“Worst to first.”
That’s the mantra of this Colorado Buffaloes football team as they’ve completed one of the most amazing turnarounds in college football. With a 27-22 win over Utah Saturday night, the No. 9 Buffs (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) claimed the Pac-12 South crown and a ticket to their first conference championship since 2005. All of this comes only one year after a last place finish and a lone conference win in 2015.
Colorado will now face off against the biggest, baddest team the Pac-12 has to offer, the No. 4 Washington Huskies.
It’s been a dominant season for Washington (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12), who has blown out most of its opponents en-route to a Pac-12 North title. With a 45-17 Apple Cup victory over Washington State on Saturday, the Huskies also punched their ticket to Friday’s game in Santa Clara.
Now, with a conference title and a possible spot in the College Football Playoff up for grabs, the two teams will battle it out in a dramatic regular season finale. Who will take home the conference trophy? It’ll come down to these factors on Friday:
For the Colorado offense, it’s been a season of ups and downs. At times they’ve looked unstoppable; other times they’ve looked a little too stoppable, especially in the red zone. They’re certainly not the biggest achievers in the Pac-12, but there’s no doubt this unit has play makers.
It all starts with senior quarterback Sefo Liufau, who has been resurgent in the past few games. Usually a pocket passer, Liufau has been making use of the option and counter plays to pick up first downs and touchdowns with his legs. He’s running with an unusual fire and determination, often fighting through tackles and pushing with all his might to pick up crucial yards. He’s also been taking shots deep, connecting with his talented group of receivers for big plays.
After a stellar game against the Cougars, Liufau performed well-enough against Utah, but missed some key throws and coughed up two fumbles. He was also the victim of some devastating drops. One came on a wide-open deep ball to junior receiver Shay Fields and another on an easy pass to junior tight end George Frazier in the end zone.
Despite the uncharacteristic drops, CU still has one of the most elite receiving corps in college football. Juniors Shay Fields Jr., Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo have been tearing up secondaries and finding ways to get open all season. Unfortunately for the Buffs, Bobo went down with an ankle injury against Washington State and is listed as day-to-day for Friday’s game. Luckily though, sophomore receiver Jay MacIntyre has stepped up in his absence and emerged as a valuable threat over the middle. Junior Kabion Ento has also made some good plays filling in.
On the ground, junior tailback Phillip Lindsay has been hot and cold, racking up 144 yards against Wazzu’s touted run defense but only managing 55 against the Utes. The strength of the opponents run defense doesn’t seem to be causing Lindsay’s fluctuations, so it’s possible he could have another good game against Washington’s stout defense.
And what a stout defense it is. Ranked 17th in the nation, the Huskies’ “Death Row” defense is a fierce, balanced unit. Against the run, the front seven are as good as anyone with tackles Greg Gaines, Elijah Qualls and Vita Vea leading the way. However, the Huskies will be without their two star linebackers Azeem Victor and Joe Mathis who have both suffered season-ending injuries. That could make the Washington run defense a little less scary for Lindsay and a little less dangerous for Liufau, who won’t have to worry about Mathis’ pass rush skills.
What makes this Washington D more challenging though is that they have immense talent both up front and in the secondary. The Huskies’ defensive backs are the only ones in the Pac-12 that can give Colorado’s a run for their money. Corners Kevin King and Sidney Jones are NFL-prospects that’ll leave Liufau with zero room for error. Free safety Budda Baker, much like the Buffs’ Tedric Thompson, is a ball-hawking center fielder who could make those deep balls much less viable. This unit picked off the highly-talented Luke Falk three times last week so Colorado needs to continue being careful with the ball. If they don’t, untimely turnovers could lose the game for the Buffs.
Colorado’s offense will have to play mistake-free football and find a way to exploit whatever weaknesses it can find. It’s a very tall order, but given the right opportunities, Sefo and company are capable of getting it done.
As scary as Washington’s defense is, they actually rank four spots behind the Buffs in total defense. The difference is slight, but the Buffs have given up 5.1 less yards per game. This unit is the heart of the Colorado team and will be the key to keeping the Huskies at bay.
It’s hard to come up with a new compliment for the CU secondary, but the past two games have seen these corners and safeties play some of their best football. In particular, senior safety Tedric Thompson has been on a tear, intercepting passes, tackling well in the open field and making great plays on the ball to deflect passes. Sophomore Isaiah Oliver and senior Ahkello Witherspoon have also been clutch at corner, breaking up deep throws. They’ve done well defending all the passes teams are too scared to throw toward senior corner Chidobe Awuzie.
CU will need all of them to keep it up, as Washington has their own version of a Fields/Bobo/Ross receiving corps. Wide-outs John Ross III, Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher have been instrumental in quarterback Jake Browning’s stellar season. They have size, speed and most importantly, a Heisman hopeful QB throwing them passes. It’ll be a big challenge for CU, but aside from USC’s Adoree’ Jackson, Browning has yet to face a truly talented secondary like this one.
The secondary may be the star group, but it’ll likely be the Buffalo front seven that will decide this game. Senior defensive linemen Samson Kafovalu, Josh Tupou and Jordan Carrell have proved capable of controlling the line of scrimmage. Huskies’ running back Myles Gaskin, much like Phillip Lindsay, is a hot-or-cold runner. He usually gains either 120-plus yards or is held to under 60. CU’s size up front has been effective in plugging up run lanes, so expect Gaskin to be held under 100 yards.
The most important question though is whether or not the linebackers, led by senior Jimmie Gilbert and junior Addison Gillam, can get effective pressure on Friday. Browning isn’t much of a mobile quarterback, so if the Buffs’ can find a way through Washington’s O-line consistently, they can mitigate the passing threat. They could also force Browning to make a mistake, either by fumble or by interception. That will be crucial to winning this game; the defense has to come up with a turnover or two to keep the Huskies from getting momentum. Luckily for them, turnovers are this unit’s specialty. The last time Colorado finished a game without forcing a turnover was in 2014.
This is a big challenge for the Buffs’ D, but they have the skills and experience to play the Huskies tougher than most teams have this year. Colorado has relied on this defense all year and even though the stakes are higher, they should hold their own in Santa Clara.
The game will kickoff Friday, December 2 at 7 p.m. (MST).
Contact CU Independent Sports Writer Kyle Rini at firstname.lastname@example.org.