Well, the time has come, my friends; that crap is done and dusted. The season of relevancy is upon us. Colorado may not wind its way to a bowl, it may not yet release itself from the death-grip of the Pac-12 South's basement, but it sure as hell is going to put the fear of Ralphie into a few teams. It all starts tomorrow, as a wide-eyed, bruised, and beaten brace of Ducks come to Folsom. They've had the run of the series since expansion, but it's time for Colorado, yes COLORADO!, to make some noise. Into the wilds of a night time kickoff we go, let's give Oregon a healthy fear of #Pac12AfterDark!
Hype music for the week: "Fear of the Dark" by Iron Maiden
MAIDEN! For the 12-yr old metal head in all of us, I present a quintessential track from this quintessential heavy medal staple. These guys are weird but harmless, and one of the most successful acts in all of music-dom. Crank it!
Kickoff from Folsom Field is set for 8pm tomorrow evening. Folsom is never better than when it's packed for a night game, so I'm expecting everyone in the region to head to this one. Coverage for those unable to attend will be on ESPN: the Mothership, with the radio call on 850 KOA.
Please remember: if you're sitting in an even section - wear black, if you're a student, or are sitting in an odd numbered section - wear silver/grey.
Click below for the preview...
When last we met -
Matchups against the Ducks have always been hard to properly assess. In previous seasons, the Colorado program hadn't, yet, been in a position to even register as a threat to the champions of swoosh. Such was the case last year, as the Buffs meekly fell 44-10 on the road to the #2 team in the country.
CU came out aggressive, at least, recovering an onside kick to start the game, but they couldn't convert on the drive (moving backwards to a 3-and-out), and never came close to a foothold for the rest of the afternoon. After that, it was about what you'd expect - the Ducks put up just shy of 600 yards of offense, ticking off 7.8 yards per snap. 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota - in his final home game as a Duck - recorded 404 of those yards in combined offense to go along four total touchdowns. Generally, an onslaught of ball movement.
|The Oregon matchup has always been a stale narrative... at least until now.|
Pare it all down, what do you get? Yet another noncompetitive effort against the Ducks. Since joining the Pac-12, the Buffs have lost the four meetings by a total of 216-42 on the scoreboard, with the divide on the field even wider. There have been some whispers this week, however, that the 2015 tilt between Colorado and Oregon will be anything but business as usual. The Ducks look weaker now than at any other point in the last decade of football, and the Buffs are pumped up after spending the last month feasting on cream puffs. With the tide seemingly turning, can CU finally reverse the ugly trend of blowout losses to 'Nike U' and put up a true fight tomorrow evening? Well, let's find out...
The Ducks in 2015 -
Their NCAA generated statistical report can be found here.
These are not your slightly older brother's Oregon Ducks. The team that featured in the national title game only last January has been depleted by graduation and professional ascension, giving way to something suddenly un-Oregon-like. Coming in at 2-2 on the year, having lost both of their games against teams worth a damn (31-28 @ Michigan State and 62-20 vs Utah), these guys are shaken and *gasp* mortal.
|That's... that's not good.|
Note, their defensive woes are not just an outlier product of the whuppin' laid down by the Utes (although it doesn't help). Look back to their season opener against frickin' Eastern Washington for proof. Even against that FCS squad (albeit, one that's in the FCS top-10) the Ducks struggled, allowing 438 yards through the air, and 42 total points. The Eagles converted all six of their red zone appearances into touchdowns, and generally kept pace with the defending Pac-12 champions after the first quarter. It was a performance that should've clued everyone in on the secret: something is rotten in the Ducks' defensive backfield.
|Oh no, they hemorrhaging yards!|
But, even here in Oregon's comfort zone, there are niggling issues. Coming down off the Marcus Mariota-fueled high of a year ago, there was always going to be a drop-off under center, but the results have been even rockier than imagined. Oregon has been pedestrian through the air so far, about 60th in overall efficiency, and take far too many unnecessary risks. Possibly a factor of the pressure put on them by opponents' scores, interceptions, sacks, and inefficient play have followed, keeping the Oregon offense from doing what it does best: grinding down opponents. They're only converting 35% of all 3rd downs this fall; while they're still racing towards the endzone (7th nationally in total first downs), the backdoor to defensive stops is being left open.
|Even the offense isn't as good as it had been... but they can still soar.|
Star Players -
Following on the heels of Super Marcus Mariota, the Ducks went out and secured the transfer of 5th-year graduate QB Vernon Adams Jr. The undersized 5-11, 201 lbs California product was supposed to make the transition to life-after-Heisman free and easy. He certainly looked the part, having posted some phenomenal numbers while with Eastern Washington -- over 3,700 total yards and 41 combined touchdowns in 2014 alone, good enough to earn him runner-up status in the race for the Peyton Award. Throw in the obvious athleticism required of the guy taking snaps in Eugene, and he's a seductive package for any offense looking to rebuild on the fly.
|Adams comes to Boulder, with altitude mask and a broken finger, looking to take flight.|
Of course, the Buffs may not even see Vernon this weekend. Not only is the broken finger still an issue (2-7 for 26 yards against Utah), but a sickle cell trait combined with Boulder's altitude threatens to sideline the presumptive #1 QB. Adams himself admits that he's 'scared' of the altitude issue, and has been training with an altitude mask. If he's unable to go, the Ducks will certainly turn to backup Jeff Lockie. The junior has already appeared in three games this year - once as the starter with Adams injured - and has put up some decent numbers. He's just as shaky through the air, however, as Adams has been (two picks), and generally keeps the ball in the short field (fewer yards per completion than Liufau).
|Lockie has seen the field more than expected this season.|
With passing troubles and wide-out injuries, the focus on Saturday will probably be in the backfield... or, at least it should be. Sophomore burner Royce Freeman is already building off a fantastic freshman season (1,365 yds and 18 touchdowns - easily the Pac-12's 2014 freshman of the year) with 462 yards and five scores through four games. Strong, fast, and, above all else, elite, he is a difference maker in the backfield. Colorado has shown a propensity to miss tackles this season, and any against this guy will just wind up in the end zone. He certainly won't be here for what would be a senior-year trip to Boulder in 2017, so catch him while you can -- the next time he'll be on the Front Range will be as a pro in Mile High.
|Freeman is the difference maker, and the reason they won't take a full step backward.|
Up front, the battle-tested front-seven is lead by a pair of seniors: end DeForest Buckner and inside linebacker Joe Walker. Buckner is listed at a massive 6-7, 300 lbs, which in and of itself is scary. He's currently third on the team in total tackles, and is their single biggest threat at getting into the backfield. A certain pro prospect, it's a little surprising that he returned for his senior season at all, but the Ducks are better off for it. Walker, a 6-2, 240 lbs inside run-snuffer from Cali, leads the team in tackles, and should feature heavily against CU's ground-based attack. Beyond just those two, note that this is a 3-4 scheme, so expect to hear a lot from the rest of the linebacking corps. Seniors Tyson Coleman, Christian French, and Rodney Hardrick round out the group, and each is a top-flight Pac-12 performer.
|That Buckner dude is huge.|
A sign of weakness? From Oregon? What is this world coming to? That's probably not what Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich was asking himself this week, but it is what I'm asking. This unsinkable ship, the Titanic of the modern football age, suddenly seems vulnerable, a seemingly lesser competitor in a dog-pile race for the 2015 Pac-12 crown. Worrying enough for the bandwagoneers at the heart of the Oregon fanbase to start lashing out at Helfrich and staff.
|Helfrich has had to face some tough question for the first time in his tenure.|
My 2015 record: 3-1. Against the spread: 2-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +2.67 pts/gm
Line as of Thursday @ 7pm - Oregon -7.5, O/U 69 1/2
It's easy to envision CU's path to victory tomorrow night. At home, under the lights of Folsom, and in front of a roiling student section (It will be roiling... and full... right?), CU comes out playing the winning brand of football they displayed all September. They control the football, eliminating mistakes in the passing game, and running the ball with aplomb. Against the soft Oregon pass defense, they even show off a few downfield attacks, and get into the endzone. The defense forces a few key turnovers, as they've done all year, and special teams errors are painted over by some key bend-but-don't-break stands. At the final whistle the student section riots, and I taste my fourth victory cigar in as many weeks. All is happy and beautiful in Boulder again.
Unfortunately, the dream starts to fall apart at the seams when you break it down. The Buffs have struggled out of the gate in each game against FBS competition... CU's rushing attack hasn't had to face a Pac-12 run defense yet... Sefo Liufau probably isn't healthy enough to attack Oregon's glaring weakness in the defensive backfield... Colorado's special teams is a disaster in waiting against the Ducks' speed merchants... The UO offense will still move in great leaps when they have the ball...
The gap may have closed, but the fact of reality remains: CU just isn't there... yet. They're not... yet, in a position to challenge Oregon, even as they appear ready for the fall. The Utes did the deed last week with transcendent special teams and dynamic QB play. They Buffs certainly don't have the former, and only occasionally boast the latter. That, along with almighty athleticism and speed, is the difference here.
Oregon, looking for a bounce back, will sputter here and there, but will otherwise look like their old selves (especially out of the gate). That defense, though, will help keep CU in it, and the Buffs will put on an early second half show to fire up the bulging sea of Silver and Black. In the end, however, it won't be enough, as the Buffs, once again, fail to cover against the Ducks. Oregon will leave knowing they were in a fight, though, which is a massive step in the right direction.
UO 48 - CU 32
GO BUFFS! PROVE ME WRONG, AND BEAT THE DUCKS!