PASADENA, Calif. – The Colorado Buffaloes need a complete game to win for the first time in the Pac-12 Conference under Mike MacIntyre, but getting either here Saturday will be as big a challenge as the Buffs have faced this season.
CU plays No. 17 UCLA in the Rose Bowl (5:30 p.m. MDT, Fox Sports 1), with the Bruins happy to be home but probably more than a little chafed following consecutive losses to ranked opponents over the past two weekends. UCLA (5-2, 2-2) lost at No. 12 Stanford 24-10 on Oct. 19, then was smacked 42-14 at No. 2 Oregon last weekend.
Suffice to say the Bruins have a turnaround in mind and probably believe the Buffs (3-4, 0-4) are visiting at a perfect time. MacIntyre doesn’t doubt twice-beaten UCLA will be steamed, but he’s not convinced that facing an opponent on a healthy winning streak isn’t the more formidable task.
“I’ve always thought that a team that was winning and on a roll, they’re always more focused,” he said. “They’re always on top of everything and they know what’s at stake. I think those are more dangerous. Now, they can come out and kill us too or we could kill them. But, I still think teams that get on a roll and they know what their mission is . . . . You have a lesser chance of having a distraction during the week I think with a team like that.”
MacIntyre contends his team has remained focused despite four blowout conference losses. The Buffs have played well at times in each of the four, but haven’t come close to fitting a full game together. They led Arizona 13-10 last weekend before surrendering a pair of touchdowns in the first half’s final 2:28, rallied briefly then wilted in the second half and wound up losing 44-20. Big plays were a big problem: The Buffs allowed the Wildcats a season-high 10 20-plus yard plays, with those 10 averaging an eye-popping 37.3 yards per play.
“The (Arizona) game hurt, but we’re still pretty positive,” said freshman linebacker Addison Gillam, the conference’s leading tackler at 9.4 a game – .3 in front of UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks (9.1). “We’re running and going for the ball . . . we just need to do our assignments better and tackle better.”
The urgency to do both comes after Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker punched up 457 yards in total offense – 192 of it on the ground – by himself. If UCLA’s coaching staff didn’t formulate Saturday’s game plan around the running ability of quarterback Brett Hundley, then the Bruins weren’t paying attention to Denker’s performance.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” CU senior defensive tackle Nate Bonsu said of slowing Hundley. “Obviously, Hundley is a pretty good quarterback. He’s on prospect boards to go to the league. We played him last year and he played well against us . . . we know we have to be sound in our assignments from watching tapes on Stanford and Oregon, who both did really well against him.
“I think that’s going to help a lot. We just have to be sound in our gaps and push the pocket and contain him, which is going to be the hardest thing to do. And he’s a great passer, too, so you’ve got to get pressure on him. We have to make tackles, wrap him up . . . you miss a tackle and a big guy like that gets two or three more yards.”
Hundley (6-3, 222) is coming off a pair of sub-par games against a pair of above-average defenses. Stanford limited him to 27 yards rushing and 192 passing, Oregon held him to 72 rushing, 64 passing and intercepted him twice. Still, he’s sixth in the Pac-12 in total offense, averaging 297.7 yards a game. He’s thrown 14 touchdown passes and run for another four.
MacIntyre said the Cardinal and Ducks defenses “consumed him a little bit,” and called both defensive fronts “excellent . . . everybody talks about sacks but it’s also passing lanes, harassment, having to sit where you don’t really have a clean pocket makes you inaccurate. And we’ve got to get better at that ourselves.”
CU is tied for last in the conference in sacks with Arizona (1.29 a game) and is No. 11 in total defense (475.4 yards a game) and scoring defense (37.1 points a game). UCLA is averaging 36.1 points a game and allowing 22.4 points, both fifth in the league.
The Bruins lead the Pac-12 in third-down conversion percentage (51.9) and are second in stopping opponents on third down (32.7 percent). MacIntyre pointed to outside linebacker Anthony Barr and inside linebacker Myles Jack as primary reasons the Bruins make third downs so difficult to convert: “They come off the edge and they wreak havoc and they cause problems. Their secondary is very good and they cover close but those two guys wreak a little havoc and make the quarterback a little nervous. To me, that’s their key. So, we’ve got to find a way to neutralize those guys the best we can.”
Barr is third in the league in QB sacks (.86 a game) and first in tackles for loss (1.86). Jack, one of a school-record 18 true freshmen who have played this season, averages 6.6 tackles a game.
The Buffs could be without leading rusher Michael Adkins II, who suffered a concussion last weekend. The true freshman’s status will be determined on Saturday. Leading receiver Paul Richardson was hobbled by an ankle sprain early in the week but is listed as probable to play against the school that initially signed him.
Freshman CU quarterback Sefo Liufau will be making his first Pac-12 road start and, like other teammates from the West Coast, expects to have family and friends in attendance in the Rose Bowl. Liufau said his mother, father, sister and grandmother will make the trip from the Tacoma, Wash. area.
In his three games (two starts) since replacing Connor Wood, Liufau has completed 49 of 78 passes for 579 yards, with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Liufau said he is learning more about college football with every snap, as well as learning more about himself: “I’m harder on myself than I was in high school. I think I demand more perfection of myself, which obviously perfection is not attainable but you always want to strive to do your best. I think that I have more confidence now in making plays and making throws than I did in the beginning of the season.”
The faster Liufau settles himself and makes plays, the better for the Buffs. They have lost 12 consecutive games against ranked opponents and are winless in their last 12 Pac-12 games. The Bruins lead the series 6-2 and have outscored the Buffs 87-20 in their two meetings since CU joined the conference.