Colorado's 24-3 yawner against Colorado State last season in Denver was a good way for the Buffaloes to start a year that ended badly. But that win has received little more than a cursory look from CU coaches this week as they prepare for Saturday's Rocky Mountain Showdown.
The taped re-run that has captivated the Buffs staffers (and, in fact, has them more than a little on edge) is the 2009 CU-CSU game in Boulder. The Rams, 101/2-point underdogs then and losers in seven consecutive visits to Folsom Field, rolled to a 20-3 halftime lead then held off the Buffs for a 6-point victory (23-17).
Current defensive coordinator Greg Brown was on the CU staff then as secondary coach, and what he remembers most about that '09 game also is what makes him the wariest about Saturday's encounter.
Brown portrays fourth-year CSU coach Steve Fairchild as having one of the keenest offensive minds around. In exclusive defensive circles, Brown has the same reputation.
Let the chess match begin . . .
"To me, this game boils down to Fairchild's great ideas and schematically what he wants to do to you," Brown said. "Give him credit, look at his background. He was with the (St. Louis) Rams when they had the 'Greatest Show on Turf.' He knows what's going on; he's quite the challenge."
Among Fairchild's offensive strengths, noted Brown, is his ability to coach pass protection: "He understands what a defense is trying to do to you. The guy has been there, done that, seen that. The experience he's got in the NFL, you're not going to throw a wrinkle at him that he hasn't experienced somewhere along the way . . . you're not going to fool the guy.
"He's got an answer for what you're going to do; he's got great anticipation for what you're going to call and he's going to counteract that. He just puts his guys in the right position the make plays."
Fairchild's game plan for the Buffs in 2009 called for unheralded senior quarterback Grant Stucker to take advantage of "max protection" - keeping his tight ends and running back engaged in blocking rather than sending them on pass routes -- on most passing attempts. Stucker faltered in the ball protection area (he threw two interceptions), but he completed 10-of-17 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown. And he got another 168 yards (one score) from his running game. Three field goals by Ben DeLine, back for his final season, accounted for the Rams' other scores.
CU, meanwhile, managed only 29 yards rushing (QB Cody Hawkins lost 38 yards on four sacks) and had to mount its come-up-short comeback through a passing game that accounted for 222 yards.
After that game, Brown, an Arizona assistant last season before returning to join Jon Embree's staff last winter, came away further impressed by Fairchild.
"My hat was s-o-o-o off to him," Brown said. "I know I'm sounding the alarm, but I go back to that game. His team came in here and whipped our behinds on our home field - and did it convincingly. He's the one that did it. He came in here, had a scheme and lit us up, tore us up."
For what it's worth, last season's tearing and ripping was done by the Buffs defense, which sacked Rams quarterback Pete Thomas four times and intercepted him three times in his college debut. But under Fairchild's tutelage, Brown and Embree expect Thomas to be a different QB this season.
Brown called Thomas "an extension of his head coach," while Embree said the 6-5 sophomore "has made tremendous improvement. That, I think, is a testament to Steve Fairchild and how he has handled the kid, kept his confidence (and) helped him through those growing pains to kind of accelerate the process."
In the Rams' two wins this season (14-10 at New Mexico, 33-14 vs. Northern Colorado), Thomas is 50-of-68 for 437 yards and two touchdowns. He's been intercepted three times and sacked four times.
Said CU senior safety Anthony Perkins, who intercepted Thomas once in the 2010 game: "You can tell just by watching film that he's grown a lot from the last time we've played him. He's had great coaching and he's very accurate. He's definitely a lot more decisive and will be a different kind of challenge.
"He's a big, tall guy who will stand back there . . . he knows where he wants to go with the ball and will try to fit it in. And they love to throw the ball deep. But at the same time - just from watching film - he's not afraid to pull it down and run if he has the opportunity. In that sense, he's going to be just another quarterback on the list who's not afraid to run."
Still, the two QBs the Buffs faced in their pair of opening losses (34-17 at Hawaii, 36-33 in overtime vs. California) appear more mobile than Thomas, who has run just seven times in two games for minus-2 yards. Nonetheless, Brown points to a career-long 17-yard run against UNC as proof that Thomas "can pull it down and escape" when needed.
Pressuring Thomas will be key for the Buffs. They have registered eight sacks in two games, with 51/2 of those coming from either linebackers or defensive backs. CU's two "edge" players - end Chidera Uzo-Diribe and "Jack" linebacker Josh Hartigan - have accounted for 31/2 of the sacks.
Uzo-Diribe, who has a team-best 21/2 sacks and forced a fumble with one of them in the opener, called pressuring Thomas "real important. We don't want him to feel comfortable at all in the pocket. We want to put as much pressure on him as we can and make sure that ball's coming out fast and let our DBs make plays on the ball."
While Brown likes the pressure Uzo-Diribe and Hartigan have been able to generate from the edges, he also cited the need for "a more consistent four-man rush. We have to get that and not expose ourselves (in the secondary). That's what really good teams are capable of doing. The majority of our sacks have been off of pressures (blitzes)."
The Buffs are challenged daily by defensive assistants Mike Tuiasosopo (line) and Kanavis McGhee (ends/outside linebackers) to produce a more intense four-man rush. "Coach 'Tui' is always talking about getting pressure from that front four, even when we're not blitzing," Uzo-Diribe said. "Us getting pressure from the front four without blitzing is a plus for our defense. If we can do that, we do a lot of things."
After two games, the Buffs are near the middle of the pack or lower in the Pac-12 in pass defense (fifth, 224 yards a game) and pass defense efficiency (ninth, 146.3 rating). They're seventh in rushing defense (132.5 yards), fifth in total defense (356.5) and last in scoring defense (35 points).
Against Cal, said Perkins, "We had some things we did well, but at the end of the day every position group on the team has to play good enough to win. We didn't do that. Our goal is to win, that's the bottom line. As a secondary we want to make sure that we're solid enough in the back half to put our team in position to win."