from a true freshman, however. Despite his physical tools, he's not expected to carry the offense. When he does pass, he's reasonably accurate, though his accuracy wavers wildly from game to game.

Pros

  • Athletic, accurate dual-threat QB
  • Decommitted from Sark and friends

Cons

  • Occasionally forces balls into coverage
  • Has not proven he can carry the offense by himself

Running back

*(RB) Christian Powell: 6' 0", 230 lbs, So.

(RB) Michael Adkins: 5' 10", 200 lbs., True Fr.

(FB) Jordan Murphy, 6' 0", 230 lbs., So.

With the offense averaging 40 carries per game over the last few weeks, the Colorado running backs are expected to shoulder the load on offense. Colorado returns its top three ball carriers from last season, led by Christian Powell, who ran for 691 yards and 7 TDs en route to an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. As you might guess by his physical stats, he's a mountain of a RB who can break tackles and rumble through traffic with defenders on his back. Not surprisingly, he's a great asset in pass protection. Despite his size, he has impressive speed and can burn defenses who miss tackles.

Backing up Powell is true freshman Michael Adkins. He's the offense's speedster, although he is physical enough to break tackles and plow through defenders. He is the team's leader in touchdowns this season thanks to his breakaway speed. While he is an asset on the ground, he is inconsistent in the passing game.

Junior RB Tony Jones will also get a few carries. He was the team's second-leading rusher last season.

Pros

  • Colorado's main backs will punish defenses with poor tackling technique
  • Adkins serves as the lightning to Powell's thunder
  • Generally solid in pass protection

Cons

  • Not very useful in the passing game
  • Running behind an offensive line that struggles to open holes

Wide receiver

*(X) Nelson Spruce: 6' 1", 205 lbs., So.

*(Z) Paul Richardson: 6' 1", 170 lbs., Jr.

Paul Richardson is the star of Colorado's offense. Some were concerned that he may not regain his speed aftear tearing his ACL; he quickly vanquished those fears. Richardson will not physically overpower anyone or make circus catches, but he is fast and elusive. His agility and open-field vision make him extremely dangerous in open space. He enjoyed the best game of his career the last time he faced the Bears and he can replicate the performance if Cal cannot keep him bracketed in coverage.

Colorado's second-leading receiver Nelson Spruce led the team in receiving yards last season with 446 yards and 3 TDs. He has decent speed, size and hands. Tyler McCulloch will also see playing time. He has a huge, 210 lb., 6' 5" frame, although he is not particularly fast or athletic.

Pros

  • Paul Richardson is one of the three best receivers in the Pac-12
  • Richardson and Spruce have great speed

Cons

  • When Richardson is not productive, the Colorado passing game struggles
  • Receivers not named Paul Richardson are merely adequate

Inside receiver

(H) D. D. Goodson: 5' 6", 200 lbs., Jr.

(TE) Scott Fernandez: 6' 3", 250 lbs., Sr.

D.D. Goodson is a versatile player who is third on the team in receiving yards (263) and tied for second in touchdowns (2). As a former running back, he is occasionally involved in the ground game, although he doesn't have a single rushing yard since the second game of the season.

Tight end Scott Fernandez is minimally involved with the offense. He only has five receptions this season. His lone reception in 2012 was an impressive 71-yard touchdown.

Pros

  • Have the potential to be good blockers

Cons

  • Not used much in the passing game

Offensive line

*(LT) Jack Harris: 6' 7", 295 lbs., Sr.

(LG) Kaiwi Crabb: 6' 3", 300 lbs., Jr.

*(C) Gus Handler: 6' 3", 290 lbs., Sr.

*(RG) Daniel Munyer: 6' 2", 290 lbs., Jr.

*(RT) Stephane Nembot: 6' 5", 305 lbs., So.

While you might be worried about all these returning starters and upperclassmen, keep in mind that they were under the tutelage of Steve Marshall for the past few years. As we learned in 2011 and 2012, the stink of Steve Marshall does not wash off very quickly. While the offensive line has improved, it is still a struggling unit. Since 2012, the number of rushing yards per game and yards per carry have risen from 109.83 to 128.56 and 3.09 to 3.54, respectively. The sack numbers have improved tremendously, however, from 4.17 per game to 1.67 per game. But this is still a sub-par offensive line that consistently struggles to create running lanes. Even Ralphie would have a hard time running behind this line.

The line suffered attrition in the offseason as All-Pac-12 left guard Alexander Lewis transferred to Nebraska and David Bakhtiari left for the NFL. Jack Harris has moved to left tackle after previously playing right tackle and right guard. Do not be surprised if he is playing on Sundays within the next couple years. Next to him is left guard Kaiwi Crabb who has returned after a back injury bothered him throughout 2012. Center Gus Handler started during the 2011 season but suffered a high ankle sprain followed by a major MCL sprain in 2012. Right guard Daniel Munyer was an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention last year as he moved back and forth between guard and center. He is arguably the team's best run blocker. Finally we have right tackle Stephane Nembot who has a great physical frame but he is still learning the fundamentals at tackle.

