Brooks: At Season’s Mid-Point, Buffs Want To Be 3-3

BOULDER – Come late Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field, the Colorado Buffaloes will be halfway through their 2014 football schedule. A win against Oregon State would make the Buffs not half bad – a .500 team at 3-3 overall.

That’s this week’s goal, but in the long term they want to better than .500 and much better than not half bad. And if you’ve watched closely over the last four weeks, you might have noticed that an ascent is underway. It’s sl-o-o-o-o-w, but it’s perceptible.

In the Pac-12 Conference, it’s not easy to go from zero to anything above it in three seasons, but record-setting junior receiver Nelson Spruce believes the Buffs are “super close” to being competitive in their relatively new league.

CU’s captains, a six-member group that include Spruce, addressed the team on Tuesday morning and inching closer to Pac-12 competitiveness is “something I touched on,” Spruce recalled. “We’re right there. My four years that I’ve been there, I’ve never seen a team play like this.

“Obviously it’s not enough because we’re not getting those wins but I just hope that we’re right on the brink of something. You can feel it almost. It’s just a matter of working. You can’t take a step backwards but I just tell them that we’re almost there.”

The Buffs currently are 0-2 in Pac-12 play, having lost competitive games to Arizona State (38-24) and California (59-56, double OT). That strides were taken in each loss offers some solace, but coming close isn’t a part of coach Mike MacIntyre and his team’s end game.

CU’s overall Pac-12 record is 4-25, but MacIntyre is hopeful that more close but gut-wrenching losses such as last weekend’s aren’t necessary before his program sheds the losing stigma.

“You don’t want to have to (lose more close games),” he said. “I wish we didn’t have to suffer any setbacks. I wish we won every game there was. I do think though that they do understand where we’ve come from and where we’re going. We all want to have been there yesterday, or the day before that, or the day before that. So, the thing is, you can’t lose hope, and they haven’t, you’ve got to endure and you’ve got to have passion.”

MacIntyre sees those intangibles in his second CU team but says the most difficult of the three to maintain is endurance – particularly through difficult times.

“A lot of people give up right when they’re near the top of the mountain and they don’t know that they’re there,” he said. “So, you just have to keep pushing and one day, you’ll break through. So, hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.”

For the Buffs, validation of what MacIntyre and his staff have been feeding them isn’t as needed as much reinforcement and reward. The players have bought in; they’re near the point where a breakthrough is becoming vital. They were thisclose at Cal, but a recurring red zone problem – scoring after having first-and-goal – provided the Golden Bears with an opportunity to kick the OT-ending field goal.

Get the Buffs to within a sniff of the goal line and their short yardage running game goes stagnant. In five games, they’ve run five plays from the 1-yard line and scored once. In the second overtime at Cal, they couldn’t score on four runs from the 2-yard line but did get in the end zone twice from the 2 in regulation. For the season, CU’s third-down efficiency in the red zone is 54.5 percent (6 of 11) and fourth-down efficiency is 33.3 percent (1 of 3).

“Well, we got in a couple times and of course we didn’t get in the last time down there,” MacIntyre said. “That’s something that we’re working on. We’re finding ways to be more successful in that area.”

Added quarterback Sefo Liufau: “We’re definitely struggling a little bit . . . it just comes down to consistency. I harp on it a lot but I think that’s where we are struggling as a team. I think we’re getting better at it, we’re consistently fighting as a team and not giving up, as compared to last year. It’s just a little bit more heart, a little bit more execution, and I think we’ll create more in the red zone and end zone situations.”

Meanwhile, Liufau and Spruce have been the heart of the offense. The soul, too. They’ve combined for a school-record 10 touchdown passes and spent last Saturday adding their names to the CU record book in more than a dozen categories.

Liufau, only a sophomore, has taken the Buffs’ passing game to a No. 19 national ranking and No. 5 in the Pac-12. CU is averaging 322.8 air yards a game, up from 249.1 last season and 192.5 in 2012. But Oregon State offers a challenge; the Beavers are ranked third in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 171.5 yards a game.

Oregon State is ranked 11th in the conference in total offense (380.2 yards a game). Quarterback Sean Mannion apparently is missing receiver Brandin Cooks, who made nine receptions for 168 yards and two TDs in the Beavers’ 44-17 rout of the Buffs last season. Mannion has completed 91 of his 145 attempts this season for 1,026 yards and four TDs (four interceptions).

Cooks, said MacIntyre, “was dynamic. He could go up and get the ball between two people a lot of times. Mannion could trust to throw it up to him and know it’s probably not going to be picked, it’s either going to be batted down or he’ll come up with it.”

Minus Cooks, Mannion’s top targets have  become Victor Bolden (18 catches, 192 yards, one TD), Richard Mullaney (16-197, 1 TD) and Connor Hamlett (12-167, 1 TD).

MacIntyre theorized that in trying to emphasize their run game, the Beavers have pulled Mannion’s stats down. “I think at the end of the year last year . . . they started to run the football more and I think they felt like that might give them more opportunities for play-action and big time shots, which it does,” he said. “So, I think that’s where they’re trying to balance their attack out a little bit more.”

But OSU’s run game is still trying to find its legs. The Beavers are No. 11 in the conference in rushing (123.8 yards a game) while the Buffs are only one notch above them (163.0).

Pressuring Mannion will be key for the Buffs, as will keeping the pressure off of Liufau. CU is tied for fifth in the conference in QB sacks (11) and second in sacks allowed (six). Liufau said his O-line “did a really good job of keep me up all game (at Cal) . . . that’s just attributed to their hard work during the week. It’s great being able to stand back there and just continue to throw the ball.”

He threw it a school-record 67 times and wasn’t sacked once. Asked if he had ever attempted that many passes, Liufau smiled and said, “No, not even close. Probably not even close to 50. It was something new to me but I’m totally fine, my arm’s fine. We’re good to go.”

MacIntyre said Liufau’s overall game and grasp of his position has improved considerably: “He’s throwing on the run well, he’s got himself in better shape, and he’s running the ball better. (He needs to) just keep working on being consistent with his accuracy each week, and he has improved that and I think he can keep improving that. I think that’s just getting comfortable in the pocket, and understanding where to go, and how his feet are at different times and he is improving in those areas. But, I think he’s doing a good job.”

MacIntyre added that Liufau’s decision making is getting better weekly: “Yeah, he’s making good decisions. In our games where we’ve had to throw it and having to do some different things, I thought he made a lot of good decisions. He had one that was a poor decision (at Cal) but, he was being pressured and tried to make a play; that happens sometimes. The quarterback has got to forget about it and go back in on the next series and he did. He forgot about it and came back in on the next series and took us down to score and did a good job there. So, I think being able to put those behind him is showing a lot of maturity.”

Following Saturday’s game, the Buffs observe the first of two bye weeks, with the second coming on Nov. 15.  CU starts the second half of its schedule on Oct. 18 at Southern California, with three of the last six games at Folsom Field.

Back-to-back home games are against UCLA (Oct. 25) and Washington (Nov. 1), followed by consecutive road trips to Arizona (Nov. 8) and Oregon (Nov. 22). The season finale is against Utah at home (Nov. 29).

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU 

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