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Opponent Defense Preview: Colorado

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The Buffaloes’ balanced defense combines a physical front seven with an elite secondary that gives offensive opponents no easy options. Sound familiar?

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

The Basics

If there’s a better Cinderella story in college football this year than the Colorado Buffaloes, I’ve yet to hear it. After going 1-17 in Pac-12 play during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the Buffs did the unthinkable this year by turning in an 8-1 conference record, including wins over No. 24 Stanford, No. 23 Washington State and No. 22 Utah. Meanwhile, CU’s only losses on the season have come against No. 3 Michigan (45-28) and No. 12 USC (21-17), both of which came on the road.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, in his second year in the role, has been a revelation for the Buffs. Earlier this week, he was named one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, presented annually to college football’s best assistant coach. In 2014, the year before Leavitt became Colorado’s DC, the Buffs surrendered 461.0 yards and 39.0 points per game; this year, those numbers are down to 323.8 and 18.8. Finally, Colorado is in the midst of a 25-game streak in which it has produced at least one turnover, best in all of the FBS.

Defensive Line

Colorado’s 3-4 defensive front has size to spare: defensive ends Jordan Carrell and Samson Kafovalu, and nose tackle Timothy Coleman, measure in at 6-3, 300 lbs., 6-4, 295 lbs., and 6-3, 325 lbs. respectively. Their ability to control the line of scrimmage has allowed the Buffs to yield just 135.9 yards per game this season and 10 total rushing touchdowns, the latter representing the best mark among Pac-12 teams. Somewhat curiously, though, that dominance hasn’t translated into better tackle-for-loss numbers, as Colorado has only brought down opposing runners in the backfield 58 times this season, 10th in the conference and 104th in the FBS.

Linebackers

Colorado features one of the best pass-rushers in the Pac-12 in outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert, a 6-5, 230 lb. terror who racked up nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss in the regular season. In addition, Gilbert’s six forced fumbles are best in the Pac-12. Jack (inside) linebacker Kenneth Olugbode leads the team in tackles with 86 (60 solo), and Mike (inside) linebacker Rick Gamboa has 63 tackles and a pick-six to his name. Finally, outside linebacker N.J. Falo missed the first three games of the season due to suspension and was a steady if unremarkable player in the season’s nine conference games, contributing 12 tackles and two pass breakups to the team’s totals.

Secondary

Unquestionably the Colorado defense’s heart and soul, the Buffs’ secondary has been sensational this season. Headlined by cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and safety Tedric Thompson, CU has allowed opponents just 187.8 passing yards per game and 13 touchdown receptions, numbers that rank No. 1 and 2 in the Pac-12, respectively. Thompson’s seven interceptions leads the Pac-12 by a wide margin and ranks No. 3 nationally, while his 21 passes defended leads the FBS. Meanwhile, Awuzie has been credited with four sacks and three QB hurries, along with nine pass defenses and one interception. Rounding out the group are free safety Afolabi Laguda and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who have contributed 57 and tackles and 19 pass defenses this season, respectively.