For the first time in a long time, expectations for both Colorado State and Colorado are high heading into the Rocky Mountain Showdown. Collegian sports editor Colin Barnard spoke with CU Independent head sports editor Justin Guerriero to preview some of the bigger storylines of the game.
Colin Barnard: CSU’s offense could be one of the most explosive that the Buffs face this year. After losing so much talent on defense, how can the Buffs slow down CSU?
Justin Guerriero: Colorado’s defense will have to prove itself every game this season. In 2016, despite the capabilities of CU’s offense, it was the defense that truly held things down in many of the Buffs’ important Pac-12 conference games. The Rams will face a Buffaloes defensive 11 that lost eight senior starters starters in addition to the departure of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who now calls the shots on defense at Oregon.
Colorado will first and foremost need to stop the run. the Buffs’ defensive line is somewhat green; Leo Jackson III and Jase Franke have limited experience at defensive end and the Buffaloes’ likely starter at nose tackle, Javier Edwards, is a recent junior college transfer athlete.
That said, the Buffs return two exceptional linebackers in Rick Gamboa and Derek McCartney. Gamboa was thrust into a starting inside linebacker role in 2015 and that year led the team in tackles. Last season, he finished second on the team in that department. McCartney will serve as Colorado’s main pass rusher. He seemed poised to have a monster year in 2016 but an unfortunate ACL tear at Michigan ended his season prematurely.
But Colorado will also need to closely monitor Nick Stevens, who as a redshirt senior with a couple matchups against CU under his belt, could prove to be a real Buffalo hunter come this Friday. Colorado has a new face at cornerback in Trey Udoffia but other than that, safeties Ryan Moeller and Afolabi Laguda have proved themselves quite capable in the past and I have high expectations for them this year.
CB: Similarly, CU features one of the best receiving corps in the nation. Do you expect them to have success against CSU’s secondary?
JG: Quite frankly, yes. I do expect CU’s wideouts to win a majority of their routes and do some real damage to the Rams’ secondary. Shay Fields, Jr., Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo all returned for their senior year and I expect them to do as much damage to opposing defenses as they did last year. Colorado’s depth at wide receiver runs deep.
Aside from the above three, Jay MacIntyre is a talented slot receiver. Kabion Ento is another senior that’s played a solid supporting role in the past and likely will this year, too. Finally, KD Nixon, Colorado’s highly touted freshman recruit from DeSoto, Texas, could really be impactful on Friday and as the season progresses.
The long story short is that Colorado has six wideouts that all require special attention. No matter what variation of them is on the field for a given offensive play, any one of them is capable of great things. The Rams gave up a reception of at least 15 yards to six
different Oregon State wideouts in CSU’s big week one win. If that is indicative of a problem in the secondary then I think the Buffs will exploit it very much so.
CB: Who are CU’s difference makers on offense and defense who can take over the game?
JG: Offensively, it has to be senior tailback Phillip Lindsay, a.k.a. the Tasmanian Devil. Lindsay embodies the spirit of the Colorado football team. Players routinely tell me that when he speaks, everyone shuts up. He’s fearless on and off the field and the Buffs are lucky to have him as a leader and role model for this important 2017 season.
On the field, Lindsay is the ultimate dual threat. He hits holes hard, has solid footwork and very easily can put yards between him and the nearest defender. However, Lindsay could be a real knockout punch to CSU’s defense in what he does in the receiving department. Last year, Lindsay was third on the team with 47 receptions. He excels at discreetly leaving the backfield, getting open and turning what appear to be potential short gains into big chunks of yardage.
I have no doubt Lindsay will eclipse his 1,189 yards on the ground that he ran up last season. The Buffs have an experienced offensive line that will definitely bolster him.
On the other side of the ball, pay attention to junior defensive back Isaiah Oliver. He is the natural successor to former Buffs Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon, both of whom are now in the NFL and played a tight, aggressive style at defensive back. Oliver learned a lot from those guys and he plays a similar game; in 2016, he only started two games but was third on the team in broken up passes. I look forward to watching Oliver and Stevens try to outsmart each other.
CB: The Rams beat up on Oregon State in their first game, giving them some added confidence. Does not playing a game before the RMS hurt CU?
JG: Head coach Mike MacIntyre thinks highly of the Rams and I think the Buffs certainly took notice of CSU’s win over Oregon State. I think it’s fair to say that playing a game already will give the Rams a bit of an edge. I say that mostly in regards to Colorado’s newcomers on defense. It would have been beneficial for them to play a game and iron out the kinks before the big rivalry game. Overall, I don’t think it’s a nail in the coffin for the Buffs, but I think the Rams are undoubtedly ready to play on Friday.
CB: The Rams boast a stable of four running backs who should all see playing time. Do the Buffs have enough depth on defense to hold up?
JG: That matchup will be the one I’ll be keeping my eye on. Colorado has two linebackers, Drew Lewis and Tarran Hasselbach, that are new to the starting lineup, in addition to the defensive line. I think the Rams should pound the middle holes hard early on in the game and force CU’s new defensive starters to prove their worth. The Rams averaged 4.4 yards per carry cumulatively vs. OSU last week. I could see the running backs averaging a similar number on Friday. Overall though, I do think CSU will have an advantage in its running backs vs. Colorado’s front seven on defense.
CB: Following such an outstanding season, what is the morale like in Boulder?
JG: Don’t get me wrong, the community of CU football fans was ecstatic following the team’s 10-win 2016 season. It was so satisfying to watch the Buffs beat Pac-12 powerhouse programs that had dominated them in the past. That said, Colorado’s disappointing loss to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship game followed by a similar story in the Alamo Bowl vs. Oklahoma State did dampen the mood a bit.
The Buffs lost eight starters on defense at the end of last season, so I think that combined with questions surrounding sophomore quarterback Steven Montez have lead some to believe that a regression from last season is inevitable. I certainly won’t be pouting if the Buffs win six, seven or eight games, but given the circumstances and a talented Pac-12 Conference, I think the bar is a bit lower for this team.
The players certainly will hear none of that though, as I suppose should and would be expected of them. Montez is extremely confident in himself and he should be. As a freshman last year, he showed maturity way beyond his age in overall impressive performances vs. Oregon and USC. He’s proven he can play at a high level, but nonetheless he still has areas he can improve in.
CB: Do CU fans view their rival as a legitimate threat?
JG: Well, last year’s game certainly drove a contingent of fans from the fence regarding that question, that’s for sure. Last season
definitely got many people thinking that now schools like Oregon and USC are Colorado’s rivals. But I think intelligent Buffs fans realize that the CU will likely be playing closer games and fighting tougher battles this season, which applies directly to Friday’s game vs. CSU. The players certainly don’t overlook the Rams. They’re ready for a gritty game.
CB: What is your prediction?
JG: I think the Buffs will win this one, but by a smaller margin than last year. I simply think that Colorado’s wide receivers will wear out CSU’s secondary in a more damaging fashion that the Rams’ backfield potentially tearing up the Buffaloes’ defense. Colorado State is obviously hungry for a redeemer from last year and the Buffs are hoping to prove that #TheRise is just beginning. I’ll say the Buffaloes take this one, 34-21.
Collegian sports editor Colin Barnard can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ColinBarnard_.