Brooks: Buffs Trek To Tucson In Search Of Pac-12 ‘W’

TUCSON – The Pac-12 Conference’s South Division is a horse race and the Colorado Buffaloes are in the thick of it – unfortunately not as a contender but as a potential spoiler.

Once again that has become CU’s November fate, the goal shifting once more to not backsliding in the season’s final three games and finally crashing the conference win column. That objective, more than derailing a South Division opponent’s run to the league championship game, has occupied the Buffs this week as they prepared to meet No. 21 Arizona here on Saturday night (6 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks).

“Number one: you definitely want to win all three of them that are left, period,” CU coach Mike MacIntyre said. “At the same time, you haven’t reached the ultimate if you win them or win one of them and you’re not at the bottom of the world if you don’t win one of them. But, at the same time, you’re going to fight, claw, scrape and it’s going to hurt like crazy if you lose and you’ll be overwhelmingly joyful if we win.”

On the Pac-12’s big stage, the Buffs’ November goals are comparatively meager. As the league’s only winless team (0-6), they have three final chances to avoid becoming the first CU football team in the modern era to not win a conference game. Only two teams have gone winless in league play since the school began playing football in 1890; the 1898 team went 0-2 in the Colorado Football Association, the 1905 team went 0-5 in the Rocky Mountain Conference.  

But the rest of the South Division isn’t so much interested in that as in what role the Buffs might play in the 2014 divisional race.

At 5-1, Arizona State is currently atop the South and controls its own destiny to reach the Pac-12 championship game. Behind the Sun Devils are four two-loss teams – USC, 5-2; UCLA, 4-2, Arizona, 3-2, and Utah, 3-2. In addition to the Wildcats this weekend, the Buffs close the season against the Utes on Saturday, Nov. 29. Sandwiched between those South Division opponents is a trip to North Division leader Oregon on Saturday, Nov. 22.

Bowl-less for the seventh consecutive season, the Buffs don’t need to plan any further than Saturday. MacIntyre has installed a weekly 1-0 mindset, which has brought CU close in the majority of its Pac-12 games but hasn’t yet yielded a ‘W.’

“There is no doubt that I don’t wake up and our kids don’t wake up wanting to win this game on Saturday, getting a win and getting it going,” he said. “The way these games are happening, it lingers with you. You can say it doesn’t, but it lingers with you a little bit longer. But you can also use that as fuel to energize yourself.”

That’s what he hopes the Buffs have done for their encounter with the Wildcats, who have lost two of their last three after opening the season 5-0 and springing a 31-24 upset at then No. 2 Oregon for the fifth win. Losses have been to USC (28-26) and UCLA (17-7).

In both defeats, Arizona has been held to 80 or fewer yards rushing. USC limited the Wildcats to 77 ground yards, UCLA to 80. Prior to the USC game, Arizona was averaging 224 rushing yards a game. Slowing the Wildcats will be one of the Buffs’ objectives, but they’ve had problems with that all season. They rank last in the Pac-12 in run defense, allowing 197.3 yards a game.

Quarterback Anu Solomon directs Arizona’s zone read option offense and is more than adequate running and passing – although neither capability was highlighted in last week’s loss to UCLA. Solomon, a redshirt freshman, completed 18 of 48 passes for a career-low 175 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

He was sacked three times for a loss of 22 yards and finished the game with seven carries for 30 yards, most of it coming on scrambles. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said Solomon “scrambled pretty well . . . I think he's elusive enough. He's not going to win foot races and out-run people, but he's athletic enough to get some positive things.”

More than some . . . Solomon is second in the conference in total offense, with his 325.6 yards a game passing accounting for most of his 350.5-yard average. Solomon’s success is as much tied to Arizona’s scheme as it is to his ability. MacIntyre said Solomon excels at throwing on the run: “A lot of people can throw on the run, but they can’t be accurate on the run. He’s accurate on back shoulders, throwing down the field and throwing it back across. He does a good job with that. The thing that it does is it keeps the play alive longer, so therefore you’re covering longer.”

Then there are Solomon’s zone-read handoffs to tailbacks Nick Wilson and Terris Jones-Grigsby. Both are among the Pac-12’s top 10 rushers, with Wilson averaging 87.1 yards a game (No. 7) and Jones-Grigsby 76.0 yards (No. 8).

Arizona has had 39 plays from scrimmage this season of 20 yards or longer – 29 passing, 10 running. Wilson has half of those runs, including an 85-yard touchdown jaunt.

Mobile quarterbacks, particularly those in zone-read schemes, have caused problems for the Buffs. But end Derek McCartney believes progress has been made in defending the zone-read, as well as overall on defense.

“Over the course of the season, I believe we have gotten a lot better on defense in general . . . we’re going to keep improving as the season goes on,” he said. “We’re excited.”

Solomon’s top receiving targets have been Cayleb Jones (50 catches, 716 yards, 8 TDs) and Austin Hill (30-413, 4 TDs). Both are 6-3, “which puts a bind on you in the secondary,” said MacIntyre. “They have one guy that’s little (5-9 Samajie Grant) but he’s flying around.” Grant, the slot receiver, averages 13.5 yards a catch.

Middle linebacker Scooby Wright III is the Wildcats’ top tackler (97 total, 60 unassisted) and has been the Pac-12’s defensive player of the week in consecutive weeks. He is coming off a career-best performance against UCLA, having made 19 tackles (11 solo), 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. His 19 tackles were the most for a Wildcats player this century, and his 12.1 tackles a game leads the Pac-12.

Rodriguez called Wright “our most consistent player. Period.”

In addition to defending Solomon & Co., CU needs an efficient game from quarterback Sefo Liufau and his offense. The Buffs stayed with Washington last weekend for the first half and led 23-17 early in the third quarter before two turnovers – a lost fumble and an interception – started their demise. An 87-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter sealed it.

The Buffs are hopeful for the return Saturday of middle linebacker Addison Gillam (bronchitis) and safety Tedric Thompson (concussion). Gillam said on Wednesday he planned on playing, while CU’s injury report listed Thompson as day-to-day. Jeromy Irwin (ankle) was listed as doubtful, likely meaning that redshirt freshman Sam Kronshage will make his first start at left tackle.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU 

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