From his seat in the media room of Balch Fieldhouse, Colorado head football coach Mike MacIntyre gazed over the opulent construction project underway at Folsom Field. He pointed at a new section of seats; the concrete barely looked dry.
“They’re gonna have that done [by Saturday],” he said with a smile and a hint of pride during Tuesday’s press conference. “It means a lot to everyone when that place is filled.”
But it hasn’t been — not in MacIntyre’s tenure, and not in his predecessor’s. Colorado has struggled to fill Folsom since it joined the Pac-12 conference three years ago. On average, 44,396 people have attended the Buffs’ last 17 home games, almost 9,000 fewer than capacity. The stadium hasn’t seen 50,000 fans since Southern California eviscerated Colorado 42-17 in November 2011.
The Buffaloes have fostered little confidence that 2014 will be any different as they open Pac-12 play in the revamped stadium against the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday, Sept. 13. The season-opening demolition Colorado suffered against Colorado State was bad enough, and last week’s far-too-close win over Massachusetts might have been worse.
“I think we showed a lot of fight,” sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau said of the game the Buffs won after trailing by 11 points in the third quarter.
The fact is, it shouldn’t have taken a lot of fight to defeat UMass. It will take all the fight Colorado has to beat the nation’s 16th-best team this weekend. Liufau and his talented receiving corps, at least, should be up to the task. Liufau’s chemistry with junior Nelson Spruce and freshman Shay Fields has been the lone bright spot of the first two games. Spruce has shown field-stretching ability that few knew he possessed.
“Something I worked a lot on in the offseason was being more of a deep threat and my downfield speed, so it’s been nice to be able to execute in that aspect,” Spruce said.
Fields has mostly avoided the growing pains many young receivers experience. He and Spruce have caught all five of Liufau’s touchdown passes this season.
Still, the Buffs’ passing attack has been at times disconcerting. Toss out Liufau’s 54-yard touchdown pass to Spruce against Colorado State and their 70-yard scoring connection last week, and Liufau’s yards-per-attempt average plummets from 6.9 to a paltry 5.5. Liufau is completing 62 percent of his passes, and Fields and Spruce are both shifty run-after-catch threats, so the problem seems systemic. Colorado must use more creative route combinations that get receivers the ball in space, rather than ask them to create space themselves.
The Buffs would have more downfield passing opportunities if their offensive line offered Liufau any semblance of protection. He was battered by CSU and harassed by UMass. Even that 70-yard strike to Spruce — maybe the most beautiful pass Liufau will ever throw — only happened because the Minutemen ran over Colorado’s offensive line with a four-man rush.
The Buffs’ line also failed to create running room for their backs. Colorado averaged just 3.3 yards per carry against the Minutemen a week after UMass allowed 338 rushing yards to Boston College. If the Buffs could run the ball well, they would have last week. Against Arizona State, they will at least have a chance. The Sun Devils start three freshmen on defense and have a massive (literally) hole in the interior of their defensive line after Will Sutton left for the NFL. Their true quality is still unknown, after easy wins over Weber State and New Mexico.
But if Colorado is going to win, they need to stifle one of the best offenses in the Pac-12. Arizona State had the nation’s 10th-best scoring offense last year, and the Sun Devils average 52 points per game right now. Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly is the most overlooked of the Pac-12’s deep crop of signal callers.
“He doesn’t get all the big-time accolades that all the other quarterbacks in our league do,” MacIntyre said. “He’s a deceptive runner. He makes good runs. He makes good throws.”
Kelly ran for 608 yards and nine touchdowns last year on top of his 28 touchdown passes. It helps that he throws most of his passes to Jaelen Strong. MacIntyre compared the junior receiver to Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas. That’s ridiculous. He is not one of the five best receivers in the NFL. He is the best receiver in the Pac-12. At 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, he is bigger, stronger and better than anyone the Buffs have yet faced.
Colorado’s porous run defense will contend with the multi-talented junior back D.J. Foster, who rushed for 501 yards, caught 63 passes and scored ten touchdowns in 2013 — as the backup. The Sun Devils will trot out bruising freshman Kalen Ballage in short-yardage situations. The Peyton, Colo. native has already scored three touchdowns on only 18 carries.
Kelly’s most versatile weapon is senior tight end De’Marieya Nelson, who played running back, tight end and defensive end last year and excelled at it all — he rushed for two touchdowns, caught two touchdowns and forced two fumbles.
It’s not hard to see the Buffs slowing Arizona State’s attack, but it’s impossible to see them stopping it. The Sun Devils obliterated Colorado last year. The Buffs trailed 25-0 after the first quarter and 47-6 at halftime. Mercifully, they only lost 54-13.
MacIntyre didn’t linger on that subject: “We don’t need to remind them.”
Colorado kept it (relatively) close in 2012 — Arizona State led just 20-17 at halftime before scoring the game’s final 31 points. That isn’t much hope. But the Buffs have some. They will need as close to a perfect game as they can play. That means Colorado’s special teams, which has struggled mightily through two games, must improve.
“No, we’re not working on it at all,” MacIntyre shot back at a reporter who asked if anything was being done. “We didn’t get off blocks well. We gotta design a little bit better for that.
“We’re really, really, really, really, really, really, really young,” he continued. “When a student starts to ask you very intelligent questions, you know they understand it. And I’m getting a lot more of those questions.”
This led to one of MacIntyre’s signature tangents, about coaching and teaching and getting better every day, because he believes his team is. He beamed as he spoke of the progress sophomore safety Tedric Thompson, who leads the Buffs in tackles, interceptions and forced fumbles, has made this season. He talked a million miles an hour about his players exploiting weaknesses they would not previously have noticed.
That is what MacIntyre the teacher loves. MacIntyre the coach loves it when that turns into wins. He believes it will, soon. Maybe not against Arizona State. Until it does, $156 million of concrete and steel and sandstone on the north end of Folsom Field will look very empty.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.