Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Tuesday Grab Bag: On to Santa Clara

I looked up and found myself in a weird place.  I was at midfield in Folsom, surrounded by thousands of my fellow Buffs.  We were all celebrating; there was formless dancing, hoarse voices screaming unintelligibly, and marijuana smoke floating through the air.  The scoreboard flashed something improbable: "BUFFS WIN... SOUTH CHAMPIONS"  Surely, this is a dream, I thought to myself.

No, it's not a dream.  It's a reality that has lost touch with itself.  Colorado Football... yes that Colorado Football, has won a division in a major football conference.  They didn't need to drop down to a middling league or hope for extra downs.  This was not a collection of blue chips wining for the names on the back of their jerseys.  Nope, they did it themselves with an inspiring edifice of grit and determination.  It was organic, locally sourced brilliance, the likes of which may never be seen again. This is it, folks, we've seen the pinnacle of everything we're told sports stands for -- the dream of the underdog, and the promise of pure, unadulterated joy. I hope you took a picture.

And yet, there's still more to play for.  There this week's Pac-12 Championship in Santa Clara against Washington.  Oh, then the small matter of the program's first bowl since the George W. Bush presidency.  #TheRise may have risen, but the journey isn't over yet.  Strap yourselves in, because the "Hold-my-beer-and-watch-this Run for the Rose Bowl" is about to culminate.


Today in the bag, I'm talking the win over Utah, the men's basketball win over Wofford, and the women's basketball team's fiery start.

Click below for the bag...

Buffs defense constricts around Utah; wins Pac-12 South - 

Last week, in the afterglow of the win over Washington State, I compared the Colorado defense to a snake, steadily coiling itself around the opponent before, eventually, choking the life out of them. Such was the case this past Saturday against the hated Utah Utes, where the defense smothered the visitors until it no longer mattered.  Series after series they refused to break, clamping onto the Utes and refusing to let go.  By the final frame, Utah was left with nothing else to do, and succumbed to the sweet release of suffocation in a flurry of punts, turnovers and desperation throws downfield.  The final, 27-22; Colorado moves on to the Pac-12 Championship, the Utes move on to their mid-tier bowl game.
Olugbode and the CU defense overpowered Utah.  From: the Times Call
It has been a tried and true method for the Buffs this season: rely on their defense to make the winning plays late in ball games.  With the exception of the tilt with USC, when they couldn't get a stop late in the 4th quarter when required, Jim Leavitt's crew has answered the bell every time. They didn't disappoint against the Utes.  Time and time again, the offense and special teams put them in a bind, handing the Utes the ball 17 times, typically with great field position (average start around the Utah 41).  Yet, outside of the final drive of the game, with the result well-in hand, the defense cut them up.  It was a blood-bath.

Probably no single series better exemplified this than one early in the 4th quarter. After the CU offense had produced a beautiful 75-yard touchdown drive to take a seven-point lead, the kickoff unit let Utah returner Chris Graham bolt clean through the center of the block for a 61-yard scamper.  But for a Chidobe Awuzie tackle, he'd have been clear into the endzone and tied up the game.  Even still, the return gave the Utes an extremely short field (starting from the COLO3), and they seemed destined to knot everything at 20-all.  That Colorado defense, however, with their backs to the north endzone, came out swinging.  First, Jimmie Gilbert caught up to Utah QB Troy Williams for a two-yard loss. Then, Ahkello Witherspoon and Tedric Thompson combined to knock away a pair of would-be touchdown tosses.  The Utes went nowhere, settled for a field goal, and left four points on the board.
Where you going, Joe?  Nowhere.  From: the Post
That was just the most notable instance of the Buffs holding their ground on defense Saturday night. There was also a drive late in the first quarter when they pushed Utah back from the edge of the red zone, and held them to a field goal attempt (missed).  Another, a few minutes later in the second frame, when CU held on a 4th-and-1, leading to a field goal for the offense.  Ultimately though, the best moments, including the one referenced above, were reserved for a consecutive quartet of drives in the 3rd and 4th quarters that all pushed inside the Colorado five-yard line.  Out of a potential 28 points, Utah got just nine, settling for three field goals and coughing up a fumble on the two.  Any one of those drives ending up in the endzone probably propels Utah to the win, yet every one of them ended with the Folsom Faithful cheering a job well done.  Checkmate.

