SALT LAKE CITY – With no postseason destination awaiting them, the Colorado Buffaloes would like to end their 2013 football season here Saturday the way they started it – with a win.
It won’t be easy, but then little has been in Mike MacIntyre’s first year as CU’s head coach. In early August, he proposed to the Buffs that they start fast and finish strong, and at the very least they adhered to the first part before the Boulder area’s historic flood put football on hold for 21 days.
Before the unanticipated and perhaps costly break, CU got its fast start with wins against rival Colorado State (41-27) and Central Arkansas (38-24). Momentum undoubtedly suffered as the scheduled toughened, and now the Buffs find themselves pinning their season’s final hope on a strong finish, as are the Utes.
The oddsmakers set Utah as an early 17-point favorite, and a look at comparative scores and schedules offers insight into their thinking. Utah’s schedule has ranked among the nation’s most difficult all season (No. 5 this week, down from No. 2 last week), with 11 of the 12 opponents bowl eligible.
The Utes and the Buffs both opened Pac-12 Conference play against Oregon State – and both lost. But Utah lost 51-48 in overtime while OSU blasted the Buffs 44-17. There’s more from the South Division: UCLA edged Utah 34-27, but rolled CU 45-23. Arizona State beat Utah by a point (20-19), but clubbed CU by 41 (54-13). As for Pac-12 wins – CU and Utah each have one – Utah’s was against then-No. 5 Stanford (27-21), CU’s was against North Division bottom feeder Cal (41-24).
But since the Utes defeated the Cardinal, they’ve lost five consecutive games – the school’s longest losing streak since a six-game tumble in 2002. Utah also has endured quarterback struggles that have factored mightily into the five-game losing streak. A Salt Lake City columnist even suggested a QB Curse took hold in 2009 after Brian Johnson led the Utes past Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, with the position suffering a dark run that has carried into 2013.
Sophomore Travis Wilson led the Utes to a 3-1 start and was proclaimed by first-year offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson as having the makings of a top-five Pac-12 quarterback. But that was before the 6-7, 240-pound Wilson suffered a concussion against ASU and subsequent tests revealed a preexisting damaged intracranial artery. He’s done for the season and possibly for his career.
Taking Wilson’s place has been former walk-on Adam Schulz, a sophomore who has played in five games this season and six in his career. His stat line: 56-of-121 passes completed for 775 yards, five touchdowns with four interceptions; 20 carries for 58 yards and one TD.
MacIntyre says Utah hasn’t changed its offense to accommodate Schulz, adding, “Which is a credit to (him) . . . it’s kind of funny because you look at (Schulz) and you think he could run a little better than Wilson can when you watch them on tape, but Wilson ran more.”
MacIntyre believes that strategy might change Saturday, with Erickson & Co. using the 6-1, 205-pound Schulz as more of a runner. His reasoning: Utah didn’t want to exacerbate its QB problems by putting Schulz in harm’s way as a ball-carrier. But with no bowl game in Utah’s future (like the Buffs, the Utes are 4-7 overall), the concern over a next game isn’t there.
Said MacIntyre: “We’ll prepare for them to run him and I think he will run more because we got hurt a little bit with the quarterback (B.J. Denker) running against Arizona and they run some similar stretch read type option stuff . . . I think they kind of cut back on his running so, we’re trying to prepare for that. He’s got a good arm and he can make a lot of throws.
“He just hasn’t played a whole lot but, now he’s got a few games under his belt and that’s always scary as the opposing coach because you’ve seen Sefo (Liufau) kind of get better each game. So, I think that’s what I see with Adam.”
Liufau, a true freshman, will be making his seventh start after replacing junior Connor Wood in the first quarter of CU’s Oct. 12 loss at Arizona State. Liufau has completed 61 percent of his passes (126-of-205) for 1,538 yards and 10 TDs (seven interceptions). He says his progress has been night-and-day since arriving in Boulder last summer from Tacoma, Wash.
“Obviously we haven’t gotten the results we wanted, but I think I’m leaps and bounds from where I was when I came in here for fall camp,” he said. “I didn’t even know where the routes were going when they signaled them in. Now I can read the coverage and see what they’re doing, so now it’s a matter of making the throws. Making the reads is the hardest part. I’ve matured in that. I think I’ve grown a lot.”
“The reads” aren’t elementary. Defensive coordinators, said Liufau, “do such a good job of disguising the coverages. It makes you think a lot. You have to watch film during the week. You can’t just go in on Saturdays and expect to know everything that’s going on. In the sense of maturing, getting into the film room, I’ve grown by leaps and bounds there.”
His teammates – upperclassmen and classmates alike – have recognized that and been impressed with his poise, as well as his ability to absorb the offense. MacIntyre is counting on that being evident on Saturday against a Utah defense that features a dominant lineman (6-2, 300-pound senior Tenny Palepoi), is ultra-aggressive overall and will match “really big corners” in mostly man coverage against CU’s receivers.
Utah’s corners, said MacIntyre, “press you a lot and get up and try to beat up on you. They do a really good job in that area. They’re aggressive. They’ll bring blitzes from all over the place. Sometimes when you do that a lot, sometimes it’s feast or famine. Hopefully, we get a little bit more feast than famine because of what they do and how they do it. But, we need to take advantage of that and get some big plays off of it if we can. It seems like the play with a lot of energy at home, too.”
MacIntyre is hopeful his seniors can rev up the Buffs and match the Utes’ energy. CU’s Tuesday practice – particularly on the defensive end – opened sluggishly, but MacIntyre expected the tempo to rise over the next two days.
Liufau said he didn’t see the energy level dip “on the offensive end. I don’t know what’s going on on the defensive end or special teams. But on the offensive end, we had a crisp practice (Tuesday). There were a few bumps and some misreads here and there. But it was a good practice on the offensive end.”
The Buffs are last in the Pac-12 in total offense (374.4-yard average) and No. 11 in total defense (475.3). The Utes are No. 11 (397.4) in total offense and No. 8 in total defense (404.6). Those comparisons indicate the onus will be on Liufau and his offense, which sputtered early but had its second-half moments in last week’s 47-29 loss to USC.
The Buffs are averaging 127.5 rushing yards (No. 9 in the conference), with freshman Michael Adkins II and sophomore Christian Powell averaging 62.0 and 50 yards, respectively. Adkins believes he’s performed “fairly well. Obviously, I’d like to be doing a little bit better. My goals for the season were a little bit higher up than it was right now but, I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job as it is.”
The Buffs won in Salt Lake City in 2011, the Utes won in Boulder last season. Liufau said a win in 2013’s final game “would mean everything – another Pac-12 win, another win in general is what we want and need. So we’re going to fight. I wrote in my notes this week to ‘win at all costs.’”