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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Colorado Offense

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The Colorado offense has gone uptempo this season but cannot seem to turn increased production into more points. Can Cal avoid getting trampled by the Buffaloes again?

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Weeks like these make me really appreciate that my job is to preview the opposing offense.  After that colossal faceplant on Saturday night, I wanted nothing further to do with the Arizona game.  Sunday afternoon I started pulling stats and looking for tape on Colorado and I haven't looked back to that wretched Arizona game.  I tip my hat to Nam and Scott who were still writing about the game on Monday and Tuesday; that is an unenviable task.  In addition feeling better because I was repressing all memories of Saturday night, I was feeling better on Sunday because it's immediately clear that this Colorado offense is not very good.  The statistics may show some improvement, but this is still a Colorado team that is a long way from looking like a formidable opponent in the Pac-12 South.  Mike MacIntrye, however, looks much improved--have you seen how much weight he lost?  That's quite an accomplishment.

Like Mike, the Colorado offense is also a bit faster and more lively this season.  He and the team worked heavily on picking up the pace this offseason and early results indicate that they are playing at a faster tempo.  As a result, they're running more plays and accumulating more yards.  Unfortunately, they're not particularly efficient at picking up yards and they've had trouble turning those additional yards into points.  Even if this team runs 106 plays, I doubt they'll be putting up 36 points on Cal in a single quarter.

Passing

Paul Richardson is gone.  Let me say that again: PAUL RICHARDSON IS GONE!  This is a wonderful development for us.

After Sefo Liufau took over as QB midway through last season, the Colorado offense shifted from pass-heavy to run-heavy.  Now that Liufau has more experience under his belt, the Colorado offense is moving towards the pass again.  The Buffs have thrown on 54% of plays this season.  Although Richardson is off terrorizing NFL defenses, Nelson Spruce has dutifully filled in as the top receiver and I'm sure he's looking to repeat his 140-yard performance against the Bears from last season.

Scheme

Colorado's passing offense is primarily a spread offense, although they have a distinct approach to it.  Colorado relies very heavily on pre-snap movement.  This is useful because it 1) usually forces the defense to reveal its coverage (or at least part of it) and 2) opens up holes in the defense for Liufau and the receivers to exploit.  Let's take a look at how Colorado's passing game operates.

Below Liufau is in the shotgun as Colorado lines up with trips at the top.  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 now has a big hole behind the linebackers.  Meanwhile the linebackers have moved up to show a blitz.  If they blitz instead of falling back into coverage, Colorado could exploit a huge hole in the defense.

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Now that the offense is set, let's take a look at what Colorado will do.  From bottom to top the outside receiver gets cut off by the camera operator (thanks Larry Scott!), the motion man runs a go route (highlighted gold), the inside receiver at the top steps outside and runs a go route (highlighted gold), and Paul Richardson runs a crossing route (highlighted white).

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The motion man's go route pulls the safety down the field while at the top of the field the intersecting routes of Richardson and the inside receiver create some confusion.  The DB covering Richardson picks up the inside receiver, who runs a route in his zone.  The DB covering the inside receiver initially looks like he's playing man coverage, as he begins to follow his receiver into the other DB's zone.  This creates enough space for Richardson to break free.  Game over.

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The play works as planned.  Confusion reigns as Richardson's defender is out of position, leaving Richardson open for an easy pass. Sefo obliges his open receiver and they're off to the races.  The DBs appear to be confused about whether they're playing zone or man and Colorado's intersecting routes exploit that confusion.

Below Colorado lines up with 11 personnel (1 TE, 1 RB).  They have two receivers on the field side (bottom) and one WR on the boundary side (top).  The set the field side outside receiver in motion.

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The motion man's defender follows him, which suggests that the DBs are playing zone.  The intended receiver with the gold route will move outside and run a go route.  The boundary side outside receiver (bottom with the black route) will run directly at the intended receiver's defender before heading downfield.  It's not quite a pick, not quite a screen, but an example of how Colorado uses intersecting routes to create traffic among defenders.  Arizona employed the same strategy last week.

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Here is the play in motion.  Colorado doesn't have any speedsters in its receiving corps so it will use plays like this to create separation for its receivers.

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One last passing play.  Guess whose base formation this looks like?

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Believe it or not, Colorado uses pre-snap motion to try to create space in the middle of the field.  Prior to the snap the RB runs horizonally across the field before looking back at the QB as if the RB plans to run a wheel route. The defense appears to be in man coverage, as a linebacker follows him across the field.  Because the linebacker has moved out of the middle of the field, the boundary side receiver's slant route (highlighted gold) will be wide open.

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The linebacker gets pulled away from the middle of the field, which opens the defense for an easy catch on a slant route.

