Whelp, after last week’s Oregon defense was too much for the Dawgs, maybe they can beat up a bit on Colorado. Or maybe not. Who knows.
Either way, here’s my attempt at trying to figure this whole thing out:
Personnel and What to Expect
While Colorado’s defense felt the loss of Jim Leavitt after their breakout season two years ago, their rebound in 2018 has included a defense that’s back to getting the job done. Against Nebraska’s Big 10-ish offense (whatever you want to call that) or more nickel-inducing offenses in the Pac-12, their base is most commonly a two-gap front — whether 3-4 or 3-3-5 — with the occasional 2-4-5/4-2-5 nickel thrown in.
Despite not having the same killer secondary as 2016, that unit is back to holding their own (although they did allow 155 yards in the air to just Michael Pittman against USC’s on-again/off-again offense, which probably doesn’t bode well). What stands out about their passing defense is the commitment by not just their safeties, but their cornerbacks and inside linebackers as well to read quarterbacks’ eyes and stay disciplined in space. Safety Evan Worthington stands out as particularly adept where that’s concerned, with an interception against USC. After spending his first three years as a backup, Nick Fisher accompanies Worthington as a new starter, and former JuCo recruit Delrick Abrams has made plenty of great plays in his first year at Colorado — although the latter had a terrible attempted tackle against Nebraska that gave Adrian Martinez an easy read-option touchdown.
Overall, the Buffs’ secondary won’t dominate opposing receivers, but they’ll make a quarterback pay for staring down his receiver and aren’t frequently found out of place to give up big plays; of the film I’ve seen, the only hugely explosive play that stands out was a perfect deep pass from Martinez for Nebraska over a safety and cornerback that were in quite good coverage — although the safety obviously didn’t take the best angle in coverage to be beat in the first place. In general, a superior athlete can get the best of the defensive backs, but otherwise it’s not easy to come by big plays.
The linebackers, meanwhile, have the depth that Washington lacks in that position. Rick Gamboa and former Eastlake High School star (and one-time Washington redshirt in 2014) Drew Lewis are the returning pillars of the group. Lewis’s interception against JT Daniels was the first play of the USC-CU game, and he’s athletically freakish with a 355 power clean despite weighing 225 lbs. Sophomores Akil Jones and Nate Landman have made huge steps this year; Jones missed two games but has since seen his performance rise, while Landman has exploded from a “keep an eye on this guy” prospect to a Pro Football Focus Mid-Season All-American with eight TFLs, two INTs, one sack, and one pass break-up. Meanwhile, Davion Taylor’s crazy athleticism has made him a play-maker despite a nuts journey to CFB in Boulder, and OLBs Carson Wells and Jacob Callier will frequently rotate on the outside with others to keep the edge fresh.
While I mentioned the linebackers’ proficient spacial awareness in the passing game previously, Landman and Co. really come alive in the run game, where the guys in the middle simply don’t miss that much.
Up front, DE Chris Mulumba returns from last year along with tackles Javier Edwards and Jase Franke. Overall, the line seems to consistently hold up well at the line of scrimmage both in the run and the pass, Joshua Kelley’s many explosive runs for UCLA notwithstanding — although that was more on the linebackers for poor tackling and gap-stuffing than the front. In general, the defensive line doesn’t dominate, but they also don’t get dominated.
One of the only big weaknesses for CU’s defense looks like their tackling in space; while the linebackers are very effective in the run between the tackles, ballcarriers on the outside or who are able to get into the defensive backfield will often be able to turn a moderately successful play into a huge one. As previously mentioned, UCLA’s Kelley had many big runs predicated on not exactly poor-form tackling, but what looked simply like weak tackling. This looked to be reinforced by the Buffs’ performance against Nebraska, where they were disciplined in space but gave up lots of yards after contact. Simply put, there’s lots of times where lots of Colorado defenders didn’t look strong enough to impose their will on ballcarriers.
Another notable weakness that stood out was a few times where formations, motions, or wrinkles with a mobile quarterback misdirected their attention and resulted in blown plays. This was most notable against Nebraska, where Martinez scored two running touchdowns on two read-options; the first manipulated the Buffs’ defense with bunch formation on the right, and all Martinez had to do was break one bad tackle by the cornerback, Abrams, and then had absolutely nobody on his side of the field for miles.
Otherwise, though, CU’s defense is just generally dependable. They’ll force fumbles on players not carrying the ball well, are typically not found out of position, and will mess up any quarterback who locks onto his target.
After playing great at times and terrible at others against Oregon, Washington’s offensive line will have to be more even-keeled against a Colorado front that can be contained by superior athletes that stay disciplined but will take what they’re given by an O-line that isn’t focused. Similarly, it’ll be interesting to see how Bush Hamdan uses the run game with CU’s strength in the inside linebackers and their propensity to prevent big plays when not misdirected elsewhere by offensive wrinkles, versus their tendency to do the opposite when convinced the ball’s going somewhere else. It shouldn’t be surprising to see some sweeps with Salvon Ahmed, if he’s healthy, or Chico, both for their own value and to be used as decoys for Myles Gaskin, Kamari Pleasant, and Sean McGrew up the middle.
The other thing that could have significant implications is whether Jake Browning can keep his eyes disciplined enough to look off safeties and linebackers in pass coverage. With that having been such a strength of his for years, multiple interceptions or near-interceptions this season have been the result of him locking onto a target too early (whether that’s from not trusting the line, his own arm, or whatever, who knows) and few teams will take advantage of that better than Colorado. If Browning does look off safeties, though, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to lead the passing game to a victory in that particular aspect of Saturday.
Lastly, part of me desperately wants to see Colson Yankoff play a series in this game just to see designed runs on read-option, since that’s killed Colorado at times this year. Obviously I’m joking, but also... Look me in the eyes and say that wouldn’t be a funny development.
As always, any lurking Colorado fans feel free to chime in!
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.