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Opponent Offense Preview: Colorado

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Tacoma native Sefo Liufau will lead the Colorado offense against UW on Friday night.

NCAA Football: Utah at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Well, folks, it’s Washington vs Colorado for the Pac-12 crown, just as we all predicted this preseason. Seriously, though, what a season for the Buffaloes after some pretty lean years as they transitioned from the Big XII to Pac-12. Their defense has fueled much of their rise, but gutsy senior QB Sefo Liufau and the offense have provided more than enough this year to complete a balanced team.

The Basics

The Colorado offense is run by co-offensive coordinators Brian Lindgren and newcomer Darrin Chiaverini from Texas Tech. Lindgren has been on the staff since Mike MacIntyre arrived from San Jose State, and was the OC for coach Mac then, too. He’s made his mark with QBs over the years, notably at SJSU, where David Fales led the nation in completion percentage. He’s also known for his versatility. Going back to his playing days, he was a QB at Idaho running Tom Cable’s West Coast offense, then as OC at Northern Arizona he ran a multiple pro-style offense (twice fielding top-20 units), and even added some pistol concepts during his time at San Jose State with MacIntyre.

Similar to Chris Petersen’s QB philosophy, Lindgren and Colorado put a premium on accuracy. This emphasis on QB play took hold immediately at Colorado. During their first season their yards per play jumped from 5.7 to 7.3. In his second season, 2014, Colorado passed for the fourth most yards in school history. Lindgren built the offense brick by brick and it is starting to pay dividends this year, especially with the addition of Chiaverini. He brought some hurry-up and no-huddle concepts to Boulder, allowing them to go up tempo when needed. In true former Texas Tech coach style, they’ve also spread things out a bit more this year, and it seems to be working out.

Most impressively, like all the great coaches do, he’s adapted his offense to the personnel at his disposal. Consider that in Sefo Liufau’s first two seasons, he rushed the ball 81 times, mostly scrambles, for 179 yards and no touchdowns. His rushing stats since last year: 253 carries, 749 yards, and 12 touchdowns. His contributions this year on designed runs and scrambles have been crucial to Colorado’s ability to move the ball, as showcased in the WSU game. He usually lines up in their base formation: shotgun with a single running back.

Let’s take a closer look at the offense.

Quarterback

Sefo Liufau: 2,150 yards, 64.6% completion, 11 TDs, 3 INTs, 7.76 yards/attempt.

Sefo Liufau has had a turbulent Colorado career. Both he and the team struggled in his first three years, and he got physically beaten up in a lot of games. This year, he’s all the better for it and is one of the toughest and gutsiest QBs in the conference. He’s got excellent intangibles and the former Bellarmine Prep star is the only three-year captain in Colorado football history. He’s got great size at 6’4” and 240 pounds, 25 pounds heavier than when he entered the program.

His touchdown numbers don’t jump off the page, but has missed some or all of four games this season. He would probably have tossed a couple TDs against some of those teams, notably Oregon. In any case, during his career he has rewritten Colorado’s passing records and has shown himself to be a very capable passer, if not a careful one. Aside from two interceptions against UCLA’s stellar secondary, he’s only thrown one other pick this season, against Arizona of all teams. He throws an accurate deep pass, but his mobility and running have most helped this offense turn the corner. His 483 yards and 7 TDs rushing are second most for a Pac-12 QB this season. He knows the CU offense inside and out, and will usually make the right read.

Running Backs

Phillip Lindsay: 211 rushes, 1,136 yards, 15 TDs, 5.4 yards per rush

Kyle Evans: 84 rushes, 346 yards, 3 TDs, 4.1 yards per rush

If Sefo Liufau is the offense’s guts, Lindsay is the heart and soul. Reading up to now, you would probably think that Colorado is a pass-happy offense. While they do throw a lot like the Huskies do, they actually prefer the run, sticking to the ground on 56.4% of plays. Lindsay is not the most athletic running back the Huskies will face, but he’s tough as nails, physical, hits the hole hard, and breaks tackles. He’s CU’s first 1,000-yard rusher in six years, and his 15 rushing TDs lead the conference. He had an excellent game against Arizona State’s solid run defense, leading the way with 219 yards and 3 TDs. He was bottled up against Utah last week with only 55 yards, but that was on just 12 carries.

