BOULDER - In college football, some weeks offer at least a hint of familiarity in preparation for the next opponent. For the Colorado Buffaloes, last week's work for Southern California's refined passing game means zilch in this week's run-up for run-hungry, warp-speed Oregon.
"Their schemes are vastly different," CU defensive coordinator Greg Brown said on Monday. "There's not much the same - other than that they have great, great personnel."
So if the Buffs have any gears left in preparation for the second-ranked Ducks, they must be shifted. But here's the problem: not many teams have a gear to match Oregon, which does everything - from its no-huddle offense to its ground game - in a blur.
"Them boys is really fast," CU junior safety Terrel Smith said with a laugh. "I don't know where you teach that speed, but their game speed is really fast. We've got a big task in front of us."
Big, indeed. Oregon ranks No. 4 nationally in rushing at 317.1 yards a game, with senior Kenjon Barner's 124.3 yard average ranking tenth nationally. The Buffs can't forget Barner's 2011 Boulder appearance, when he rushed 10 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns - one a career-long 84-yarder - in a 45-2 win that was out-of-hand early (29-0 after one quarter, 35-0 at the half).
The Ducks, said Brown, "have big-time wheels . . . we think they're faster than last year. Their quarterback (Marcus Mariota) is faster if you can believe that. He's playing at a phenomenal level for a freshman. Their backs . . . they just keep coming. You look at their backup running backs and you're like, 'Wow, where did you get these guys?' They've got a tremendous amount of talent and a tremendous amount of speed, coupled with a great, great system."
It's a system that has drawn interest at the next level. Oregon coach Chip Kelly, in his fifth season in Eugene, has shared thoughts with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick on how to speed up an offense. As the Ducks do, the Pats now are using one-word play calls to rush the process even more at the line of scrimmage.
Belichick told The Boston Globe, "I was interested to hear how (Kelly) did it. I would say he expanded it to a different level and it was very interesting to understand what he was doing. Certainly I've learned a lot from talking to Chip about his experiences with it and how he does it and his procedure and all that."
An NFL coach tapping into a college coach's wisdom, said CU's Brown, isn't extremely rare: "It's crazy, but you think about it: A lot of stuff has gone from the NFL to colleges, but it goes the other way, too. The thing to me that's striking to me is that a lot of the stuff that the Pac-12 and Big 12 use comes from the smaller schools. There's a lot of innovation there . . . it goes up to this level, goes to the NFL then comes back. You can get all kinds of cycles going."
Something that surprises Brown, however, is that NFL defensive coordinators haven't roundly accepted the use of hand signals to set their defenses. He said when the Broncos defense had trouble keeping up with the Patriots' up-tempo offense earlier this month in a 31-21 loss, "I know for a fact that Denver - and they knew that the no-huddle was coming (at New England) - didn't read the defensive coordinator for hand signals. They huddled up."
Brown said sets and coverages reach the field via microphone/receiver and "players have to get close enough to hear him (usually the middle linebacker) yell it out, so it's kind of a semi-huddle. C'mon, guys, are you serious? They've got to start going the way of the colleges; everybody's got to read hand signals."
But the only signals that might have worked for the Buffs last weekend might have been hands up in surrender. CU gave up 340 yards passing and seven TDs in its 51-6 loss at USC. In their last three Pac-12 games, the Buffs have allowed 1,498 points and 143 points.
Oregon is tenth in the Pac-12 in passing offense (212.2 yards a game) primarily because, well, the Ducks would rather run. They're second in total offense (529.1 yards) and first in scoring (51 points). The Buffs are last in the Pac-12 in total defense (489 yards allowed a game), pass defense (316.6) and scoring defense (42.6 points), and are ninth in rushing defense (172.4 yards).
Brown said his secondary's problems against the Trojans resulted from a combination of a slew of blown assignments and the skill sets of quarterback Matt Barkley (six TD passes) and receivers Robert Woods (four TD receptions) and Marqise Lee (one TD catch).
Of the Trojans' seven total passing TDs - the most ever allowed by the Buffs in a single game - Brown said, "They made some plays, no question. They've got tremendous skill players and a great system. But many plays were not earned; there were things we simply gave them that should not happen. We have to work to get that corrected. It wouldn't matter if we were playing anybody on our schedule besides USC. We would have walked away saying the same thing. When you give up unearned scores like that, it's extremely, extremely difficult to come back from."
Smith acknowledged USC's talent, but added, "We could have played better in the back half as far as not letting them get those deep routes all the time. We could have slowed them up at the line and it might have made it that much easier (to cover).
"I look back at my freshman year and I didn't know Jimmy (Smith) and Jalil (Brown) were so great. Then they leave and you find out how great they were. You see a big difference . . . we've got young guys back there (at cornerback) but they're going to get it."
Brown also pointed to "a couple of times" where the secondary was "not taking care of the middle of the field like we should have been. We won't name names, but we'll say we weren't in the middle of the field a couple of times when we were definitely supposed to be there by assignment. A couple of times our technique was not good enough to match up with that sort of skill. And then a big part of it was that we didn't tackle well in this game. We had many, many missed tackles and USC took it to us afterward."
Tackling, said Brown, has been emphasized for the past three weeks "quite a bit . . . but for whatever reason we didn't get it accomplished." That's a problem, because poor tackling plus with Oregon's speed will be calamitous, noted Smith: "You miss a tackle against Oregon and they're out of there. We've got to make sure we tackle well and play our assignments. They're ridiculously fast . . . you just have to play sound football. You can't be somewhere you're not supposed to be against these guys. If you're not there they're going to run right by where you should have been."
In last Thursday night's 43-21 rout of Arizona State, Oregon zoomed for 406 rushing yards against what had been the Pac-12's top-ranked defense. Brown switched off his TV before halftime - it was 43-7 - to play with his kids. "It was just a track meet, wow," Brown said. "It's just amazing . . . that's quite a statement Oregon made."
The burning national question the Ducks can't dodge always seems to return to their match up against physical opponents. In last year's opener, No. 4 LSU waltzed over No. 3 Oregon 40-27 - but the Ducks suffered four turnovers (three fumbles, interception).
When the time comes this season, Can Oregon make more of a muscle? Brown isn't going to offer a guess. "Until that matchup occurs, there's only going to be speculation," he said. "That's not even for me to speculate on, what Oregon can or can't do. We know what they can do, which is quite staggering. They're a tremendous team and will probably play for the national championship."
BUFF BITS: CU offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy on Monday was still lamenting six turnovers that cost the Buffs 29 points against the Trojans. "We just have to give ourselves a chance to have a chance," he said . . . . Bieniemy added that the offensive line "played its best game of the season" last weekend . . . . Other than his first-quarter fumble, freshman tailback Christian Powell "played good," Bieniemy said. Powell, returning to the lineup after a deep thigh bruise sidelined him the previous week, averaged four yards a carry . . . . CU's game with Stanford on Saturday, Nov. 3 at Folsom Field will kickoff at noon and be televised nationally on FX.