Friday's Fast Five: Keys For Buffs vs. Minnesota
BOULDER — Every coach will tell you every game is important — but for the 1-1 Colorado Buffaloes, Saturday's 11 a.m. matchup with 1-1 Minnesota at Folsom Field (Pac-12 Network) might have just a little extra juice.
For starters, it's a chance for Colorado to pick up a win against a respected Big Ten team, the kind of inter-conference Power 5 win that always helps a program's visibility.
Two, it's an opportunity to build some momentum heading into next week's Pac-12 opener at Arizona State, as well as move one step closer to bowl eligibility.
But maybe most importantly, it's a chance for the Buffs to show the world that last week's performance against No. 6 Texas A&M wasn't an aberration. Rather, they can prove that Karl Dorrell has the Buffs moving back toward national relevancy — and that they are ready to show it on an every-week basis.
CU's schedule certainly offers that opportunity this year (and in the coming years as well). With 11 Power 5 opponents on the slate this year — a rarity in college ball — the Buffs have the chance to deliver a message.
"We have to get our program at a level where it's ready to compete every week against a Power 5 program," Dorrell said earlier this week. "That's the direction we're heading … That's what will keep bringing this program forward, keep developing our players and bringing in good recruits. There's stuff we have to continue to work hard at to get this place where it should be."
Indeed, the Buffs have a healthy to-do list to continue their march toward elite status — and it starts Saturday. Thus, our weekly Fast Five Keys for the Buffs as they play host to P.J. Fleck's Golden Gophers:
1. Establish some passing game rhythm. Dorrell made it clear this week that he wanted to improve the balance in the Buffs' offense. CU is averaging 226 yards per game on the ground and just 95.5 in the air.
That needs to improve — if for no other reason than to make sure defenses don't simply stack the box consistently and ignore the passing game.
That doesn't mean the Buffs have to throw deep early and often. They don't have to abandon their run-first offensive philosophy. But if QB Brendon Lewis can get the ball to his receivers and backs in space on the perimeter and let them make plays, it will keep the Gophers' defense honest.
Minnesota's pass rush has been less than formidable thus far. The Gophers have yet to record a sack this season. Meanwhile, the Buffs have the type of receivers who can take short passes and turn them into long gains, something we haven't seen yet. CU's longest pass completion thus far is 23 yards, a number the Buffs need to improve upon.
Which brings us to …
2. Take advantage of Minnesota's tendency to give up big plays. At first glance, Minnesota's red zone defense appears to be a strength. They have given up just one touchdown from inside the 20-yard line in two games.
But the flip side? Of the eight touchdowns scored against Minnesota this year, seven have come from 20 yards out or longer. That includes pass plays covering 71, 61, 56, 38, 33 and 23 yards. If the Buffs can take advantage of what appears to be a weak spot on the back end of the Gophers' secondary, it could be a big plus.
3. Stay strong against the run. CU's rush defense has been nothing short of outstanding thus far, giving up an average of 53.5 yards per game.
The task of continuing that trend won't be easy this week. While the Gophers are missing top back Mo Ibrahim, they have evidently found a more-than-capable replacement in Trey Potts. In his first career start last week, the sophomore ran for 178 yards on 34 carries — the most rushing attempts in a game by any player in the country this year.
The Gophers also have a big, experienced and deep offensive line. Ten Minnesota linemen have at least one career start, seven have double-digit starts and three have started at least 35 games. One of those veterans, transfer Daniel Faalele, might be the biggest player the Buffs see this year, standing 6-foot-9 and tipping the scales at 380 pounds.
It is indeed a big task, literally and figuratively. But the Buffs' front seven needs to protect the edge, force the Gophers to the interior and leave room for CU's linebackers to seal the gaps. If Colorado's defense can force-feed the Gophers a consistent diet of third-and-long, the Buffs can control the tempo and give their offense an extra possession or two.
Speaking of extra possessions …
4. Up their takeaway game. The Buffs have forced two turnovers this year, and they couldn't have come at more opportune moments. One was an interception in the end zone, the other a fumble recovery in the end zone — both by DB Mekhi Blackmon.
But it's an area where Dorrell and defensive coordinator Chris Wilson would like to see the numbers improve.
The Gophers aren't turnover-prone. They have lost just one fumble this year and QB Tanner Morgan has yet to throw an interception. But the Buffs need to find a way to make Morgan uncomfortable in the pocket and force a throw or two.
In a close game, those are the momentum-changing moments that can decide the outcome.
5. Win the third-down battle. The Buffs put themselves in some big holes on third down in last week's loss to A&M, averaging 8 yards to go on 14 third-down tries. The result was a 4-for-14 conversion rate, a big reason CU is 10-for-24 on third-down tries this year.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has been fairly efficient on third down, converting 15-of-28.
How do you improve third-down conversions? By being more productive on first and second down. The Buffs have to find a way to put themselves in more manageable third down situations and keep the sticks moving. A big part of that will be hammering out some 4 and 5 yard runs on first or second down and not putting themselves in obvious passing situations.
Third downs will be another key to controlling the tempo — something both teams will want to do with their run games.