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Brooks: It's Not Oregon, But Same Offenses Await CU

Oct 10, 2013

BOULDER – Not to oversimplify, but from now through Thanksgiving weekend game-planning for Colorado’s defensive staff should be eight pieces of cake. Maybe that’s an over-the-top simplification.

But personnel aside, the offenses lined up to face CU in its final eight games – including plug-in Charleston Southern next week and seven Pac-12 Conference foes starting with Arizona State on Saturday night – are of a similar breed (with a wrinkle or three, of course).

The spread option is to college football what the smartphone is to the cellular world. Almost everybody uses one – or a variation thereof.

“From here on out, a lot of teams are going to do similar things,” said CU junior safety Jered Bell. Those “things” begin with no huddle, a quickened pace and a skilled option quarterback, in other words, most of what the Buffs experienced last Saturday against No. 2 Oregon.

The big difference will be in the players; CU won’t have to contend with Oregon’s overall speed or another Marcus Mariota. But the drop-off in QB play won’t be that dramatic. The manner in which the Buffs’ ‘D’ is preparing for Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils offense sound suspiciously like the prepping for Mariota and the Ducks.

Observed Bell: “They’re going to go at a high pace, they’re going to do a lot of zone-read option and quick passes. Arizona State lines up fast. They’ll try to trick you with their personnel; they’ll have their tight ends in, but it’s their ‘11’ personnel. Our job will be to get aligned and communicate; that’s our biggest key right now.”

CU coach Mike MacIntyre said the Sun Devils’ speed at lining up and running plays can match the Ducks’ on occasion: “Not all of the time but they can sometimes. They have some plays where they’re on the line just as quick or quicker. Every team kind of has little phases that they do a little different . . . I think that Oregon’s offensive line was excellent at also moving fast. Sometimes that’s what everything orchestrates really well. Some teams that go fast, their offensive line doesn’t move as fast as the receivers and the running backs, so the holes aren’t really there. Whereas Oregon has it synchronized pretty good and I think Arizona State does that, too.”

Mariota was a monster against Bell and the Buffs, accounting for 398 total yards (355 passing, 43 running) and seven touchdowns (five passing, two running). Kelly and his offense might not be at the same level, but they’re not too shabby. The Sun Devils are third in the Pac-12 in scoring (42.2 points a game), fourth in passing offense (359.4 yards a game) and fifth in total offense (489.4).

Kelly, a redshirt junior from Scottsdale, has thrown for 300-plus yards in all five of ASU’s games this season. He’s completed 63.3 percent of his passes (138-of-218) for 1,732 yards and 14 TDs, with six interceptions. Receiver Jaelen Strong, a 6-3 redshirt sophomore, is averaging 113.8 yards and has three TD catches, but senior tailback Marion Grice has a team-high five scoring receptions.

MacIntyre called Grice, who averages 61.4 rushing yards (eight TDs) and 43.8 receiving yards, “extremely fast out of the backfield.” Strong, a junior college (Pierce College in Puyallup, Wash.) transfer, offers “a big huge target and it seems like everything that is thrown it to him . . . he’s like flypaper. It just sticks to him. He’s really good,” MacIntyre said.

Bell, who has one of the Buffs’ six interceptions (corner Greg Henderson is tied for the league lead with four), said from here on out execution of the game plan is key: “The coaches have it all dialed up and will have a good game plan going in, so we just have to execute.”

That’s been on on-going dilemma in consecutive lopsided Pac-12 losses. In the 44-17 opening loss at Oregon State, the Buffs yielded 414 passing yards and six TDs to Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion. Coupled with Mariota’s stats last weekend, that’s 769 passing yards and 11 TD passes allowed by CU in the first two conference games. The Buffs’ two-game Pac-12 point yield is 101.

Not surprisingly, the Buffs have settled into an undesirable but familiar position in the Pac-12 – last in pass defense (78th in the FBS) at 326.8 yards a game and a league-worst 13 TD passes allowed.

Bell contended the 11 TD passes allowed in the two league games is not indicative of the defense’s capabilities. “Definitely not,” he said. “We’re a lot better than that. I know the stats may not show it, but we are improving as a team and as a defense. We’re getting better; we just have to learn from it and move on.”

The key to improvement, he added, is “competing more and going and getting (the ball). “We have to play through the hands of the receiver and find a way to get the ball out. (And) we have to communicate with our assignments. Last week there were a lot of mental errors on our part in the secondary. It just comes with studying, knowing our assignments, then competing on the play.”

MacIntyre said CU’s secondary was “just off a little bit on a few coverages where it happened fast and quick.” As much as his guys being fractionally off, MacIntyre credited the difference to Mariota’s quickness, speed and accuracy. “There were three (plays) that I can remember where if we had just a little bit more leverage all three of them would have not been plays but all three were touchdowns,” MacIntyre said.

“Those are big plays and it really is that small of a difference. It’s that big of a difference when it happens and that small of a difference if you make the play because they ran the exact same plays later on and we covered them like a blanket . . . I think that helped us understand.”

Generating a pass rush against spread option offenses and QBs who “get the ball out” quickly is difficult, but it’s something the Buffs need to do better. With six sacks in four games, CU is tied for 10th in the Pac-12 with Arizona, one ahead of last-place Cal (5).

Senior defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe, who led CU in sacks last season with seven, has one of the Buffs’ six sacks so far. The key to getting more pressure on Kelly this week, he said, is “we have to win our one-on-ones . . . the front four, when we have that opportunity, need to take advantage of it.”

Uzo-Diribe and Bell contended the Buffs’ consecutive Pac-12 losses haven’t affected them like last season’s string of defeats. “Guys aren’t letting up,” Uzo-Diribe said. “We still have a lot of football left to be played. We are just learning from all of these games and we’re going to make those experiences to always be learning, which will work in our favor.”

Bell said unlike the feeling that began to permeate the team in 2012, there is no sense in the locker room that the slide has begun: “It may look like that, but we’re a lot better defensively. It’s unfortunate, the outcome of those games, but we are getting better. It’s hard to see that from the outside, but from the inside we’re definitely getting better.

“It’s a different team from last year. Coaches are instilling in us a motivation; we’re more motivated now. We’re not getting down in our spirits. We’re good to go. We care a lot about this team. We’re not giving up on this season. We just still have a lot of work to do.”

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU