Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

D-Line play will be key

One of the big matchups I'll be watching this weekend will be the CU D-line against the powerful running of CSU bruiser Chris Nwoke.

Nwoke had been injured, but I'd be shocked to see him on the sidelines, rather then in the game.  He's a solid runner, and while he didn't exactly shine against the Buffs' transitioning D-line last year (only 35 yards on limited carries), he's by far the brightest offensive star for the Rams.  He ran for 1,130 yards last season on 5.7 yards per carry, even cracking off two games of over 200 rushing yards late in the year.  The Rams even return much of their O-line from last season to open holes for him.
CU had a handle on Nwoke last year, but the Ram runner had a solid MWC campaign.  From: the BDC
While McElwain and crew bring a new mindset to offensive scheming in Ft Collins, to abandon Nwoke would be foolish.  The Rams will throw him at the CU front line repeatedly, and it'll be up to the developing D-line to stop him. 

This is the primary area that concerns me. The CSU running attack is their only unit, on offense or defense, that has the explosiveness and experience to cause the Buffs an abundance of problems (... the inexperienced CU offense is also a worry, but CSU's defense was gutted by suspensions and transfers over the offseason.  I figure, it'll be a wash). On the flip side, trying to stop Nwoke and the running attack is a defensive front that crapped the bed last year.

CU made a transition last season to a 3-4 defensive setup, with a hybrid "Jack" linebacker switching between a hand in the ground and the 2-point stance.  The results were less than impressive.  From 2010 to 2011, opponents increased both rush yards per carry (4.0 to 5.27) and pass yards (11.8 to 12.3) per completion.  That '10 squad even had more sacks (34) and tackles for loss (69) than the '11 team did (32, 67) in one fewer game.  The front seven, and especially the D-line, was easy to knife through, and it showed both on the scoreboard, and in the underlying stats.
Josh Hartigan was the primary "Jack" last season, and spent much of the time getting used to the position.
Obviously, it takes time to adjust to a scheme conversion.  CU had no veteran players comfortable playing in the "Jack," and they spent most of the year figuring out what they were supposed to be doing.  Additionally, with the disaster in the defensive backfield, everyone on defense was going to end up with egg on their faces (quarterbacks didn't exactly need extra time in the pocket to beat the CU defense).  Still, the defense, and the line along with it, was garbage last year.  As a response, the team has switched back to a more conventional 4-3 base (one more conducive to stopping the run).

As bad as the defensive line was last year, there were some positive signs late in the season.  The Utah game especially saw a concerted defensive presence.  The line helped to hold the Utes without a first down for much of the first half, and only gave up a total of 89 rushing yards for the game (2.7 per carry).  No weather excuses, no mishegas, the Buffs defense legitimately held the Utes, a team competing for a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 title game, in check.

This late-season improvement may have been the result of proper coaching techniques finally translating into on-field performance. (Key quote: "When the new coaching staff came in I had the fundamentals of the last staff, which weren't really like . . . great." *ahem*)  That alone gives me hope that the poor play was more aberration than enduring reality.

The Buff coaching staff also spent much of the offseason calling in reinforcements.  They threw a shocking eight scholarships at D-line prospects.  One of those that paid immediate dividends is the one awarded to Josh Tupou.  It'll be interesting to see what kind of impact he can make right away, but, suffice it to say, his addition makes the CU D-line a whole different beast.
Can't wait to see Tupou on the field.  From: the BDC
I'm not ready to say that Nwoke will be completely shut down, but I am a lot more comfortable with the D-line situation now than I was last season.  Backed by a typically great crew of CU linebackers, the line should at least mitigate any damage that Nwoke can do.

If he does start to get some momentum going on the ground, however, it could make for some nervous fans on the CU side.  Best to just tackle him in the backfield, and be done with it.

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