The University of Colorado football team (4-3) returns to Pac-12 regular season play this Saturday in Pasadena, California for a showdown with No. 23 University of California Los Angeles (5-2). Coming off of a bye week, the Buffs will want a season reset after Stanford University overcame a 29-point-deficit two weeks ago, handing Colorado its third loss of the season.
Colorado enters the final stretch of their season this weekend, and arguably the most difficult stretch as well. The final five opponents of the Buffaloes 2023 regular season all have winning records, and three are ranked in the top 25.
An intriguing storyline to follow will be whether this Colorado team will reach the six wins required to play in a bowl game at the end of the year, which would be an important achievement for coach Sanders’ inaugural season with Colorado football. The hunt for those last two wins begins Saturday against a stout UCLA team.
What to watch for on the Colorado side:
Will the Buffaloes bounce back?– Coach Deion Sanders entered his weekly in-season press conference on Tuesday with a fresh white beard grown out over the bye week, sat down, and spoke with reporters about how they all spent their week off like he was having lunch with a friend. This appeared to be a coping mechanism.
Following arguably the most embarrassing loss of Sanders’ coaching career, his team’s upcoming matchup against UCLA represents a critical point of the season. After the Stanford loss, Sanders’ asked his team if they are “in love with this game or are they in like with it?” Coach Sanders doubled down on his reasoning this week.
“Actions speak louder than words. You can say what you love, but if your actions don’t line up with that love then that’s a problem,” he said.
Evidently, coach Sanders is expecting his team to prove something this week and bounce back into the win category.
Trevor Woods’ position switch– Trevor Woods, the only returning starter from last season, ventured away from his normal safety position to play linebacker in the Stanford game. When asked about this switch, coach Sanders left no indication that this was a temporary change.
“[Trevor]’s smart, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s an asset. So we gotta keep him on the field,” he said.
The Colorado defense has struggled against the run this season, ranking 88 in the country in rushing defense, and linebackers have given up a lot of yards to short passes as well. Despite being consistently beat on the outside against Stanford, with Woods at linebacker the Buffs looked much improved against the run and the short pass. It will be intriguing to see if Woods can build upon his early progress at his new position.
What to watch for on the UCLA side:
Defensive lineman Laiatu Latu– The Buffaloes have so far played multiple potential first rounders in the 2024 NFL draft, including first overall pick hopeful Caleb Williams of University of Southern California and the University of Oregon’s Bo Nix and Troy Franklin. Now, they can add Laiatu Latu to that list.
Projected to be picked in the front half of the first round in April, the pass rusher has been prolific at getting to the quarterback during his time at UCLA. After producing 10.5 quarterback sacks last season, in 2023 Latu has picked up right where he left off with 6.5 sacks in 7 games. UCLA ranks No. 10 in the country in scoring defense heading into the game Saturday and much of that is due to their Latu-led pass rush. On the other hand, Colorado has allowed the second most quarterback sacks in the country. Needless to say, Shedeur Sanders will be seeing a lot of Latu this weekend.
UCLA’s running back duo– Although the UCLA Bruins will enter Saturday amidst a quarterback controversy, the real key to their offensive success has been the ground game. UCLA’s pair of running backs, Carson Steele and TJ Harden, have combined for nearly 1,000 rushing yards in 7 games. While most great running back duos feature different skill sets, Steele and Harden are both physically big players, both over 6 feet tall, with similarly punishing running styles. Steele has led the Bruins’ rushing attack this season with 599 rushing yards. He put up three touchdowns against Stanford last week.
“[Steele]’s tenacious when he has the ball in his hands, really productive,” said UCLA head coach Chip Kelly last Saturday.
But coach Kelly didn’t forget TJ Harden, a likewise big producer against Stanford, and went on to confirm, “[running back is] a position that we have a lot of depth at.”
Vegas currently has the Bruins as a 17 point favorite over the Buffaloes. However, expect a properly motivated Colorado team to put up a fight away in California.
The Buffs will play at 5:30 p.m. MST on Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California and ABC will broadcast the game nationally.
Contact CU Independent staff writer Charlie Hewitt at Charlie.Hewitt@colorado.edu