Brooks: Buffs Not Keen On 'Keep It Close' Mindset
BOULDER - If you haven't already figured it out, here's something you should know about Mike MacIntyre and his University of Colorado football team: To a man, "keeping it close" has no value.
Oh, sometime long after the fact, MacIntyre might reflect on the rebuild of CU's football program and concede that a competitive game at some juncture was a stepping stone and highly preferable to a blowout.
But for now, forget about it. Whether by 3 points or 30, a loss is a loss is a loss - and that's not what the Buffaloes (1-1) have in mind Saturday night when they open Pac-12 Conference play and their 2014 home schedule against No. 16 Arizona State (2-0) at revamped Folsom Field (8 p.m., ESPNU).
Those outside the locker room might be appeased by a "good effort," but MacIntyre insists neither he nor his players are into measuring sticks or moral victories: "No, not even close. I think that only happens in Las Vegas."
And here's what Las Vegas thinks of CU's chances: Coming off their first win of the season - a come-from-behind 41-38 decision over Massachusetts - the Buffs are 16-point underdogs to a team that embarrassed them 54-13 last season in Tempe, Ariz. The Sun Devils scored 25 points in the first 11 minutes, led 25-0 at the end of the first quarter and 47-6 at halftime.
At this week's Tuesday media briefing, MacIntyre said the Buffs "severely got beat last year from the opening whistle to the end. Our kids know that."
Sophomore middle linebacker Addison Gillam added: "We don't have to be reminded at all. That was one of the worst games. We got just physically beat. I think that was the hardest thing. We were just physically beat. We didn't really have an answer for much. That was hard."
Flash forward a year and Saturday night's task gets no easier. Confronting Gillam & Co. will be of the Pac-12's most potent offenses; the Sun Devils average a conference-best 345 ground yards a game, with tailback D.J. Foster rushing for a league-high 181.5 yards a game. He's fresh off a 216-yard performance in ASU's 58-23 bashing of New Mexico.
But the Sun Devils offense, noted Gillam, isn't a one-act play. Along with Foster, there's quarterback Taylor Kelly and receiver Jaelen Strong, both of whom played only the first half of last season's slap around in Tempe. Plus, ASU features them in an up-tempo scheme that can leave defenses dizzy.
"They're fast, they hurry up a lot," Gillam said. "(And) they're physical. They're a strong team, they've got a strong offensive line, a good quarterback, a really good quarterback. We're going to have to watch for him, scrambling. But, they run all that read stuff so we're going to have to worry about that, too."
CU's best option in defending Kelly and his read option might be keeping it off the field. The Buffs would do well to capitalize offensively and build on a running game that gained 156 yards against UMass. Time of possession could be vital and CU might work it to its advantage.
ASU's defense lost nine starters - including six that were first- or second-team All-Pac-12. The Sun Devils rank tenth in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 179.5 yards a game. But then the Buff are a notch below, giving up 185.0 - and they haven't faced a ground game like they'll see Saturday night.
The Sun Devils are averaging 51.5 points a game, the Buffs 29.0. Trying to win a shootout - provided CU can keep pace - isn't the best scenario. But CU sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau doesn't see that happening.
"I don't think it'll be a shootout," he said. "I have faith and trust in our defense. I also have faith in our offense and the game plan our coaches put us in. But, if it is a shootout, our offense needs to be ready to play and go for a shootout."
In two games, Liufau has completed 61.7 percent of his passes (50-of-81) for 559 yards and five touchdowns. Four of those TD passes went to junior Nelson Spruce, who leads the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (124.5). Liufau's other TD toss went to freshman Shay Fields, who has caught 14 passes for 139 yards.
Spruce said the Buffs learned something about themselves last week against the Minutemen: "We didn't play as well as we could have last week but I think we learned how to fight for four quarters. I think if we handle our business on offense and defense, we'll still be in it. We'll be in it for four quarters. If we can finish like we did last week, then it's anyone's game."
Liufau and his coach aren't in total agreement as to whether their Pac-12 opener can be used as a gauge for the Buffs' in-conference progress in MacIntyre's second year. CU finished 1-8 in the Pac-12 last season and is 4-23 in its three years in the conference.
Said Liufau: "I think it could be a measuring stick. They're a very good team. We're going out there to win. We're not going out there to measure how close we can lose by. You should never go in with that mindset. We're going out there to win. We're going out to win every Pac-12 game. So, everyone has got the belief right now."
But MacIntyre prefers to leave measurements to others. "I use it as a game that we're going out there trying to definitely go 1-0 on," he said. "We're going to go out there and play and hopefully at the end of the game, we're ahead . . . I won't come off the field and say 'Ok, we've improved this much, so we're this much better,' because next week's game is a whole other game."
Also, MacIntyre said the CU program doesn't need to target what might be considered a "marquee" win: "I think you just have to keep improving every day and those wins will come. I don't think the kids go 'Wow, we had a marquee win. Now we can keep going and getting better.' I do not believe that. I believe you just keep playing then I think the marquee win happens and I think you've improved well enough that you can keep doing that. If it's just a fluke, then it's a fluke . . . it's a daily process of everything that goes along with it. So, we've just to keep working."
Saturday night will mark fans' first look at Folsom Field's refurbished north end zone and northeast corner, both part of a $150-plus million athletic facilities improvement project. That, as well as waiting until Week 3 of the season to finally play on their home turf, excites the Buffs.
"Yeah it's kind of a weird feeling but I think that's made us a little more exited to play in front of our home fans," Spruce said. "Especially being a night game and with all of the things being added to the stadium. I think it's going to be a good atmosphere."
Yet at game's end, atmosphere means as much as whether the home team kept it close. MacIntyre, of course, wants signs of progress, but he wants to sign off Saturday night with a 'W.'