It’s been nine brutally long years, but at last, the University of Colorado Buffaloes football team has finally returned to the world of college football bowl games. After a surprising 10-3 season (8-2 Pac-12), the No. 11 Buffs have earned the chance to compete in this year’s Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
Despite its spectacular turnaround season, CU comes into Thursday’s game with some recent adversity. Colorado will try to keep its head high after getting stomped in the Pac-12 championship, losing defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and missing out on a Rose Bowl berth. Despite their rough December, the players can still punctuate 2016 with a win and a trophy to bring back to Boulder.
Standing in their way is an old Big 12 conference foe, No. 13 Oklahoma State. The Cowboys (9-3, 7-2 Big 12) are coming off a similarly strong year in which they also came up short of a conference title.
So who will win the battle of former rivals in San Antonio? Here’s what to look for on Thursday.
Colorado’s offense had a strong yet inconsistent year. Despite some struggles, the unit has found ways to win — that is, until it fell flat on its face against Washington in the Pac-12 title game.
That contest saw senior quarterback Sefo Liufau exit early with yet another foot injury, only to return in the second half and throw three interceptions. With a few weeks of rest and the Washington game in the past, expect Liufau to get back on track and be motivated in what will be his last game as a Buffalo.
With junior wide receiver Bryce Bobo healthy again, Liufau will have the Blackout Boyz receiving trio at his disposal one final time. OSU’s secondary pales in comparison to the NFL-level talents of Washington, so expect Bobo and fellow juniors Devin Ross and Shay Fields Jr. to get open more often. They’re likely to find room on swing passes and maybe the occasional deep ball if the Cowboys defense can be softened up.
On the ground, junior tailback Phillip Lindsay will also be looking to redeem himself after a dismal Pac-12 championship performance. Lindsay couldn’t find any room to operate against Washington’s stout front seven and finished the game with only 53 yards. He should have an easier time against a Cowboys front seven that ranks 91st in rush defense and surrenders an average of 204.4 rush yards per game.
Even if Lindsay doesn’t break open huge runs, expect him to get sizeable gains that can keep drives alive and the CU offense in business. With Liufau’s foot healed, the game could also see the kinds of counter and option plays that worked wonders against Washington State and Utah.
Oklahoma State’s defense is by no means mediocre, but it lacks the ability to control the line of scrimmage and shut down receivers like Washington did. Expect the Buffs to find some rhythm and maybe find big plays if they spot a weakness.
Much of the Buffaloes’ 2016 success is owed to Leavitt and the senior-packed defense. All the talent is still there, but the big question now is, can this unit perform at the same level without its leader on the sidelines? The loss of Leavitt to conference rival Oregon stings for many reasons, both emotionally and logistically. But the Buffs will try to rally around safeties coach Joe Tumpkin, who will be calling the plays on Thursday.
Tumpkin’s first order of business will be preventing Cowboys star tailback Justice Hill from gouging the front seven like Washington’s Myles Gaskin did. CU has size and speed on the defensive line, but poor tackling and a lack of awareness allowed the Huskies to steamroll the Buffs’ front seven. OSU has a good O-line, so expect them to find some success running the football with such a talented back.
The Cowboys like to keep their backfield loaded, using fullbacks, tight ends and a hybrid of the two — dubbed a “Cowboy back” — to provide edge blockers and extra pass protection. It can be tough to figure out where the ball is going, so the Buffs will have to be on their toes when attacking.
The other big challenge for Tumpkin will be containing Mason Rudolph, who has quietly been one of college football’s best quarterbacks in 2016. Rudolph has deadly accuracy and a dangerous deep threat in receiver James Washington, who caught 296 yards in a single game against Pitt earlier this season.
Great quarterbacks don’t scare CU’s secondary though, which is still one of the top units in the nation. Even prolific passers like Luke Falk and Jake Browning have struggled against Coloraodo’s lineup of experienced defensive backs. Senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie will try to contain James Washington, and senior safety Tedric Thompson will play his usual role as center fielder.
Together, they will aim to minimize the threat of the deep ball, as they’ve done effectively all season. The real threat for CU will be containing the short passes to the tight ends and “cowboy backs,” something the unit has struggled with all year. That fact was painfully evident in watching Michigan tight end Jake Butt have his way with Colorado’s defense in Ann Arbor a few months ago. A good pass rush will also be necessary to prevent Rudolph from scrambling for first downs.
Colorado has proved it can handle this kind of offense, but it’s hard to know if they’ll have the right schemes and adjustments without Leavitt. Containing the explosive Cowboys will be a challenge, but if the players can just find a way to be their usual selves, Colorado should prevail.
The Alamo Bowl kicks off Thursday, Dec. 29 at 7 p.m. MST.
Contact CU Independent Sports Writer Kyle Rini at email@example.com.