Kyle Evans will get snaps when Lindsay is off the field, and is actually the team’s third leading rusher behind Lindsay and Liufau. The former walk-on is only 5’6” but has proven to be a valuable threat running the ball, providing much more shiftiness than Lindsay. He had an excellent game against ASU with 11 rushes for 59 yards and a TD. He also ran well against Stanford’s tough front, with 14 attempts for 60 yards.

Lindsay, Liufau, and Evans’s rushing efforts give Colorado the #45 rush offense in the nation, with just over 200 yards a game.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Shay Fields: 50 receptions, 819 yards, 9 TDs, 16.4 yards per catch

Devin Ross: 65 receptions, 758 yards, 5 TDs, 11.7 yards per catch

Bryce Bobo: 41 receptions, 523 yards, 2 TDs, 12.8 yards per catch

Jay MacIntyre: 29 receptions, 374 yards, 1 TD, 12.9 yards per catch

Colorado sports a deep, talented, and experienced WR unit. The trio of Fields, Ross, and Bobo is as good as any out there. All three have shown to be reliable pass catchers, and take pride in their downfield blocking, hoping to spring big plays.

Fields is the shifty playmaker type, and not surprisingly has the highest yards per catch average on the team with 16.4 (Kabion Ento averages 21.8, but on only eight receptions). Devin Ross, like the Huskies’ John Ross, is a speedster who can fly down the field. He’s their best threat to run deep past the secondary, but is also the most consistent receiver on intermediate routes. Fields and Ross are 5’11” and 5’9” respectively, so Bryce Bobo adds much-needed size to this unit. Standing at 6’2”, he’s able to get up and high point the ball even against tight coverage. He’s made two spectacular one-handed grabs this year, one against rival Colorado State and another against Oregon.

Jay MacIntyre, the coach’s son, rounds out the group with a very nice 12.9 yards per catch, and is a capable punt returner as well. Colorado rarely throws to the TE, and between TEs Chris Hill, Chris Bounds, and Dylan Keeney, they have three catches for one TD on the season.

Offensive Line

Colorado came into the year #34 on Phil Steele’s OL experience ranking. This simply totals career starts by offensive linemen, and a lot of returning starts is usually a good indicator of strong line play. Overall, they’ve delivered this year, paving the way for an offense averaging 34 points and 470 yards per game. They give up just over five tackles for loss per game, putting them in the top 50 nationally. They haven’t fared quite as well with sacks, but are still respectable at 2.25 per game, though most of that comes from a combined nine sacks against UCLA and Stanford.

LT Jeromy Irwin is the best offensive lineman, and C Alex Kelley could find his way onto a professional roster next year. Anchored by Irwin and Kelley, Colorado has a pretty good “stuff rate” of 17.1% (meaning the percentage of carries by the running back stuffed at or before the LOS). Their power success rate (runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown) is quite good at #35 in the country, and speaks to the toughness of this team. While this unit is not upper-tier, they are fairly good, and do more than enough to keep Colorado’s offense moving.

Final Thoughts

This is an experienced, gutsy, tough offense. They aren’t littered with elite playmakers, but are smart and hardly turn the ball over, ranking #8 nationally in turnover margin. Having an experienced QB with wide receivers who can get open and catch the ball, paired with a strong run game, creates a balanced and efficient offense for CU. Sefo Liufau’s legs will no doubt be a factor, as his mobility has created a whole new matchup problem for teams to deal with.

I like Washington’s defensive tackles and linebackers against Colorado’s run game. Short of elite blocking, I think “Death Row” can limit Phillip Lindsay, who isn’t the most explosive or shifty runner out there. That said, missing a player like Azeem Victor to meet Lindsay in the hole could cause some problems. Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines, and Vita Vea will need to be on their games against a solid Buffalo OL.

I fully expect Sefo Liufau to keep multiple drives alive, and for him to find at least one WR in the endzone on a scramble drill. He will be what keeps Colorado in the game, as I think Washington can generally match up with Colorado’s skill players.

Make sure to tune in Friday night for what should be an exciting game!