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Last week we saw how the Arizona offense uses space (or lack thereof) to create confusion and exploit miscommunication on the defense.  Colorado instead uses pre-snap motion to try to exploit the same issues on defense.  If defenders get their coverage assignments mixed up, Colorado will attack that weakness in the defense.  To be successful against the Colorado passing offense, each Cal defender must maintain his assignment and trust his teammates to maintain theirs.

Stats

The Colorado passing game has been more productive than most would expect over the past couple seasons.  The problem is that production does not necessarily imply efficiency (something we know all too well from Cal's passing offense last year).

  • (2014) 289.8 yards per game (31st)
  • (2013) 248.5 yards per game (47th)
  • (2014) 6.4 yards per attempt (88th)
  • (2013) 7.3 yards per attempt (56th)
  • (2014) 130.19 efficiency rating (75th)
  • (2013) 127.83 efficiency rating (70th)

The offense is more productive this year, but substantially less efficient in terms of yards per attempt.  Pass efficiency has improved, but that's primarily driven by a lower turnover rate.

True sophomore Sefo Liufau has improved nearly all his statistics except yards per attempt.  One may be tempted to assume this is due to the loss of a home run threat like Paul Richardson, but Colorado's rates of pass plays of 10+, 20+, and 30+ yards have not changed much this season.

  • QB #13 Sefo Liufau (2014): 281 yards per game, 6.5 yards per attempt, 64.0% completions, 10 TDs, 5 interceptions, 132.22 efficiency rating
  • QB #13 Sefo Liufau (2013): 222 yards per game, 7.1 yards per attempt, 59.4% completions, 12 TDs, 8 interceptions

Believe it or not, Liufau is averaging almost as many passing yards as Goff this season.  He requires almost 60% more passes per game to accomplish that same feat, however.

Let's take a look at their receivers' productivity.

  • WR #22 Nelson Spruce (2014): 130 yards per game, 7 TDs
  • WR #22 Nelson Spruce (2013): 54 yards per game, 4 TDs
  • WR #5 Shay Fields (2014): 50 yards per game, 2 TDs
  • WR (H) #3 D.D. Goodson (2014): 34 yards per game, 0 TDs.
  • WR (H)  #3 D.D. Goodson (2013): 26 yards per game, 2 TDs
  • WR #87 Tyler McCulloch (2014): 23 yards per game, 0 TDs
  • WR #87 Tyler McCulloch (2013): 12 yards per game, 1 TDs

As you can see, Nelson Spruce is doing a fantastic job replacing Paul Richardson as the Buffs' top receiver.  You all will be pleased to know that tight ends account for only 4 of the Buffs' 114 receptions so far this year.  Let's keep it that way this Saturday.

Personnel

The fact that I don't have to talk about Paul Richardson here makes me incredibly happy.

Colorado's passing game is led by 6' 4", 225lb sophomore QB Sefo Luifau.  He took over the starting role midway through last season and enjoyed a breakout game against Cal.  His 364 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 170.76 efficiency rating against the Bears are all career highs and his 3 TDs against Cal remain tied as his career high.  I'm sure he's excited to play the Bears.

With Paul Richardson joining the Seattle Seahawks, Colorado has been looking for a new #1 target.  Fortunately for them, Nelson Spruce has helped to replace Richardson's production.  The 6' 1", 195lb Spruce is an extremely reliable receiver who has not dropped a single pass this season.  He leads the Buffs with 9 receptions per game and an impressive 130 yards per game.  That's more yardage than Richardson ever averaged in a season at Colorado.

Colorado's secondary target is 5' 11", 170lbs true freshman Shay Fields.  Fields' 27 receptions are second on the team, but he's only averaging 7.4 yards per reception.  Look for him as a target on short routes such as slants and crossing routes.  Fields and Spruce have hauled in nearly half of the Buffs' receptions this season.

With exception to 6' 2", 190 lb true freshman Bryce Bobo (11 receptions), none of Colorado's other receivers have double-digit receptions this year.  This passing game is clearly the Nelson Spruce show.  Other receivers include 5' 6", 175lb D.D. Goodson and a receiver whose size could potentially give our DBs trouble.  Fortunately the 6' 5", 215lb Tyler McCulloch is not particularly fast or athletic.

Colorado's pass protection is spotty at times (especially at the tackle positions), but the offensive line has improved from the abysmal Marshall years.  The line is replacing two-year starters center Gus Handler and left tackle Jack Harris.

