Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, September 11, 2015

2015 CU vs UMass Football Preview

The performance against Hawai'i sucked, and the team knows it.  Despite a lot of positive rhetoric, the Buffs appeared under-prepared and self-destructive against a beatable opponent in the opener.

At Tuesday's presser, Coach Mac was particularly blunt:
I think they made bone-head mistakes that cost us a football game. We outplayed that team, we out "physicaled" that team, we out rushed that team, we out gained that team. We just made bone-head mistakes. Maybe that was because some of them were tight, I don’t know. They didn’t seem tight to me, we just made some bone-head mistakes that we've got to coach better to not have happen, or we would have won that game by a few touchdowns. It's very frustrating.”
The team knows that they did a lot of harm to an upswell of goodwill last weekend, harm that may be very difficult to undo in the immediacy.

Which brings me to this tweet.  Despite the perceived promise among the diehards, the practical involvement of thousands of future donors is dwindling at an alarming rate. Over the past decade, even as the program has careened into the canyon of crap, fan support, for the most part, has remained acceptable. Unfortunately, that grace period is gone, and the student body has begun to flat abandon the program.  I not going to waste words blaming them, nor make excuses.  It is what it is.

The point is, while I don't think the team absolutely needs to (or even can) go to a bowl game this year, they absolutely cannot take a full step backwards.  2015 must be another year of positive feelings. Of improvement.  Accordingly, performances like the one against Hawai'i are not, under any circumstances acceptable. The Buffs need to convert the winnable games, like Saturday's against Massachusetts, into the left-hand column, and stay competitive throughout lesser opportunities.  Else there may not be many around to see it when/if they ever get good again.


Hype music for the week: Paul Revere by the Beastie Boys



Kickoff from beautiful Folsom Field is set for high noon on Saturday.  The Buffs will be looking to rebound and regain lost momentum under crystal clear skies.  Seriously, it's going to be gorgeous this weekend. Come game time, there won't be a finer place to be in the Front Range, regardless of the product on the field.  Get your ass to Boulder!

Note: for those making their way to the stadium via the Creek Path (a group that includes myself), please understand that construction is still going on, and some of those traditional routes have been detoured. Check out this map for more information.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Even a year later, I still don't quite know how to digest CU's 41-38 win over UMass. It's the policy here at the Rumblings of a Deranged Buffalo that all wins are wins. Just as there are no moral victories, there are no moral losses. You note Colorado's historical struggles against opponents east of the Mississippi River, or their modern struggles against anyone and everyone, and there should be ever more of an incentive to just chalk this up as a solid win for a program down on it's luck.  Still, the sloppy, mistake-prone visit to Gillette Stadium in 2014 has me cocking an eyebrow in the direction of dissatisfaction.
CU barely manage to escape the Minutemen last fall, much like General Gage and his expedition to Lexington...
The special teams unit was spontaneously combusting (some things never change), allowing nearly 200 yards of return yardage - including longs of 43 (kickoff) and 31 (punt) - and were consistently putting the Buffs behind the field position eight ball.  The defense was struggling to keep up with the Minutemen aerial attack (as good as it was in 2014), allowing the hosts five visits to the endzone.  And the offense miss-fired in a few key situations, including a pick(near)-6 that put CU down by two scores early in the 3rd quarter.  Overall, there was a lot of inconsistent, ugly play.

But, in an era of taking what you can get, we beggars can't be choosers, and the reality is that CU showed a lot of heart in this extended road trip.  To their credit, they dug deep when they needed to, and the Buffs salvaged a win from a situation that seemed destined to spin the entire MacIntyre era out of control.  
Behind the calm, commanding Liufau, the Buffs didn't buckle.
They did this by leaning on the offense.  Compared to the bitter pill of their performance last weekend, the unit was heroic against UMass, coming up with 21 unanswered points in the 3rd and 4th quarters. This run was fueled by a dominant performance by QB Sefo Liufau, who covered up for his mistakes earlier in the game by leading the three brilliant scoring drives.  Overall, he racked up 62% passing for 318 yards and three TDs, including two scoring tosses to Nelson Spruce.  Combined with a little noise from the running game - Tony Jones and Christinan Powell went for 129 yards and two scores on 26 carries - the team was allowed to lean on this offensive explosion, fueling a comeback that would not have been possible in prior years.  

The team could've caved at numerous points, but instead circled the proverbial wagons, got nasty, and pulled out the win.  I guess, in retrospect, this is the exact set of circumstances that the 'a win's a win' axiom was invented for. Compared to the alternative, I'll take it in a heart beat. 

The Minutemen in 2015 - 

UMass was idle in 2015's Week 1, so the picture of who this team will be this fall is still slightly unclear. However, they return 19 of their starters from a year ago, bringing with them a lot of familiarity and cohesion on their visit to Boulder.

With all of those returners, it's informative, then, to look back a year ago.  Offensively, the Minutemen were solidly one of the better teams in America in 2014.  Behind a passing unit that featured in the top-15 nationally, they put up over 420 yards per game, and set a number of program records.  While success was far more limited on the ground (just over 100 yards per game, 112th nationally), the aerial attack alone should be enough to get you to stand up and take notice. While the team lost big tight end Jean Sifrin a year early to the NFL waiver wire, they return almost everyone else (imagine if they had him still in uniform; he hauled in two TDs last year against the Buffs).  Much like a year ago, what wins UMass finds in 2015 will be solely down to what the offense can generate...
The offense carried the day for UMass in 2014
... that's because the defense is simply nothing special.  They allowed near-as-makes-no-difference 450 yards per game last season, and about 33 points per game overall.  It was an across-the-board issue, as the Minutemen were in the 10th percentile against both the pass and the run.  In this case, the bevy of returners may not be a plus, as an infusion of talent or new thinking could do some wonders here.  The Buffs were in the same boat, coming off a horrendous defensive season a year ago.  At least CU took the opportunity to switch up defensive coordinators; UMass returns essentially all of the defensive coaching pieces in place in 2014.

