BOULDER – If Gary Barnett’s master plan for Colorado football in 1999 was RTD, Mike MacIntyre’s mission 15 seasons later has become RTR.
Barnett wanted a Return To Dominance, MacIntyre first must settle for a Return To Relevance – and his upwardly mobile first-year CU program can take a step in that direction Saturday at Folsom Field against Arizona (6 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
Defeating the Wildcats would give the Buffs their initial Pac-12 Conference win of the MacIntyre Era and send them into November one game above .500 (4-3) this late in a season for the first time since 2008. CU lost its first three conference games to Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State by a combined score of 155-46.
MacIntyre is keenly aware of the big-picture importance of the pink-themed, blackout Saturday night at Folsom. Following last weekend’s 43-10 rout of FCS plug-in opponent Charleston Southern, he acknowledged that a win this weekend “means November matters in Colorado.”
The Buffs haven’t had a winning season since 2005 (7-6) and haven’t been a postseason participant since 2007 (Independence Bowl). A win against Arizona (4-2, 1-2) on Saturday night would put CU within two ‘W’s of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2007, with November offering five opportunities to get that pair.
“We all want to go to a bowl,” said freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau, who is eager for his first Pac-12 start. “We know how possible it is if we stay consistent and we take the coaching that we learn and put it out on the field. We think it’s very possible.”
“It’s very big,” added senior defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe of Saturday’s game. “One more win and we’re closer to our goal of a bowl game. Every game from here on out is very important to us.”
Of equal importance to Uzo-Diribe and CU’s defense is getting an early handle (and lots of hands) on Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s leading rusher at 161.0 yards a game. The Buffs don’t need much of a refresher course on Carey; he slashed and gashed them for 366 rushing yards and five touchdowns last season in Tucson in a 56-31 Wildcats romp. And he’s still motoring: In Arizona’s 35-24 win over Utah last weekend, Carey rushed for a 2013 conference-best 236 yards.
MacIntyre calls Carey “a beast of a ball-carrier,” but as cognizant as the Buffs must be about Carey defensive coordinator Kent Baer warned, “When you have a running back like that you tend not to stray away from running, but you definitely have to be focused on their passing game. The DBs and linebackers can’t get lulled to sleep thinking they’re going to hand the ball off to (No.) 25 on every play. They’ve got capable receivers on the outside who can make plays.”
CU’s linebackers, said MacIntyre, will play critical roles in containing Wildcats quarterback B.J. Denker, who debuted against the Buffs last season.
“Your linebackers have to have keys,” MacIntyre said, noting that seeing some option offense from Charleston Southern last week might pay dividends for his linebackers this week in “knowing where they’ve got to fit, how you block it, whether you step outside or inside. If you step outside and you’re supposed to step inside (Carey) is to the house. I mean it’s that hard. (Denker) does a good job at it.
Denker has completed 91 of 164 passes for 976 yards and seven TDs (two interceptions). He’s also run 75 times for 327 yards and eight scores – two more than Carey – and is second on the team in rushing behind Carey.
Said MacIntyre: “I think what they ask (Denker) to do, he’s really good at. He can really run. He’s such a good runner he can pump fake and take off. He does a lot of that where other quarterbacks would throw it as a pass for a five-yard gain or a ten-yard gain. He’ll take it and run 30. I think that’s also why he hasn’t had quite as many turnovers. So, I think that might be part of their process. If we don’t turn it over with what we’re doing then hopefully we can make him throw some incompletions and stop Ka’Deem Carey.”
The Buffs showed last week they can run a little, too, but their challenge Saturday night is to do it against a Pac-12 defense. CU rushed for a season-high 218 yards against Charleston Southern, with freshman tailback Michael Adkins II gaining 137 yards and scoring a school freshman-record four touchdowns.
Another productive rushing game by Adkins & Co. would benefit Liufau in his first conference start, easing the pressure on the passing game. In his first college start last weekend, Liufau was 14-of-20 passing for 198 yards and one TD. With his tailbacks finally in gear, Liufau ran only three times against the Buccaneers (minus-8 yards total, counting one sack).
Liufau recognizes the importance of playing better in conference:
“I think we all just want to play better . . . we just have to come out against Pac-12 opponents and just let loose,” he said. “Coach says ‘Jump in and swim and start playing and just go all out.’ I think if we take what we do in practice and put it into the game I think we’ll do very well.”
Saturday night’s game also matches CU receiver Paul Richardson against his cousin, Arizona cornerback Shaquille Richardson. Paul Richardson is fourth in the nation in receiving yards per game (130.3), having made 43 catches for 782 yards and six TDs in CU’s six games. He said all sides of the Richardson family will be represented in Folsom and he and his cousin, who grew up together in Compton, Calif., have been anticipating this game for a year.
It’s a big night for the Richardson clan, it’s big in the promotion of breast cancer awareness, it’s big for the Buffs defense as a night of redemption against Carey, and it’s very, very large for MacIntyre and his rebuild of the CU program.
“Yeah, it’s big,” said Buffs senior safety Parker Orms. “But it feels like every week’s been huge this year for me. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a senior or what and counting down the plays I get to be out there. I’m just excited (about Saturday).
“We’re 3-3 right now and have to get three more (wins). I want to win the rest of our games and I think we can beat everybody that’s left. We just have to play like we did last week in all three phases. It’s going to be a great atmosphere; it’s a ‘blackout game’ and it’s going to be huge.”