You could see the exhausting struggle wear on the Utes.  They had been playing a strong game, otherwise -- taking advantage of a poor offensive showing from the Buffs, leveraging their superior special teams, and ultimately keeping the capacity crowd at the Foot of the Flatirons off-balance. After those four trips to the stake turned out only fool's gold, however, their spirit broke.  It was just a few drives later that Colorado returned a fumble for touchdown, leading Utah to go into panic mode and just start hucking the ball down field.  For a second - just a second - I felt bad for them.  Sorry that they had no recourse against Leavitt and his tarpaulin defensive backfield covering every inch of the needed space.  Then, I recovered, remembered that I was cheering for the guys in black, and got back to laughing maniacally at the slaughter in front of me.  The gorgeous, breathtaking slaughter.
Defense wins championships. From:
All-told, the CU defense would hold the visitors to 339 yards in 81 plays, just 6-of-21 on 3rd downs, and forced four turnovers.  The red-hot Joe Williams gained just 97 yards rushing at a clip of under four yards per carry.  The Buffalo defensive backs combined for 10 breakups, or just three fewer than Utah QB Troy Williams had completions.  Hell, the defense nabbed as many touchdowns (one) as the Utes tallied true offensive scores.  It was championship-level defense that was on display Saturday, which accordingly sets the Buffs up for a trip to Santa Clara with a trophy on the line.  Someone get Jim Leavitt a damn Pepsi.

That just leaves post-season play, which... is something wholly bizarre.  The Buffs will get Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game, a team they were originally not supposed to play this year.  The #4 Huskies are a monster of a team, comparable to Michigan and USC in their capabilities on both sides of the ball.  Colorado will need to play some of their best all-around football to-date in order to pull off the upset.  One thing's for certain, however, I wouldn't bet against this team accomplishing their goals.  Teaser to drop Thursday-Friday-ish.

The Bulle(i)t Points - 

  • As good as the defense was for the Buffaloes, the offense was a discordant mess.  Yes, they got the points needed, and kudos for that, but there was absolutely no rhythm to anything they tried to throw out there.  Phil Lindsay got just 12 carries, only nine of which came with the result in doubt.  Indeed, if you take away the final drive, a jet-sweep to Jay MacIntyre, and Sefo Liufau's 21 'runs' (including a pair of sacks), the Buffs ran the ball on just 10 carries.  Where's the balanced rushing attack of weeks past?
  • You could say the Utes were stacking the box, but it doesn't really excuse the absolute reliance on the downfield passing game to move the football.  If the Buffs repeat that display against Washington, they will get eaten alive.  There needs to be some balance to the play-calling, and it starts with establishing the run.  Every moment of offensive brilliance we've seen this year has been based off success running the football (fueling play-action, drawing in the safeties, etc.), and the Buffs need to get back to it Friday.
  • Utah is a team in desperate need of a good quarterback.  Troy Williams is a nice piece, but he's just not the guy you want staring into the teeth of Colorado's defense.  If they'd had a QB of the caliber of, say, Luke Falk, this game would've turned out very differently.
  • The crowd, all 52,301 of them, was incredible.  I kept finding my gaze drift over the packed stands, wondering at the stuffed stadium.  #TheRise tapped into something special this season, and not just on the football field.

BasketBuffs teach Terriers to sit - 

Just hours after the Buffs claimed the big win in Folsom, the Men's Basketball Team ran out of the North Tunnel over in Coors for their Sunday matinee against Wofford.  The atmosphere was decidedly different from the previous night's gridiron excitement, but the results were, none-the-less, just as successful.  While the Buffs endured a brief scare from the Terriers, who shot the daylights out of the ball early, they eventually pulled away.  The final was undercuts a little of the struggle, but a 75-60 scoreline suits me just fine with meatier fare on the calendar over the next few weeks.

At first glance, you may bemoan the fact that CU was up just one at half, or otherwise found themselves in a pitched battle with a small-conference opponent who has yet to beat a D-I foe this season.  However, those of us who know about such things realize that Wofford is a good mid-major program with a lot of pride, and no win over them should be taken lightly.  The Buffs had to earn this one, and I won't look this horse in the mouth.
Wofford didn't shy away from the Colorado challenge.  From: the Herald-Journal
The primary danger of a team like the Terriers is that they're well-coached, and play a style that CU simply won't see much of the rest of the way. On a random Sunday afternoon, in a lifeless gym, their activity on offense can catch you flat-footed.  As such, Colorado got caught up in a number of intricate perimeter screening actions, leaving shooters open throughout the first half.  The cost was simple, with Wofford shooting 50% from the field -- CU found themselves in a tight game.  You could see the adjustments after the break, though.  The screens that were leaving open shooters in the first weren't as successful in the second, more attention and intensity was paid on the defensive end, and the Terrier shooting rates dipped below 40% over the final frame.  While I'm a little concerned by the showing out of the gate, I'll latch onto what we saw over the final 20 minutes with the understanding that you can only pay so much attention in practice to what Wofford will be bringing into the gym.