Pros

  • Pass protection is okay
  • Jack Harris has a future in the NFL

Cons

  • "Coached" by Steve Marshall during the last two seasons
  • Poor run blocking

The next section will make you feel better--promise.

Statistics

Individual Stats

Passing

  • Sefo Liufau: 986 yards (63.2%, 7.3 ypa), 5 TDs, 5 interceptions, 128.92 QB efficiency
  • Connor Wood: 1103 yards (53.5%, 7.0 ypa), 8 TDs, 7 interceptions, 120.41 QB efficiency
Although Wood was a more productive QB, Liufau has been the more efficient QB since taking over the starting role.

Rushing

  • Christian Powell: 449 yards (3.87 ypc), 2 TDs
  • Michael Adkins II: 395 yards (5.64 ypc), 5 TDs
  • Tony Jones: 204 yards (3.58 ypc), 1 TD
If you exclude the Charleston Southern game, these RBs only have 3 TDs among them. None of them has exceeded 100 yards in a game besides Adkins in the Charleston-Southern game. They're good backs, but they rarely have anywhere to run but into the arms of a defender.

Receiving

  • Paul Richardson: 1,061 yards (17.68 ypc), 9 TDs
  • Nelson Spruce: 392 yards (10.59 ypc), 2 TDs
  • D. D. Goodson: 263 yards (15.47 ypc), 2 TDs
  • Tyler McCulloch: 138 yards (9.86 ypc), 1 TD
After a stellar start to the season, Paul Richardson has been quiet in November. He's still a home-run threat on every play. He has tallied more than 100 yards on five occasions this season, with two of those games exceeding 200 yards. He "only" has 10 receptions for 147 yards and 2 TDs over the past two games, so he's due for a breakout game. While Spruce and Goodson aren't the focus of the Colorado passing game, they reliably combine for about 50-80 yards per game.

Team Stats

Scoring

  • 24.2 points per game (92nd)
  • 369.0 yards per game (92nd)
Those are both pretty bad. They're last in the conference in total yardage and 11th in the conference in scoring (I'll leave it to the adventurous reader to figure out who is in last place).

Passing

  • 240.4 passing yards per game (60th)
  • 7.3 yards per attempt (62nd)
  • 127.11 efficiency rating (72nd)
These numbers are merely average and have been dropping steadily since the start of the season. They are better than I expected, however. While the numbers aren't bad, the performances in the passing game have been getting worse as the season has progressed. Colorado's three most productive passing games were all in the first four games of the season (before the QB switch) and they scored more than half of their passing touchdowns in the first three games of the season. Colorado has averaged fewer than 200 passing yards per game since starting Liufau at QB. Can Cal do the miraculous and hold a team below 200 passing yards?

Rushing

  • 128.56 rushing yards per game (100th)
  • 3.54 yards per carry (102nd)
  • 8 rushing touchdowns (110th)
This rushing offense is terrible. As bad as these stats are, Cal is worse in every category. Fortunately for Colorado, the run game appears to be improving. They only had 2 games with 100+ yards in their first 5 games, but they have exceeded 100+ yards in each of the last four games. Even worse for us, they only had one rushing touchdown in their first 5 games. They have had 7 in the past 4 games, although 5 of those were against FCS team Charleston-Southern.

Conversions

  • 35.34% third down conversions (99th)
  • 27.27% fourth down conversions (116th)
  • 38.10% red zone touchdown conversions (121st)
This offense struggles mightily when put into high-pressure situations. As terrible as Cal's red zone offense has been, Colorado's touchdown conversion rate is nearly ten percentage points worse. Ouch.

Ball Management

  • 28:44.33 average time of possession (86th)
  • 24.59 seconds per play (pace = moderately slow)
  • 18 turnovers (83rd)
There is nothing particularly noteworthy here. Colorado doesn't hold onto the ball very long, they don't move the ball very quickly, and they don't take care of the ball particularly well.

Negative Yardage

  • 1.67 sacks allowed per game (47th)
  • 4.67 tackles for loss allowed per game (26th)
  • 42.2 penalty yards per game (39th)
Colorado has miraculously been able to rid themselves of the stink of Marshall's O-line (when it comes to pass protection, at least). This is a remarkable improvement from the 4.17 sacks allowed per game last season (123rd in the nation).

Conclusions

Cal has no excuse for allowing anywhere near its league average of 46 points per game. This is not a good offense. In fact, it's downright bad. Colorado has a run-first offense that can't run, quarterbacked by a true freshman making his fifth career start. QB Liufau's mobility makes him an asset in Colorado's zone read, which complements their usual power running game. Colorado has a star receiver in Paul Richardson and he is the linchpin of their offense. Colorado uses go routes, screens, and intersecting routes to get him in open space, where he is best at terrorizing defenders. Limit him, and the offense should flounder. The only way this team is going to score points is if Cal loses track of Paul Richardson and fails to make tackles in the running game. This is a great opportunity for Andy Buh to earn some goodwill among Cal fans and give his team some confidence heading into the Big Game. If Cal allows its usual 46 points to Colorado, it would be a monumental embarrassment that may cost Buh his job. Fortunately, even Buh should be able to limit Colorado's offense.

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