CU Defense Flips Script, Stifles Cal Run Game
BOULDER — Colorado's defense performed a historic turnaround in the Buffaloes' 20-13 overtime victory against Cal on Saturday at Folsom Field.
In their last outing, the Buffs gave up 673 yards of offense in a 43-20 loss at Arizona.
Saturday, Colorado held Cal to 297 yards. The Bears, who had been averaging nearly 400 yards per game and had a 354-yard rushing effort against Arizona, were held to just 35 on the ground.
The 376-yard difference between CU's Arizona game and Saturday's Cal game was the seventh-biggest improvement in Colorado history.
Saturday's game was CU's first under the direction of interim head coach Mike Sanford and new defensive coordinator Gerald Chatman.
"I believed in Gerald and (Athletic director) Rick George believed in Gerald," Sanford said. "I knew that I believed in him because most importantly, this is about the players. I knew that they were going to rally behind him and then I knew that our defensive staff was going to work together tirelessly to put our players in the best position and do so on a unified front. That's what we saw.'
The Buffs were aggressive all day. They finished with 10 tackles for loss — more than half of the 18 total they had in the first five games — along with a pair of quarterback sacks and two turnovers.
Equally importantly, the Buffs reduced explosive plays.
In the first five games, CU had allowed 19 plays of 20 yards or more on first down, and 50 of 10 or more. Saturday, the Buffs allowed just one play for 20 yards on first down and only five of 10 or more.
Colorado also held Cal to 5-for-17 on third-down conversion attempts.
Linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo, who finished with nine tackles (3.5 for loss), said it was a simplification of CU's scheme that made the difference.
"Basically, simplify, do some different styles and really just allow us to play fast and eliminate all errors to where we could really just go out and just play," he said. "Everything was on us and it showed. We put the work in over the past two weeks to learn a new scheme, and it showed today."
The Buffs had big plays from front to back. Along with a stellar effort from the D-line against the run, Colorado got an interception from Tyrin Taylor, a fumble recovery from Nikko Reed and a huge pass breakup in the end zone from Trevor Woods in overtime.
"I knew that these players were capable of doing that," Sanford said. "It was just flipping the script in terms of their belief."
CU's defense also had a big fourth-down red zone stop early in the first quarter.
SMITH RECOVERING: Buffs running back Deion Smith took a big hit in the second half Saturday and had to be placed on a stretcher and taken from the field on a cart.
But after the game, Sanford said Smith was up and around, and the Buffs RB sent a message on social media expressing his thanks for fans' concerns.
When Smith went down, his teammates gathered around and took a knee as medical personnel examined him.
"He was a huge part of that victory, both in his play and more importantly, just how much this team loves him and shows their support for him there," Sanford said. "That was a moment I'll never forget in my coaching career, just the brotherhood that was shown through that moment."
As Smith was being attended to, Sanford made sure his mother was allowed on the field to be with her son.
BIG DAY FOR MLC: Sophomore wide receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig had the best day by a Buffs wideout in more than two years, finishing with eight catches for 119 yards, including the game-winning 22-yard touchdown pass from J.T. Shrout in overtime.
Lemonious-Craig's TD catch was initially ruled incomplete, but a replay review awarded the Buffs a score.
"I knew I was in on the touchdown," he said. "I got up and told the ref, 'Come on, give it to me, please.' He didn't but we reviewed and they gave me the touchdown. We needed this win but I can say with this team, whether we're 0-5 or 5-0, we always come with the work mentality. We always come ready to play."
Lemonious-Craig also had a 37-yard reception from fellow wide receiver Jordyn Tyson on a trick play to set up CU's first touchdown, then added two more catches on a 69-yard drive that produced a field goal and 13-10 CU lead late in the game.
BUFFS BITS: Sanford's father, Mike Sanford Sr., was in attendance Saturday. The elder Sanford had a long, successful coaching career that included stops with Purdue, Notre Dame, the San Diego Chargers and Stanford … LB Caiden Robertson, DB Austin Dahlke and CB Trey
Ortega all saw their first action as Buffs … The Buffs now trail the all-time series 7-5, with all five wins coming in Boulder … CU is now 3-3 all-time under interim coaches.