Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, November 7, 2014

2014 Arizona Football Preview

I'll cop to being a little distracted this week.  Basketball season looms large (next Friday, btw), my HEAVILY ANTICIPATED hoops preview is demanding the majority of my attention, and, with the football team on the road this week, it's almost a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Almost.  I'm still mostly invested in this group as they embark on a rough final quarter of the season schedule. While I don't expect any surprises over the next three games, this team has proven to have a ton of fight in them, and I'm interested to see how they perform when everyone is back to expecting the bare minimum from them.  Certainly this week, a road trip to a top-25 opponent, does not appear to be a great opportunity to see the Buffs at their best, but they've been traditionally competitive in the Arizona series, and a good game wouldn't exactly shock me.


Kickoff from recently renovated Arizona Stadium is set for 6pm on Saturday (finally a night game, and it's on the road, *smh*).  Pac-12 Network has the television rights for this one, with the radio call, as always, on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

The Buffs were in with a chance in this one.  On homecoming, in front of a decent crowd, they took a 13-10 lead with five minutes to go in the first half.  Back to back touchdown drives from the Wildcats in the waning minutes of the second frame, however, killed that momentum, sending a shell shocked CU squad into the locker room down 24-13.  They tried to re-raise the banners after halftime, but aggression got the better of them, and 'Zona cruised down the stretch to a 44-20 win.
P-Rich had the Buffs soaring early.  From the BDC
At multiple points in the game, CU had a chance to assert themselves, and put the Wildcats on the heels. Near the end of the first quarter, the Buffs were gifted great field position by a 'Zona fumble, only to have the resulting drive stall into a long FG attempt (a career-long make from Will Oliver). Those points gave them the lead, so no harm there, but the next two drives also started with great field position, only to fall apart on untimely incompletions. A fourth drive was started in plus territory when Arizona QB B.J. Denker was picked off by Colorado safety Jered Bell. Again, however, the drive petered out far too early in Arizona territory, and the Buffs had to settle for another Oliver field goal.  Four instances of beautiful starting field position, and only six points to show from it. Not winning football.

Given similar circumstances in the second half, Coach MacIntyre got a little riskier.  No more field goals, he wanted to give it some gas to catch up. He tried a manageable fourth down late in the third quarter, and again early in the fourth with a more avant garde fake punt attempt. Neither worked, though, leaving the team with few options, and CU eventually slumped to their 12th straight conference defeat.
CU just couldn't make the plays with the game on the line.  From the BDC
Now, I'm not cracking on the decision making, but rather the execution. It was opportunities lost like these that had Coach MacIntyre salty after the game, and with good reason.  Why?  'Because we can beat that team.' A better throw here here, a play made there, and he may have been right. But, for a program on the outside looking in, it's hopeful efforts like this one last season against Arizona that make it so hard to watch. Even when they get close, a comedy of errors manages to stave off victory.  No matter what tack Mac takes, it turns out wrong.  Frustration naturally follows, both for him and the whole of BuffNation.  I don't think there's any answer to it, it just is.  Next question, indeed.

The Wildcats in 2014 - 

#19 Arizona enters this weekend as the holder of a massive win with national title implications, but complicated conference championship prospects in their own right.  Their victory in Eugene over Oregon remains the the Ducks' only blip this year, and stands as a potentially championship-deflating moment (although UO has recovered swiftly). The problem is, the UofA has yet to beat a Pac-12 South team this season, and in a division as stacked as this one, it means that they're punishingly tied for fourth place with Utah.  With four games to go, they're looking up at two teams that have already beaten them, forcing them almost to win out if they want to make the Pac-12 Championship game.
Arizona boasts the shock win of the season, but they're still behind in the race for the Pac-12 South
Still, this is a very dangerous team.  Legitimately one of the best offensive groups in the nation, they can put up boatloads of points in a hurry.  13th nationally in total yards accumulated (over 500 yards per game) and 20th in scoring (36.4 points per), they more than fit in with the Pac-12's YOLO approach to moving the football.  Arizona relies, mostly, on their aerial attack, throwing for around 325 yards per contest, but proved early in the season that they can also run the ball, averaging 224 yards per through their first five games. Recently in Pac-12 play they've slowed down a bit, particularly last week in a sluggish 17-7 loss @ UCLA, but I see that as more of a hiccup than a signal that the party is over.

The flip side, of course, is that they struggle stopping anybody on defense.  The 'Cats allow nearly 450 yards and 27 points per game, well above national averages, and are particularly bad against the pass (106th in pass efficiency defense).  You can put some of the blame on that prolific offense - shootouts are contagious, and quick scores put the defense back on the field too quickly - but the defense is allowing nearly six yards per snap, which isn't good, no matter how you slice it.
It's all about the passing game in Tucson
Going forward, a favorable schedule (vs CU, vs UW, @ Utah, and vs ASU) could see them get back in the hunt for the trip to Levi's Stadium.  The roadie to Salt Lake City is rough, and the ASU game could be a massive event, but they're definitely looking at the next two games on their slate as winnable.  They've been a fun team to watch, especially late at night when the stodgier conferences have gone to bed, so I wouldn't necessarily be against a late run from 'Zona.