Rushing

The Colorado rushing offense may be the most diverse in the conference.  They'll run inside zone read, outside zone read, reverses, power runs and do these from the pistol, I-formation, offset I-formation, and heavy sets with up to three tight ends.  While this rushing offense may be a jack of all trades, it is a master of none.  Colorado's rushing offense is more productive this season, but it only has 3 rushing touchdowns in 4 games, and one of those was scored by a receiver.  Furthermore, none of the backs are particularly frightening.  Colorado returns all of its playmakers from a rushing attack that only averaged 3.18 yards per carry against the worst defense in Cal history (and that was one of Colorado's better performances last season).  This is not a ground game that will keep Art Kaufman up at night.

Scheme

First let's take a look at the bread and butter of Colorado's running game, the zone read.  Below Liufau is in the shotgun as Colorado lines up with 2 WRs and 2 TEs.

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The basic concept of the zone read is that the QB and RB mesh while the QB reads an unblocked defender, usually a defensive end or linebacker.  If the defensive player steps inside to stop the run, the QB will keep the ball and head outside.  If the defensive player stays outside to contain the QB, the QB will hand off to the RB.  If the defender runs towards the RB, the QB will keep the ball and run with it.  Below QB Sefo Liufau reads the unblocked defensive end. The DE stays far enough outside for Liufau to hand off to Michael Adkins.

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These Colorado RBs are quite slippery and will punish defenders who do not tackle properly.  Adkins turns a 3-4 yard gain into a touchdown.

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Although Colorado runs the zone read, the QB is rarely going to run the ball.  Liufau only runs the ball about three times per game, and some of these occur on improvised scrambles.  Without a credible running threat from the QB, the zone read loses its potency.  In fact, frequently Liufau meshes as if to suggest zone read but does not read a defender at all.  He's going to hand the ball off and we all know it.

Below is a zone read look (again, they pause to mesh) where no one is actually being read.  Furthermore, look how much room Liufau had to run if he had kept the ball.  This appears to be a designed run for the RB.

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Here's another example of why Colorado's zone read is rather underwhelming.  Colorado leaves the defensive end at the top of the screen unblocked.  The DE pays no attention whatsoever to the QB and moves inside to stop the RB.  Surely the QB will keep the ball, right?

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Wrong.  The QB had tons of open space to run but handed off for a gain of maybe 3 yards.  Either the QB is illiterate or this was a designed run for the RB.

I mentioned that Colorado likes to use power sets on occasion, particularly in the red zone.  They use pro-style running and frequently pull linemen to serve as additional lead blockers for the running back.  I illustrate an example below.

Liufau is under center as Colorado rolls out a heavy pistol set. Colorado has 23 personnel: 2 RBs and THREE tight ends. One of the tight ends motions across the line of scrimmage (pre-snap motion? you don't say!). 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 in these heavy sets, 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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This leaves one defender for the RB to beat, the strongside cornerback. The defender fails to wrap up Christian Powell, who rumbles into the end zone.


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Sometimes Colorado will use pre-snap movement to bait the defense into defending the wrong part of the field, as illustrated below in this reverse play.

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Colorado will combine elements of the zone read into its passing game.  Below Colorado leaves both defensive ends (why both? I don't know.  It may be a blown assignment) unblocked and Liufau reads the DE during the mesh.  Liufau's options here are to hand the ball off to his RB or throw a screen pass to D.D. Goodson.  Liufau opts to throw the ball to his receiver.

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These kinds of plays can be used to keep the defense balanced.  If the defense devotes too much focus to the run, Colorado can burn them with the pass.  If the defense overcommits to the passing game, Colorado will have a numbers advantage on the run. This should sound familiar, as Arizona employed the same play in its playbook.

Colorado will also use more traditional playaction looks to try to get the defense to bite on the run.

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Stats

The Colorado running game is both more productive and more efficient this year.

  • (2014) 160.00 yards per game (72nd)
  • (2013) 120.83 yards per game (109th)
  • (2014) 4.16 yards per carry (72nd)
  • (2013) 3.44 yards per carry (111th)

It's still a below-average rushing offense, but it's clearly improving.

Colorado employs a committee of running backs and no one has stood out as particularly impressive this season.

  • RB #36 Christian Powell (2014): 63 yards per game, 5.08 ypc, 1 TDs
  • RB #36 Christian Powell (2013): 47 yards per game, 3.8 yards per carry, 3 TDs
  • RB #19 Michael Adkins II (2014): 18 yards per game, 3.0 ypc, 0 TDs
  • RB #19 Michael Adkins II (2013): 59 yards per game, 5.2 ypc, 6 TDs
  • RB #26 Tony Jones (2014): 27 yards per game, 5.0 ypc, 1 TD
  • RB #26 Tony Jones (2013): 21 yards per game, 3.4 ypc, 1 TD
  • RB #23 Phillip Lindsay (2014): 26 yards per game, 4.0 ypc, 0 TDs
  • QB #13 Sefo Liufau (2014): 15 yards per game, 2.90 ypc, 0 TDs
  • QB #13 Sefo Liufau (2013): 6 yards per game, 1.0 ypc, 0 TDs

Note how sparse those touchdown numbers are...

Powell and Jones are both averaging over 5 yards per carry this season, a strong improvement from last year.  Considering the defenses Colorado has played this season, we should expect those yards-per-carry number to regress towards last year's numbers as the season progresses.

Personnel

Colorado's lead back is a big 'un.  Christian Powell is a 6' 0", 230lb back who is a big, physical runner.  His size makes him a great back in pass protection.  Although he's best at breaking through defenders, he has decent speed.  Powell's 49 carries lead the team by a large margin.

Colorado's three other backs all have 20-26 carries over the course of the season.  The 5' 10", 195lb Michael Adkins is the fastest RB on the roster, but he rarely gets the opportunity to show off that speed.  Although he was the Buffs' second-leading rusher last year, most of his yards came against Charleston Southern and in garbage time of other games.  His yards-per-carry drops to about 4 if you remove those garbage time and Charleston-Southern stats.  We will also see some action from 5' 7", 190lb Tony Jones and 5' 8", 175lb Phillip Lindsay.  Both are unremarkable backs.

Considering how well we stifled the potent Arizona running game last week, we should have no problem holding Colorado under 100 rushing yards.  Hawaii managed to hold Colorado to 118 rushing yards last week and Hawaii's run defense was abysmal last season: over 200 yards allowed per game and nearly 300 yards allowed per game in November.

Miscellaneous

And now for the tidbits we could not get to earlier.

Total Offense

The Colorado offense is averaging 20% more yardage this season but is only converting that into .4 more points per game.  That's troubling.

  • (2014) 25.8 points per game (89th)
  • (2013) 25.4 points per game (87th)
  • (2014) 449.8 total yards per game (51st)
  • (2013) 369.9 total yards per game (88th)
Conversions

Colorado was atrocious on third down and red zone conversions last season.  They're much better at these conversions.  So why isn't the offense scoring more points this season?

  • (2014) 42.03% third down conversions (61st)
  • (2013) 33.72% third down conversions (107th)
  • (2014) 69.23% red zone touchdowns (44th)
  • (2013) 43.75% red zone touchdowns (122nd)

Negative yardage

This may offer some insight into why Colorado is more productive on the field and unchanged on the scoreboard.  So far they find themselves moving backwards much more often this season.  The sack numbers are slightly improved, but they're giving up more tackles for loss per game and accumulating almost 50 more penalty yards per game.  The turnover rate is down slightly.

  • (2014) 1.5 sacks allowed per game (45th)
  • (2013) 1.67 sacks allowed per game (44th)
  • (2014) 6.25 tackles for loss allowed per game (85th)
  • (2013) 4.92 tackles for loss allowed per game (26th)
  • (2014) 86.5 penalty yards per game (120th)
  • (2013) 38.4 penalty yards per game (22nd)
  • (2014) 6 turnovers (67th)
  • (2013) 24 turnovers (89th)

Clock management

Given how badly our lack of depth was exposed last week, I'm devoting an entire subsection to clock management.  Colorado's uptempo talk is more than mere talk: the Buffs are averaging almost 15 more plays per game and playing at a faster pace.  The time of possession has increased by over four minutes, which could tire us out by the end of the fourth quarter.

  • (2014) avg. time of possession 32:59.25 (18th)
  • (2013) avg. time of possession 28:49.25 (89th)
  • (2014) 23.70 seconds per play (moderate pace)
  • (2013) 24.94 seconds per play (moderately slow)
  • (2014) 83.5 plays per game
  • (2013) 69.3 plays per game

Do you want to know something frightening?  Colorado only has 6 fewer plays this season than Arizona.

Conclusions

Let's recap:  Colorado's spread offense has gone uptempo this season.  Although they're generating more yards, they're struggling to turn those yards into points.  Colorado's passing offense relies heavily on pre-snap motion and intersecting routes to get defenders out of position.  Although Colorado does not have great playmakers, its scheme helps get its receivers in open space.  The running game primarily relies on zone read.  It's not a true zone read, however. It's more like reading at a third grade level.  Liufau will rarely keep the ball and often won't even read a defender.  In the red zone Colorado will use its power running game.  Fortunately for us, the Colorado rushing attack is not very productive.  This is probably the worst offense we will face this season.  Of course, that didn't stop them from putting up 41 points on us last season.  Fortunately for us, Andy Buh is becoming a distant memory.