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Fast Five: Keys For Buffs In Alamo Bowl

Dec 28, 2020
LB Carson Wells leads CU in tackles for loss this season.

SAN ANTONIO — Technically, Tuesday's Colorado-Texas matchup in the Alamo Bowl (7 p.m., ESPN) will be the season finale for both squads.

But for Karl Dorrell's 4-1 Buffaloes, the game will be more than a cap on a successful 2020 season in the face of long odds.

It will also serve as a springboard to 2021, when Dorrell and his team hope to actually have a spring practice session, a normal summer workout schedule and a 12-game regular season uninterrupted or unencumbered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We feel like this is a good, fundamental step in our first year, to be bowl eligible and get a chance to compete," Dorrell said last week. "We feel like the program's on the rise. We have the right people in place and we have a good group of young players that are hungry to raise the level of our program. We have a good feel for what our expectations will be going into the future. It starts with a bowl game this year and hopefully better things in years to come."

The Longhorns (6-3 overall, 5-3 Big 12) should provide an excellent measuring stick for the Buffs as they gauge how far the program has come since Dorrell became CU's third head coach in three years last Feb. 23.

CU players already know they have exceeded outside expectations. With victories in their first four games that produced a spot in the nation's top 25, they raised eyebrows throughout the Pac-12. Even after a loss to Utah in the season finale, CU still landed a host of players on the All-Pac-12 team, including running back Jarek Broussard, who earned Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Dorrell, meanwhile, was named the conference's Coach of the Year.

Now, CU has a chance to produce some national buzz against the nation's 20th ranked team, one that boasts plenty of talent on both sides of the ball — even without a number of players who opted not to participate in the bowl game. The UT list of missing players will include four defensive captains, including All-Big 12 linebacker Joseph Ossai.

But the Buffs will also be missing their best defensive player. Linebacker Nate Landman — Colorado's leading tackler — suffered a season-ending injury against Utah.

So what will be the keys for the Buffs to wrap up 2020 on a successful note, and give 2021 a nice jump start at the same time?

1. Get Broussard in a groove early. It's no secret the Buffs are at their best offensively when their run game is pounding out yards on a consistent basis. Establishing that ground game early against Texas will be critical.

The Longhorns have been solid at times against the run this year, holding three opponents under 100 yards. But they've also been inconsistent in that area — in their three losses, they gave up an average of 185 rushing yards per game.

The Buffs need to hit the UT defense early on the ground, especially with that defense missing a handful of its best players. Texas' latest depth chart lists two defensive starters who have never started a game. If Colorado can take advantage of that inexperience early, it will help the Buffaloes set the tempo.

2. Eliminate UT's quick-strike capability. In nine games this year, the Longhorns produced 22 scoring drives that took two minutes or less to complete, with 11 of those taking a minute or less.

That means Colorado can't give up explosive plays — something that has been Texas' bread-and-butter this year. UT had 51 plays of 20 yards or longer this season, including nine in a 69-31 win over Kansas State. Freshman RB Bijan Robinson has nine such plays this season (six on the ground, three receiving) while QB Sam Ehlinger had 32 pass completions and four runs of 20 yards or longer.

The Buffs must force the Longhorns to try to move the sticks in small increments, not in huge chunks. If the Buffs can make Texas play their tempo and not give up quick scoring strikes, they will be in the game when it counts.

3. Make Ehlinger uncomfortable. With 42 career starts under his belt, Texas' senior quarterback isn't rattled easily. He's an excellent athlete with a strong arm who knows how to work the pocket and extend plays with his feet.

Ehlinger doesn't make many mistakes. He threw for 2,406 yards, 25 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also rushed for 382 yards (521 if you remove sack yards lost from the equation) and a team-high eight touchdowns.

But if the Buffs can keep Ehlinger from breaking big plays, they'll have a much better chance of ending UT drives early. Which brings us to … 

4. Win third down battles. Colorado's improvement in third-down defense was outstanding this year. Tyson Summers' group went from last to first in the Pac-12 in third-down stops, which included nine quarterback sacks.

But third down defense success depends on putting an opponent behind the chains with stops for zero or loss on first and second down. The Buffs were excellent in that category as well this year, leading the Pac-12 and finishing fourth in the nation in tackles for loss per game.

That's a trend CU needs to continue against Texas.

5. Play with confidence and do not panic. These are traits Dorrell has been working to install as foundational cornerstones for the program, and they are clearly taking hold.

They will need those characteristics Tuesday. In what will likely be a "home" game for Texas — yes, there will be a crowd of roughly 11,000 — the Buffs will have to take a punch or two and remain standing. There will no doubt be some momentum swings, especially against an offense with the quick-strike capability of Texas.

But if the Buffs can absorb some blows and respond in kind, they will be in the game in the fourth quarter — and have a chance to not only finish 2020 in style but set the table nicely for a good start to 2021.