Star Players - 

The biggest surprise this fall in Tucson has been the emergence of Anu Solomon under center.  After years of veteran leadership from the quarterback slot, it was assumed that the beat would go on in 2014, and senior Jesse Scroggins would take the reins.  But a quarterback controversy in fall camp quickly developed into an outright battle among four options, and Solomon, a redshirt freshman from Nevada powerhouse Bishop Gorman, emerged as the winner prior to opening day.
Solomon has burst onto the scene
To date, he has not disappointed.  Solomon's thrown for more than 390 yards in a game three times this season, and has posted a strong 21-5 TD-to-INT ratio.  Not too bad for a frosh.  Sure, there have been some struggles - last week against UCLA, he went 18-48 for 175 yards in the Rose Bowl - but he's proven to be a winning talent, and already claims a career-defining moment when he launched a Hail Mary to beat Cal.  Most impressive to me, he's thrown over 70 passes twice this season, which boggles the mid.  There are starting pitchers in MLB that don't throw that much.

Of course, when you have a freshman quarterback leading the offense, you better have some big, flashy targets for him to throw to.  Enter 6-3 sophomore Cayleb Jones.  The transfer from Texas is a monster in the redzone, an imposing receiver for Solomon to find for 6.  He's posted some massive games this fall, including a 13 catch, 186 yards effort against Cal that earned him Pac-12 Player of the Week honors.
Along with Solomon, Jones has begun to make a name for himself this fall.
Joining Jones on the edge is senior Austin Hill.  The recipient of the famous Hail Mary, Hill is just as big and imposing as Cayleb is, making for a powerful combo.  They've combined for 80 catches, 1,129 yards, and 12 scores this season, and should pose a whale of a challenge for CU's defense.

As we all know, however, the Colorado 'D' is more in the habit of letting the opponent get their kicks on the ground, which is where another freshman, running back Nick Wilson, comes in.  The 5-10, 199 lb back out of Fresno started out the season red hot, scampering for over 100 yards in each of his first three games. Defense and injuries, however, have caught up to him, and he hasn't cracked the 100 yard plateau since.  In fact, all things considered, he's probably taken a back seat to senior Terris Jones-Grigsby.  With just a few more carries, TJG produced 121 more yards than Wilson the last two weeks.

On defense, the star is sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright.  A TFL machine, Wright has 18.5 stops behind the line and 12 sacks this season, as the primary blitzing option out of Arizona's 3-3-5.  He's the team's most consistent player, and one that they've come to rely on, even though he's only in his second season. Thanks to 19 tackles last week in Los Angeles, 4.5 of them for loss, he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week for the second-straight game.  CU did a decent job slowing down a different defensive dynamo last week in Hau'oli Kikaha (6 tackles, one sack well after the game had been decided), so let's see how they do against Scooby.
Wright is all over the field for Arizona.
Elsewhere on defense, keep an eye on the safety pair Jered Tevis and William Parks.  As Colorado figures to throw a lot, they should be heavily involved.

Coaching - 

Rich Rodriguez was run out of Michigan on a rail for failing to live up to that program's lofty standards in the wake of the Lloyd Carr era, but maybe he's been the one better off for it.  Since then, the Wolverines have started to nose-dive, while the Wildcats have been surging forward under Rich Rod's watchful eye.
He's been more of the West Virginia Rich Rod than the UofM Rich Rod.
So far, he's 22-12 in the desert, posting back-to-back eight win seasons and back-to-back bowl victories. For a team like the UofA, who were mostly rudderless under Mike Stoops, it's a big, big story.  If they can get to nine or ten wins this season, behind a number of underclassmen starters, it'll undoubtedly be a sign that he is the goods, and has the program rolling.

In a break with tradition, Rodriguez has had his team throwing the ball this season.  Twice he's allowed his quarterback to put up over 70 attempts through the air, and, overall, they're throwing over 54% of the time. This is decidedly against the convention for Rich Rod, who generally prefers the read option run attack.  I would, however, expect him to lean on the ground game tomorrow.

Prediction - 

My record: 7-2. Against the spread: 4-5. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +5.44 pts/gm
Line as of Thursday @ 11am - CU +10, O/U 57.5

The O/U is only 57.5, huh?  With two of the top-5 teams in terms of numbers of plays run rolling out their passing attacks?  Am I missing something, or does this one not scream 'drawn-out score fest' that lasts nine hours?

Anyway, I highly doubt the Buffs will find a way to pull off the upset, but I think they have a good shot of sniffing the 10 points.  Not enough to take them to cover, however, but enough to get me to watch on Saturday.

UofA 49 - CU 30


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