Buffs Notes: Third Downs, Young DBs, Utes Up Next
BOULDER — With one game left in the season, the Colorado Buffaloes would like to wrap up their 2021 campaign by doing something they haven't managed to accomplish all year:
Win a road game.
CU will have one last chance to accomplish that task Friday, when Karl Dorrell's 4-7 Buffs (3-5 Pac-12) head to Utah for a 2 p.m. matchup with the Utes (8-3, 7-1).
The Buffs played well at home this season more often than not, compiling a 4-2 mark on their own turf. But away from the cozy confines of Folsom Field, they are 0-5 (including a neutral site game in Denver).
Getting that elusive road win won't be easy. The Utes have won seven of their last eight, have clinched the Pac-12 South and are playing their best ball of the season, as evidenced by their 38-7 drubbing of Oregon last weekend.
But the Buffs might also be playing their best overall ball of the year. They have won two of their last three and had a 20-10 lead at the half in their last loss.
Both sides of the ball have had their moments in the recent stretch.
While the offense struggled for much of the game in last weekend's 20-17 win over Washington, CU did produce a game-clinching 90-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. The defense, meanwhile, produced a classic bend-but-don't-break performance: four takeaways, three quarterback sacks and just 17 points allowed.
But if the Buffs are going to send themselves into the offseason with their first two-game win streak of the year, they have some things to address.
Third-down conversion on both sides of the ball might be atop the list.
CU hasn't been good on third downs, offensively or defensively, for most of the season. The Buffs are converting just 31 percent of their third-down tries this year (44-for-142) while allowing opponents to convert nearly 43 percent of the time (66-for-155).
But the disparity was even more pronounced last weekend vs. the Huskies. UW was successful on 14 of 21 third-down tries, plays on which Washington finished with 188 yards (more yards than CU's offense had in the entire game). The Buffs, meanwhile, were just 2-for-13 on third-down tries, compiling just 38 yards in the process.
But, as Dorrell pointed out in his post-game press conference, and again in his weekly Monday meeting with the media, CU's four defensive takeaways, three quarterback sacks and no turnovers by the offense were enough to offset Washington's healthy statistical edge.
CU is 4-1 this year when winning the turnover battle.
"You know the team that had all the yards and you know all the first downs and third-down conversions," Dorrell said. "(But) they didn't win the game. We played smarter in the critical times. We took care of the football and we were opportunistic in getting turnovers. And, we scored when we needed to score."
Still, Dorrell noted, "We're not getting off the field on defense and we're not staying on the field offensively. We have to be better in those two areas."
CONFIDENT REED IMPROVING: Freshman cornerback Nikko Reed played a career-high 29 snaps against the Huskies and responded with his best game as a Buff.
The 5-10, 165-pound Reed had a crucial fourth-quarter interception in the end zone to stop a UW drive, a play that opened the door for Colorado' game-clinching six-minute, 14-play scoring march.
"His confidence and attitude is off the charts," Dorrell said. "He came in that way when he was here this summer. He wasn't intimidated. He came in saying, 'I fit right in and I can compete. I can help this team. Put me in, coach."
True freshman DBs seldom earn substantial playing time, but Reed has seen his time on the field steadily grow over the last month. He has played at least 20 snaps in each of the last three games and earned more time with his performance.
Reed is part of a dynamic group of freshman DBs that also includes second-year freshman Christian Gonzalez and true freshmen Tyrin Taylor and Kaylin Moore.
"Since he stepped on the field, he's had that attitude and he's been able to perform," Dorrell said. "Him making that play in the end zone, he's done that in practice with some of our best receivers. He's just a really true competitor and we all trust him."
RETURN CHANGES: Reed can also return punts and kicks, and Dorrell said he will be in that role at Utah. Regular kick returner Brenden Rice suffered an injury against Washington and won't be available for the season finale.
Reed has one kick return this year, a 5-yard effort.
"You're going to see a little bit more of what he can do because he's a dynamite athlete and very confident," Dorrell said.
PERSONNEL UPDATES: Along with Rice not being available this weekend, Dorrell said linebacker Nate Landman, who has not played defense in the last four games, has "a chance" to play this weekend, as does linebacker Guy Thomas.
Others who could be ready this weekend include defensive linemen Janaz Jordan and Jeremiah Doss.
But, Dorrell said, linebacker Jack Lamb, who had an 88-yard fumble return for a touchdown against UW, won't be available this week.
YOUNG WRs MUST STEP UP: With Rice and Montana Lemonious-Craig sidelined with injuries and La'Vontae Shenault unavailable, it means the Buffs will need extra production from veterans Daniel Arias and Dimitri Stanley.
It will also mean more opportunities for youngsters such as Chris Carpenter, Chase Penry and Ty Robinson.
Carpenter had a big 15-yard catch on third down on CU's game-winning drive Saturday, while Penry has come up with some key receptions several times this season.
Arias, though, may be the key piece to the puzzle. He has recorded nine catches in the last three games, the most consistent stretch of his career. He had a 43-yard touchdown catch in a win against Oregon State, a 42-yard reception against UCLA and three catches against Washington.