In spite of some defensive miss-givings, however, the easy argument is that this UMass team was close to mid-major success last fall, and so should be again in this campaign.  In one possession games in 2014, like the one against CU, the Minutemen went 0-5, putting the tired 'one or two plays away' trope into action (I really hate that line - just win games).  With the majority of their talent from that squad returning, the presumption is that they can can turn some of those close losses into wins.  As we know from firsthand experience, though, that logical formula is never as clear as it seems.  We shall see...

Star Players - 

The offense soul of this team rests on the shoulder of second year graduate student QB Blake Frohnapfel. He put up big numbers last year, throwing for 3,345 yards and 23 scores in only 10 games, and had the 4th most yards per game of any slinger in the country.  With prototypical size - 6-6, 235 lbs - and a strong arm, he's the perfect, veteran engine for the UMass pro-style offense, and his performance out of the backfield will make-or-break the Minutemen in the coming season.
Frohnapfel is a legit FBS QB.
Underscoring his importance, consider when Frohnapfel took a leg injury late in 2014.  With him on the bench, and an untested freshman under center in his stead, UMass just wasn't the same. Over the final two games without their star, offensive production through the air faltered, and, without much of a run game to turn to, the Minutemen fell under a combined 71-27 wave against the lowly likes of Akron and Buffalo. Frohnapfel's health, then, is essential to any traction in Amherst this season.  Luckily for them, the entirety of his offensive line is back, making his continuing good health over 12 contests a strong possibility.

As long as Blake stays healthy, his number one target will be, as it was last season, Tajae Sharpe.  The 6-4, 200 lbs senior put up huge numbers in his junior campaign, logging in 85 catches for 1,281 yards and seven scores.  In all, he was targeted 135 times a year ago, and is a guarantee to feature heavily Saturday afternoon.  TE Rodney Mills, replacing the departed Sifrin, was often as good as his more heralded predecessor a year ago, and will also get his number called a bunch.  Essentially, Ken Crawley and Co. are in for a rough afternoon in pass coverage if they can't improve on their showing from last week.
Sharpe is a big, dangerous downfield threat and Frohnapfel's go-to target.
Luckily for CU, if they can hold against the aerial threats, the danger lessens in the backfield. A total of seven backs toted the rock for UMass last year, but none of them proved to be all that good - only five rushes over 20 yards for all of last season. Shadrach Abrokwah was what amounted to a starter in 2014, but the stout and powerful (5-9, 202 lbs) junior couldn't crack 600 yards, and fumbled three times in split duty. Senior Jamal Wilson's return from injury promises better returns, and former three-star recruit Lorenzo Woodley could still catch fire, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Defensively, it's odd to look to the backfield for stars from a group that allowed an astonishing 133.2 passer rating against MAC competition a year ago, but one of the best talents on the other side of the ball is corner Randall Jette.  Featuring on this year's Thorpe watch list, Jette, a 5-11, 180 lbs senior, is a legit threat, and posted 18 passes defended and four picks in 2014 -- his battle with Nelson Spruce should be a fun one to watch.  He'll even pair nicely with fellow senior Trey Dudley-Giles, who collected nine and two last season, respectively.
Jette may have a professional future ahead of him if he keeps up his defensive ways.
The problem, really, is up front.  They just don't pressure the QB enough, having collected only 11 sacks last season, good for 112th nationally.  While there was some success against the run in close yardage situations, that's not a good since from a unit who is all back this fall; especially as one of their better performers, Daniel Maynes, is one of the few 2014 stars not still in Amherst.  What production they do get up front will probably come from tackle Robert Kitching or end Enock Asante.

Behind them, however, I still like the look of senior linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, who lead the team with 98 tackles and three force fumbles last season.  Also look out for sophomore Da'Sean Downey, who could make a leap.

Coaching - 

UMass coaching legend Mark Whipple continues in his second stint at the reins in Amherst.  The head of their last 1-AA title in 1998, the offensive guru returned to the Minutemen in 2014 after bouncing around the NFL assistant ranks for a few years.  While not a great showing, with a 3-9 record under his belt he can at least boast having squeezed some improvement out of his team in year one of his return, and they hope to find themselves in bowl contention come November.
A bowl trip would only increase the legend of Whipple at UMass.
That defense remains a problem, however, which why I'm a little surprised to see many of the same names on their roster and coaching sheet. No quick-fix infusion of JuCos, no coaching shakeup.  While the offensive numbers are nice, UMass won't be going much of anywhere if they prove to be as porous through the air in 2015 as they did a year ago.

Prediction - 

My 2015 record: 0-1. Against the spread: 1-0. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +13 pts/gm
Line as of Wednesday @ 12pm - CU -14, O/U 62

The key will be if the potentially resurgent CU defense can get to the QB, and disrupt Frohnapfel's rhythm. I'll put some faith in Jim Leavitt here, and predict that's exactly what happens.

In the end, I'll say that CU, blessed with some home field advantage and a more continental circadian cycle, circles the wagons a little bit.  Sefo Liufau gets his act together, helped by Nelson Spruce finding the endzone for the first time on the year, Christian Powell rebounds and scores, as well, while the special teams mistakes are limited to only one or two bad punts. Throw in another two picks by the defense, and the Buffs overcome some early fireworks by the Minutemen.  Give me the Buffs and the under.

CU 35 - UMass 20


No comments: