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Friday's Fast Five: Keys For Buffs At Stanford

Nov 12, 2020
CU's defense will face a stiff test from the Stanford run game.

STANFORD, Calif. — Colorado coach Karl Dorrell made sure to issue the warning when the week began: Stanford is a different team than the Cardinal of 2019.

"It's not the same Stanford team you saw last year," Dorrell said of a Stanford team that dropped a 16-13 decision in Boulder last November. "It's a new and improved team. We have our hands full in terms of what we did last week and moving forward into this week."

Dorrell no doubt has been stressing that same point to his Buffaloes all week. Last year's 4-8 Stanford finish — the first losing season in head coach David Shaw's 10-year tenure — was likely an aberration, not the beginning of a trend.

On the surface, Stanford's season-opening 35-14 loss to Oregon looked rather lopsided. But the Cardinal produced more than 400 yards total offense, trailed by just seven at the half, and missed four field goal tries in the game. 

At the same time, Stanford looked much more like Shaw teams of the past: a big, veteran offensive line; a quality running back; a solid game manager at quarterback; and a dependable defense.

But neither are Dorrell's Buffs the same team of 2019. A 48-42 win over UCLA in their opener showed a balanced offense capable of controlling the tempo, a defense capable of forcing turnovers (three in the opener) and overall, an ability to withstand some adversity and handle momentum shifts.

So what must the Buffs do to collect a road win Saturday in their 1:30 p.m. game at Stanford Stadium (ESPN and KOA radio)?

1. Stop the run. There are precious few "secrets" when it comes to a Shaw Stanford team. The Cardinal like to line up behind a big, veteran offensive line and pound away with a quality running back.

This year's team fits that recipe. Stanford has five 300-pounders up front, including four returning starters. They have a good running back in Austin Jones (100 yards, two touchdowns in his first start last week) and a reliable No. 2 in Nathaniel Peat (93 yards vs. the Ducks).

How important has that run game been against the Buffs in Shaw's tenure?

In the last two games against Stanford — both Colorado wins — the Buffs have held the Cardinal to an average of 110 yards per game on the ground. It's why the Buffs were able to pick up two wins despite scoring just one touchdown in each game.

But in the three previous contests, all Stanford wins, the Cardinal averaged 214 yards per game on the ground.

This is where CU's front seven will be critical. Colorado's defensive line played well last week; they will have to up their game a notch this week. Meanwhile, CU's linebackers will have to make sure Stanford RBs don't get a free shot at the second level.

If the Buffs can do this, it will be a big first step.

2. Win the red zone battle. CU penetrated the UCLA 20-yard line seven times last week — and came away with six touchdowns and a field goal. That's an average that will make any coach happy.

Stanford, meanwhile, struggled in that area, getting just two touchdowns in four red zone tries, while also missing a pair of field goals.

The Buffs can't count on more missed field goals. But if they can force Stanford to settle for kicks instead of touchdowns, it will be another good sign.

3. Continue to win the turnover battle — and reduce penalties. While the defense was producing three takeaways last week (along with one by special teams), Colorado's offense was clean. No fumbles, no interceptions.

That's a ratio that goes a long, long way in producing a win.

But producing turnovers against the Cardinal won't be easy. Shaw's teams are historically good in that area, and last week Stanford did not have a turnover against Oregon.

It's why ball security will be critical Saturday. If the Buffs don't turn the ball over, they can't lose that battle and hand Stanford some gift momentum in the process.

As for penalties — the Buffs had 10 last week, including some critical pass interference calls in the second half that extended UCLA drives. CU needs to eliminate those gifts and make the Cardinal earn every yard.

4. Remain balanced on offense. That balance has been a big topic of conversation this week, but there's a reason: when you can run and throw with success, defenses are at a disadvantage.

We saw that last week when, after the Buffs had gashed UCLA repeatedly with the run game, quarterback Sam Noyer ran play action fakes to perfection to find open receivers.

Of course, that requires a steady run game early. If CU's offensive line can set the tempo like they did a week ago, it will keep Stanford's defense honest — and that will be a plus for a Buffs team that has a host of offensive weapons.

5. Defense must reduce explosive plays. Last weekend, more than half of UCLA's offensive total came on just seven plays.

The Buffs can't afford to give up those types of plays again, especially against an offense that isn't prone to turnovers. 

Stanford is no doubt a team that doesn't mind grinding out long, sustained drives. Those drives take their toll on a defense and control the clock.

But they also increase the chance of a mistake. The Buffs will be much better off not giving up big plays and instead making the Cardinal work for every yard — and hopefully forcing a mistake or two in the process.