The Colorado Buffaloes come into Saturday’s matchup with the Washington State Cougars reeling and on a four-game losing streak, the most humiliating of which came at the hands of the Oregon State Beavers — in Boulder, no less. Injuries have wreaked havoc on the Buffs’ roster as they’ve slid from a high of No. 19 in the AP poll a month ago to needing a win in the final three games just to gain bowl eligibility.
With the Cougs ranked No. 8 in the CFP and more or less rolling toward the Pac-12 Championship Game, these are two teams on different trajectories. To get a sense of how the Buffaloes will approach the game, which kicks off at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN, we connected with Jack Barsch of Ralphie Report.
I know this is probably a bit of a tender spot, but how long ago does that 5-0 start feel?
As you would expect it feels like a different season. Yes, the teams CU beat ranged from bad to worse than bad. But they were blowing out these teams. The close win against Nebraska could be explained away by emotion and the close-ish win against ASU was proof that the Buffs were a step or a half step above a good team. Since traveling to USC, it has all come crashing down. Honestly, the losses to USC, UW, and Arizona on the road could be stomached if they weren’t joined by the worst loss in the MacIntyre era. That was the killer blow.
Injuries have obviously played a big role, but that can’t be all of it. What else has contributed to the current slide?
The quality of the competition has increased, for starters. CU played two teams that were definitively better than them, both on the road. And they also played an Arizona team that seems to have figured out its offense. But that still leaves the Oregon State game, which is unexplainable. That was a complete failure by the coaching staff.
Schematically, teams figured out CU’s Super Simple Offense and first-year playcaller Darrin Chiaverini has been very slow or unwilling to change. Teams also figured out that if you rush five on every play, the offensive line is bad enough that Steven Montez has no time to throw and the running backs have nowhere to go.
The defense can be partially explained by injuries. An already thin defensive backfield has been shuffling players in and out, but these players weren’t stalwarts to begin with. The front seven has held admirably, but they can only hold for so long before enough passes are connecting.
Laviska Shenault Jr. is very, very good. Explain how things change when he’s in vs. out of the lineup.
Obviously, teams have to account for him. His gravity affects the entire scheme and opens up things that aren’t there previously. With the ball in his hands, he’s dangerous, but it goes past that. As much as it shouldn’t be true, Montez calms down with Shenault on the field. Mentally, I think it helps him to know that he has the best security blanket in the country on any given play. I think it also calms the OC. Chiaverini has more confidence in his play calls with #2 out there, as anyone would.
Who else on offense should we be concerned with?
Well, the wide receivers are a MASH unit right now. The top three options are all “day-to-day,” so I won’t choose any of them. Look for Juwann Winfree to continue coming on strong late in the year. The 5th year senior worked tirelessly to come back from an ACL tear, and then a late hit by Nebraska knocked him out for a while. He appears to be healthy and had a great game last week. He’s physical and his connection with Montez pays off on 3rd and longs.
How do you think the CU defense will approach trying to slow down Gardner Minshew II and the Air Raid?
DJ Eliot loves to bring blitzes, and I think CU will try early and often to get Minshew off his spot. 5 or 6 defenders could be coming after him every play. Luckily for Minshew, this is not the 2016 CU secondary, so someone could and should be open. Like any defense, the goal will be to force 3rd and longs and then force a quick throw on those downs. I would expect a lot of OLB blitzes from Davion Taylor and Drew Lewis.
Who’s one player on defense that could leave us shaking our heads on Saturday afternoon?
Mustafa Johnson has had a hell of a debut season for the Buffs, and if he is on top of his game, he could make life hard for the Cougars. He has a comparable playstyle to Hercules Mata’afa. He is short, but his quickness and long arms allow him to be extremely disruptive upfront. Johnson leads the team in sacks and is constantly in the backfield. With a team like WSU that likes to throw the ball a lot, he will be freed up to rush the passer a little more. He might have a big game.
If Colorado beats WSU, it’ll happen like this:
If Mike Leach forgets to call plays and Minshew shaves his mustache, CU has a chance.
But honestly, it will take a huge effort from CU’s secondary to hold strong on their islands. The offense needs to be able to run the ball (not likely) and keep the ball out of Minshew’s hands. If they can string long drives together that end in touchdowns, the Buffs have a shot.