Brooks: Buffs Can’t Afford To Be Run Down By Rams
BOULDER – For any defense in any football game, three words stand out as the preparations unfold: Stop the run. As Colorado prepares for its 2013 opener against Colorado State and the launch of the Mike MacIntytre Era, those words never have been weightier.
A brief look back before going forward: In 2012, the line of scrimmage resembled a playground for CU opponents. The Buffs surrendered almost six yards (5.92) per carry and 226.0 a game, with both of those statistics last in the Pac-12 Conference in CU’s 1-11 nightmare.
Meanwhile, the Rams averaged 3.9 yards per rush and 128.8 a game in 2012. But CSU found its legs in the final half of the season, averaging 189.3 yards on the ground in the final five games and winning three of those en route to a 4-8 finish.
And Rams fans take heart in this: Of CSU’s nine returning offensive starters, five are offensive linemen who opened in the majority of last season’s games. Four of the five are seniors, including honors candidate Weston Richburg (center), and the fifth returnee is a junior.
CSU coach Jim McElwain told reporters this week that his O-line’s experience and mental makeup has brought it to “the point where they can take over a game if needed. That’s a really important thing to have in your mind.”
That’s the mental challenge for the Buffs on Sunday afternoon in Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The physical challenge for CU’s slimmed D-line is combating a CSU O-line that averages 6-4, 303 pounds.
“They had a good offensive line last year and they’ve got everybody back,” said Buffs defensive coordinator Kent Baer, whose 2012 San Jose State defense limited CSU to 89 rushing yards in a 40-20 Spartans win in the season’s third game.
Baer hedged on saying the Rams’ running game is the team’s 2013 offensive strength: “I don’t know if I’d say that . . . obviously we’ve got to defend the run; we’ve got to get lined up and do that. But they do a great job of scheming the passing game. (Dave) Baldwin (offensive coordinator) is a good coach. They do a great job.”
Since last spring and throughout August camp, Baer and his defensive coaches have emphasized better tackling – a must in slowing a ground game. Baer said he has seen improvement, but added, “We need to tackle somebody else, but I do think we’re getting better.”
McElwain is playing the “who’s my starter?” game at quarterback, saying he’ll make a game-day decision from among junior Garrett Grayson, sophomore Conner Smith or true freshman Nick Stevens. Said Baer: “I wouldn’t announce it either.”
Not that it matters, he contends, but it’s fairly clear that he and his players believe it will be either Grayson or Smith. “Both are good players,” Baer said. “We’ve looked at both, prepared for both and we’re not changing our game plan. It doesn’t matter.”
Added inside linebacker Derrick Webb, a senior captain: “It doesn’t make any difference. I feel like we’ve got a good game plan against either quarterback. No matter who plays, we’ll be prepared to play against him – either one.”
Grayson opened against CU last season, completing 14 of 21 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions). He wound up starting four more games in 2012, with Smith starting four. McElwain also used a third quarterback – M.J. McPeek, who started in three games and played in all 12.
No matter the QB, said Webb, has “traditionally been a running team,” and last season the Rams ran for 125 of their 298 total yards in a 22-17 win against the Buffs. “They have a lot of different ways to get into their run game. They have a creative running game. We’ve got to be able to fit up with their different formations and looks they give us.”
Senior defensive tackle Nate Bonsu will be playing for the fourth time against the Rams, and in the previous three games Bonsu said CSU always made its running intentions clear. But, Bonsu added, the Buffs’ stop-the-run intentions are just as clear.
“As D-linemen we take pride in that, and coach (Jim) Jeffcoat has put that in us,” Bonsu said. “If we want to be any kind of team, it starts with stopping the run. And that means it has to start on Sunday. We have to stop the run, be physical and put our best forward as a D-line to have any success on Sunday. That’s definitely our top priority.”
In watching tape of last season’s CU-CSU game and other Rams games, Bonsu said the Buffs realize the importance of being committed to their assignments: “Watching film, we see a lot of time when CSU gashes people it’s because somebody’s not in the right gap, somebody’s not doing their assignment. That’s the biggest thing as a D-line we’ve got to be committed to – doing your job, playing your block right, using the right technique and recognizing things on pass protection. That’s what I’m committed to – but it’s definitely stopping the run first.”
During August camp, he said players went on the field with a single individual goal in mind: “It might be to have lower pad level that practice. When you look at film, did you do better at that? You have to grade yourself with a yes or a no. If it was no, you have to go back out (the next practice) and work on that same goal. If it’s yes, then you pick a new goal for the next day and work on that. We’ve been doing that through camp, now we’re doing it in working toward CSU . . . things we have to do correct to win the game.”
Starting alongside Bonsu on CU’s interior will be sophomore Josh Tupou (6-3, 305), with senior Chidera Uzo-Diribe (6-3, 250) and junior Juda Parker (6-2, 250) at ends in the 4-3 alignment. Jeffcoat plans liberal substitutions, using at least eight linemen and trying to keep his players fresh – a challenge on what is forecast to be a 90-degree afternoon.
The 6-1 Bonsu, who has lost about 30 pounds since last winter and has redistributed his 285 pounds, believes he and his linemates match up well with the Rams’ O-line. “I feel like we do, but Sunday will tell the story,” he said. “Whatever people predict either way is just what they predict. I think with the game plan we have and because we’ve been through spring and summer camp now, we’ll be ready for it.”
Webb expressed confidence in Bonsu & Co. holding their own at the line of scrimmage: “I couldn’t be more proud of what our D-line accomplished this camp. I feel like they’re prepared for any offensive line now and in the Pac-12.”