Now that the Colorado Buffaloes have proved to themselves that running the ball isn't impossible, they get a chance to do the improbable - run it against the Pac-12 Conference's best defense.
After rushing for a season-best 161 yards in last weekend's gut-wrenching loss to Washington State, CU will test its legs (and whatever else) Saturday against No. 7 Stanford, which is yielding a league-low 62.2 rushing yards a game. The Cardinal also tops the conference in total defense (312.0 yards a game) and scoring defense (11.5 points).
In facing the high-powered Cougars, who were averaging 540 yards and 49 points, the Buffs entered their Pac-12 opener wanting to limit the WSU offense's time on the field. They almost succeeded, finishing on top in time of possession (32:12-27:48) but losing 31-27 after they failed to keep the Cougars offense sidelined in the final 2:30.
The Buffs visit Palo Alto, Calif., this weekend with the same challenge - limit the playing time of quarterback Andrew Luck and his high-rolling Cardinal offense (471.5 total yards, 45.8 points a game). CU Coach Jon Embree has referred to Luck as "the franchise," and that's how Luck will be regarded in next spring's NFL Draft. He's eighth in Pac-12 passing (253.2 yards a game), but first in passing efficiency with a 178.0 rating after throwing 11 touchdown passes against one interception.
"If you haven't seen this guy . . . I mean I can only imagine what John Elway was in college and this guy is no different," CU offensive line coach Steve Marshall said. "I've seen him firsthand the last two years (when Marshall coached at Cal), and you marvel at the way he plays the game. We certainly have to keep our defense on the sideline as much as we can. We have to create opportunities and we have to score. That's going to be a big issue."
Prior to WSU's visit, CU had averaged 82 rushing yards a game. But with season-best performances from at least a couple of Marshall's linemen, the Buffs got a 26-carry, 132-yard performance from senior tailback Rodney "Speedy" Stewart.
Offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy credited Marshall's unit, which finally had the "luxury" of starting the same five players in consecutive games. Marshall said sophomore left tackle David Bakhtiari "was markedly better" against WSU in his second game back from a knee sprain, and that rapidly improving sophomore center Gus Handler played his best game of the season.
But, added Marshall, the degree of difficulty escalates for his entire bunch this week. Stanford, he said, "will rival Ohio State as far as defensive personnel. They play together and have a lot of good football players, so our work's cut out for us . . . but we're improving every week and that's kinda really what you want. We didn't come out on the top end (vs. WSU), but I was pleased with some of the stuff we did."
Stanford lost its top tackler (linebacker Shayne Skov) to a knee injury last month, but the defense's overall productivity hasn't suffered. In the Cardinal's 3-4 alignment, inside linebackers Jarek Lancaster and Max Bergen have a team-high 19 tackles each, and outside linebacker Chase Thomas has 4.5 quarterback sacks.
Stanford's nosetackle last season was Sione Fua, an eventual third-round draftee of the Carolina Panthers. Marshall was impressed with Fua, but believes Fua's replacement, sophomore Ben Gardner, "is even better. He's really good; their whole (defensive) line is."
Some of CU's running success last weekend came in three-tight end sets that utilized freshman tackle Alex Lewis, who switches numbers (71 to 98) for use at the position. Bieniemy called Lewis "smart . . . he picks it up fast and is really physical. He's a good young player."
But perhaps as much as any personnel adjustments and now-healthy starters contributing to more consistency across the front, Bieniemy and Marshall said the run game's success came from being more patient and sticking with the commitment to run.
"We were patient and stayed with the stuff and were kind of plus-two, plus-three, plus-four and then we popped a couple - which is good to see," Marshall said, alluding to Stewart's long run of 52 yards and a 34-yard gain on a screen pass, as well as backup Tony Jones having 13 of his 21 yards on one carry.
Bieniemy reiterated the need for Jones' workload to increase: "You get in the flow of things (calling plays) . . . I'm constantly reminding the coaches, when '5' (Stewart) is out there, we have to do a better job of managing things and getting (Jones) in. I'm getting caught up in calling plays. But Tony stepped up and made some critical runs; they were huge runs. We have to keep that nice change of pace going."
Also helping the Buffs stick with the run portion of the game plan last weekend was leading at halftime for only the second time in five games this season. CU led WSU 13-10, with a 14-7 advantage against Colorado State being the Buffs' only other halftime lead thus far.
"Our kids did a heck of a job," Bieniemy said. "Were we perfect? No. But it was good to see us get off to a good start."
In his debut as an offensive coordinator, Bieniemy is discovering the virtue of patience. "One thing I'm learning as a play-caller is you just have to be patient sometimes . . . at times, I can be a very impatient young man," he said. "It's just been the nature of how games have transpired in most cases. Obviously we haven't been the most efficient team starting. When you're playing from behind, you tend to think, 'we need to make a play, how do we make a play that puts in position to have a chance?'
"So, we've got to do a better job of making sure we're controlling all the elements from the beginning. For whatever reason, we're coming out in the second half and playing better ball. It's not like we're reinventing the wheel; we're more focused, we're detailing our jobs a little better. But we have to come out with that same attitude and mindset from the get-go. Start strong, finish strong.
"It's mind-boggling. You can try and do all the Jedi mind tricks . . . but it comes down to, 'Fellas, just go relax and have fun. Go have fun.' It shouldn't take us 30 minutes to warm up and get a feel for what the game is like."
Against a defense as unyielding as Stanford's, CU would do well to forego that "30-minute warm-up" period and take an unusual route: start fast and efficiently.
"We have to be able to control the ball . . . to move the ball consistently," Bieniemy said. "Obviously, we want to go into this game, one, running it, but two, we don't want to step back and try to reinvent the wheel. We're going to do what we do, but the bottom line is that we have to execute at a higher level."