Brooks: Buffs O-line Braces For Huskies’ Sack Attack

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BOULDER – With the 2014 regular season trickling into its final month, a search for the University of Colorado in the Pac-12 Conference’s statistical world usually starts midway or lower in any given category.

There are exceptions. The Buffaloes have been exceptional in gaining first downs (No. 1 at 27.6 a game), controlling time of possession (No. 1 at 33:18 a game), but so-so in scoring (31.9 points a game, No. 9). Individually, junior Nelson Spruce remains among the conference and national leaders in a couple of receiving categories and in touchdowns scored. Quarterback Sefo Liufau, punter Darragh O’Neill, kicker Will Oliver and safety Tedric Thompson all rank among the top five or higher in specific conference categories.

And then there is CU’s protection of Liufau, which falls first on the offensive line but is by no means limited to the large ones up front. In eight games, the Buffs have allowed a conference-best 12 sacks (tied for 32nd nationally). But final exams will come in the season’s final four weeks; how iron-clad CU is in keeping Liufau upright and not uptight will be tested.

It starts Saturday with Washington (11 a.m., Pac-12 Networks) and continues until Utah visits Folsom Field on Nov. 29. With 34 quarterback sacks, UW is No. 2 nationally and in the conference, trailing only Utah’s 35 sacks. CU’s other two November opponents – Oregon (23 sacks) and Arizona (19) – rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Pac-12.

By November’s end, if their pass protection is as solid as it is entering the month, the Buffs can thump their chests and crow just a little. Of course, they’d rather close out the season with reason to crow about other things – namely wins. But progress in specific areas usually means progress overall, which is the goal in coach Mike MacIntyre’s second season.

The Huskies’ hounding of quarterbacks starts with defensive end/outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, the FBS leader with 14.5 sacks. But U-Dub has two more sack artists in the Pac-12’s top seven: Nosetackle Danny Shelton has 7.5 and ranks fifth, and end Andrew Hudson has 5.0 and ranks seventh.

“I think their front seven, their defensive front, is excellent,” MacIntyre said. “That’s the strength of their football team. They cause a lot of havoc with those guys . . . I’m very, very impressed with what they do.”

Facing sack-minded D-linemen and linebackers isn’t new for the Buffs. Southern California’s four QB sacks were a season-high against CU, but line coach Gary Bernardi deemed two of the sacks highly preventable. Still, end/tackle Leonard Williams – arguably the league’s best D-lineman – got only .5 of the Trojans’ total.

But the pursuit of Liufau won’t ease up. CU left tackle Jeromy Irwin acknowledged the amount of pressure and the different looks the Huskies bring, and added, “I think we’ve seen a lot of it, but they might have some stuff they want to surprise us with. I think we’ll be ready for all the stuff they’re going to throw at us.”

Catching Irwin’s eye in tape study of the UW front were “No. 8 (Kikaha) and No. 55 (Shelton). Both of those guys are really good players. We’re going to have to work our asses off to block them. They’ve got a really good defensive front, kind of like SC’s. I said they were one of the better fronts we’d play and I’d say the same thing about this front. It’s full of good guys.”

Added right guard Daniel Munyer: “They get after it in the pass rush. They’re very active players who have a knack for the ball. You have to block the whole play; that’ll be the big thing for us.”

Offensively, the Huskies (5-3, 1-3) have started three quarterbacks over their eight games. Jeff Lindquist opened the season at Hawai’i, but was relieved of the starting job by Denver native Cyler Miles (Mullen HS) for the next six games. Last weekend, Troy Williams supplanted Miles but threw two interceptions in UW’s 24-10 loss to No. 14 Arizona State.

UW’s weekly depth chart lists Miles as Saturday’s starter. In his six games, he’s completed 104 of 157 passes (66.2 percent) for 1,043 yards and 10 touchdowns and only one interception. A concussion kept him out of the ASU game.

“Offensively, they’ve kind of been beat up a little bit at quarterback which is throwing them off kilter a little bit on offense,” MacIntyre said.

The Huskies’ leading rushers are Lavon Coleman (106 carries, 438 yards, 1 TD) and Dwayne Washington (63 carries, 239 yards, 3 TDs). But both have been battling injuries, and Coleman didn’t play last week. First-year coach Chris Petersen, hired by UW from Boise State last winter, hasn’t ruled out more play at tailback for linebacker Shaq Thompson, who has rushed for one TD in eight games but scored four defensively (three fumble returns, one interception). UW is the FBS leader in defensive TDs (six).

Among the Buffs’ goals in seeking their first Pac-12 win (0-5, 2-6 overall) will be curtailing their number of big plays allowed. They’re yielding 6.44 yards per play and have allowed opponents eight plays of 45 yards or longer. CU is last in the conference in run defense (192.5 yards a game) but eighth in total defense (444.2).

MacIntyre saw defensive improvement in last week’s 40-37 double-overtime loss to UCLA, particularly on a critical fourth-and-one stop in the first extra period. But consistency has been elusive; on the Bruins’ first offensive possession, the Buffs allowed a 92-yard TD run.

“We’ve given up some big plays,” MacIntyre said. “We misaligned on that first play, which we didn’t do all week in practice. That’s kind of one of things that I’m talking about. You have to come out and do the things right.”

Offensively, the Buffs have gone over 400 total yards in seven of their games and have been at 500 or better three times. They rushed for a season-best 233 yards against UCLA, finishing with 500 yards in total offense. CU is averaging 470.4 yards a game – No. 7 in the Pac-12 – and Liufau is fifth in passing at 284.5 yards a game (23 TDs, 11 interceptions).

Keeping Liufau out of harm’s – the Huskies – way is paramount. He acknowledges the challenge the Huskies present:  “They’re very active, very physical. By no means are they one of the smallest fronts. (They have) a lot of ponies up there. They’re fast, they’re strong all across the board. They’ve got some good cover guys in the back. Sometimes you’ll get a coverage sack due to great coverage from their (defensive backs).  There’s a couple of guys on their defense that could play at the next level.”

MacIntyre is mindful that Kikaha, Shelton and UW’s front seven “are going to cause us a little havoc.  We’ve got to protect well that’s obvious. We’ve got to do some things to slow them down and there are different things in our game plan for us to try to do that.”

For starters, the Buffs need to keep Liufau out of third-and-longs by being successful on first and second down. Running the ball as well this week as last would help in that regard. And, noted MacIntyre, “We’ve got to keep our drives on track . . . we’ve been able to do that quite often this year. But (UW) has gotten after everybody basically. So, we just have to find a way to minimize it.”

Saturday’s game marks the Buffs’ next-to-last home appearance this season – a fact not lost on Munyer, a senior. But this game’s weight is no more than last weekend’s or next weekend’s at Arizona.

“They’re always important,” he said. “You always want to play to win and I think we are. Obviously our record doesn’t show it, but if you look at it we’ve been in every single game pretty much. That part of it is frustrating, but I know everyone on this team is going to be competing to win. That’s the big thing. We’re competing for each other and our coaches and the fans of Colorado, too.”

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU 

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