On offense, I liked a lot of what I saw from the Buffs.  There was good passing into and out of the post for much of the game, the team got to the line a lot (27 free throw attempts), and turnovers were in the acceptable range (12 total).  I could've gone without 10 misses from the stripe, but it was an overall solid showing with the ball.  The best individual performance, obviously, came from Xavier Johnson, who put up a monster 27/12 line.  His repertoire of post moves was on full display Sunday afternoon, as he consistently abused the smaller, less athletic Terriers.  That's now three-straight games that he's looked highly comfortable with his time in the paint, leading me to believe only good things are coming from him the rest of the season.  Damn, it's good to have him back.
XJ had a monster game.  From: the Post
Elsewhere, I really liked the game Wes Gordon had.  10/9/2/2/1 is nothing eye-grabbing, in isolation, but he had a complete performance from tip to final horn.  He was both aggressive in his shot selection, open to distributing from the paint, and imposing defensively.  Without Tory Miller at his back in support, I though he played very clean basketball, and never even hinted at foul trouble. Maybe a little lacking in energy, but I think that's just Wes, at this point.  I also liked what I saw from the freshmen guards, who came along in perimeter defense as the minutes piled up.  I remember Peters getting torched on a screen at one point, learning from the mistake, and covering it much better the second time around.  It's what you like seeing in November.

Overall, in a perfect world, the game could've gone better, but, again, no complaints given the circumstances.  If we see similar effort and play Wednesday against Colorado State, however, I may start throwing things.  I feel the team has been waiting for some emotional fuel, though, and a visit from little brother could be just what the doctor ordered.

Speaking of which, the athletic department is requesting that we fans stripe the arena for the game against the Rams.  A fun concept, if pulled off correctly.  Hope they plan on handing out t-shirts, though, otherwise it could get drowned out by those in BuffNation who don't pay nearly as much attention to such things.  Regardless, teaser for the annual rivalry showcase should drop sometime Wednesday morning.

J.R. Payne catapults Buffs into top-25 - 

Caught up in the excitement of #TheRise in Folsom and the start of basketball season for Tad's crew, I haven't had nearly the attention that I'd like to pay for other sports in the Colorado catalog.  I'd be hard pressed not to notice the work being done on the other side of the CEC, however, as first-year coach J.R. Payne has her Women's Basketball Team roaring out of the gates.  6-0, back into the top-25, and landing top-20 recruits?  Can't do too much better than that in your first weeks of live action.

The highlight of the budding season, so far, was the 79-69 win over then-#15 Kentucky back on the 19th. Colorado was paced by a huge effort from point guard Kennedy Leonard, who handed out a double-double 14 points and 11 assists.  She also helped push the Buffs to 78 shots, which is a huge number, indicative of a team that's looking to score. Overall, the win can be seen as a real statement that this team is for real, and a completely different crew from the one that slumped to a last-place finish in Pac-12 play a year ago.
Payne and the Buffs are perfect through six games.  From:
They were able to follow it up with the annual rite of the Omni Classic, claiming wins over small-school St Francis and mid-major SMU last week.  Hayley Smith was the star against the Mustangs, pouring in 26 points to go along with four blocks and three steals, ultimately earning her tournamnet MVP honors.  She was great right from the tip, helping the Buffs put up big minutes in the first quarter, and they never looked back.  The win leaves the Buffs at 6-0, garnering national attention, and steaming along towards conference play.

I still am not quite sure what we can really expect from this bunch this season, be it a Tournament appearance, or what have you.  I am quite positive, however, that the product on the court will continue to be better than the indifference efforts of a season ago, when the play was almost unidentifiable as Power 5 basketball. The Buffs now have a great backcourt, and an aggressive style, to match. Time will tell, but Coach Payne is off to a great start.

Happy Tuesday!

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