On the Other Sideline: 8 Questions with the CU Independent

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Utah is on the road for its final regular season game against Colorado. To get a better perspective on the Colorado Buffaloes The Daily Utah Chronicle spoke to Justin Guerriero, the head sports editor for Colroado’s student newspaper the CU Independent, ahead of this weekend’s match.

Q: It has certainly been one of Colorado’s best years since joining the Pac-12, what’s the state of the team?

JG: The Buffaloes’ seven conference wins in this year are more than all of the team’s Pac-12 wins combined from 2011-15 — the first five years that CU was in the conference. I think the No. 9 Buffaloes are one of the most talented squads in Colorado history. I’d categorize the Buffs’ defense as elite. The offense deserves the adjective “good.” Overall, the state of this team is solid. The team is balanced, has great depth, and lacks a definitive weakness.

Q: How did the team go from being 4-9 last season to playing for a chance at the Pac-12 Championship game?

JG: I love answering this question. If you look at the 2015 roster and this year’s roster, not much changed. The team lost star wideout Nelson Spruce and solid defensive backs in Ken Crawley and Jered Bell. But this 2016 Buffaloes team returned 56 upperclassmen to the program. A select few fifth-year seniors were on the team when it lost 70-14 to Oregon in 2012. The headlines used to always be about getting embarrassed by Pac-12 powerhouses. In ’14 and ’15, however, the team started to improve exponentially. In terms of overall record, no, but as you said, last year the team won just four games.

That said, Colorado lost four games last season by less than a touchdown. So essentially what we have on this 2016 Buffs team is a group of guys who have been molded into a cohesive and intimidating force by years of embarrassment followed by countless coulda-shoulda-woulda won games that CU could not for the life of it seem to win. None of the guys on this team were that well-regarded coming out of high school. The beauty of this year for Colorado is that these young men, with the helping hand of head coach Mike MacIntyre, have finally figured out what it takes to be winners. The players are the agents of the team’s success. One final point – MacIntyre and the players had the phrase “Pac-12 Championship” on their tongues back in August when summer camp was in session. Their self-confidence wasn’t far from the mark.

Q: What have been some of the strong suits for the team?

JG: First and foremost has to be the Buffaloes’ defense. Colorado boasts the best total defense as well as pass defense within the Pac-12. The secondary is a particular area of strength. Last week vs. Wazzu, CU’s defense held strong against the Cougars’ Luke Falk. The defensive 11 limited Falk to just a 49 percent completion rate. The fact that he threw for 325 is a testament to the guy’s skills though. I have to say, when the ball leaves Falk’s hand, it’s a perfectly placed pass a majority of the time. There were numerous instances when Colorado’s defensive backs were covering their assignments beautifully, but it simply wasn’t enough, as Falk was able to put the ball on a dime whenever he chose. I don’t consider Troy Williams to be on a similar level as Falk, no disrespect to him. He’ll have his work cut out for him on Saturday. In addition, the defense has a killer ability to force turnovers. The Buffaloes currently have a nation-leading streak of 24 consecutive games with forcing a turnover. When the offense stalls out, the Buffs’ defense keeps the team in the game until points can be scored.

Q: Who should Utah keep its eye on offensively?

JG: All of the receivers, for sure. Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields, Jr., Devin Ross and Jay MacIntyre are all threats not to be taken lightly. They have a knack for spreading out defenses and excel at winning their routes downfield. Junior tailback Phillip Lindsay should be another person of interest for this Utes’ defense. He recently hit the 1,000-yard mark on the year vs. Wazzu last week. He hits holes hard and is a tough dude to bring down. The Utes will need to pay particular attention to him on pass plays though. Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau loves to throw him short passes in the flats, and Lindsay is great about taking what should be moderate gains and turning them into sizable chunks of yardage.

Q: Who should Utah be worried about on Colorado’s defense?

JG: Senior linebacker Jimmie Gilbert is a guy that Utah’s offensive line will despise on Saturday. He’s had a tremendous final campaign with CU and is the team’s main pass rusher. In games where Gilbert succeeds in getting to the enemy quarterback, the Buffaloes’ chances to win increase exponentially. Senior defensive backs Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon have been excellent this year. Last week vs. Falk and the Wazzu high-powered offense, the two had a combined five pass breakups. Both of them are insanely disciplined, too. I don’t even need a full hand to count the number of pass interference calls on Colorado’s defense this season.

Q: If Utah were to spoil Colorado’s season, how would the players and coaches react?

JG: First of all, if Utah wins, I’m going to jump out of the press box at Folsom Field head first. It would be such an insane spoiler. Don’t get me wrong, this Buffaloes’ team has already blown my and many others’ minds, but players and coaches are foaming at the mouth for a chance at the Pac-12 Championship game. I can’t speak for them nor will I put words in their mouths, but I sense a particular dislike for the USC Trojans.

If Utah wins, Southern Cal will win the South, due to a 21-17 win over the Buffs earlier this year, which gives SC the tiebreaker over CU. Colorado was without senior starting quarterback Sefo Liufau for that game. What I’m trying to say is that if a healthy Liufau had played the Trojans, the South would already belong to the Buffaloes. So losing the South in the last week of the season and watching the Trojans play for the conference title would be tough to watch. Adding further salt to that potential wound is that in last year’s 27-24 loss to USC, the Buffs lost Liufau for the remainder of the year to a Lisfranc foot fracture. Colorado has exacted revenge on every conference team it has played this year with the exception of Southern California. Long story short, I think many fans, players and coaches alike would feel bamboozled if USC win the Pac-12 South.

Q: Overall, what has this season done for Colorado football?

JG: This season has done incredible things for Colorado’s football program. Recently, the team secured a commitment from Jake Moretti, a four-star recruit from Arvada, Colorado. Moretti is the most highly-regarded player to commit to the Buffs’ 2017 recruiting class. But the big story here is that Moretti decommitted from Ohio State in order to pledge his services to Colorado. I can’t believe I’m even saying that. Did the Buffaloes just swaggerjack a talented offensive tackle from the Ohio State? Yes, they certainly did. Countless NFL scouts have attended games at Folsom Field this year. The atmosphere of Boulder combined with the new attitude on campus is a really big influence on high school kids or potential transfer athletes. Boulder is attractive to future Buffaloes in its own right. Now it has a top ten football team to show off. This is only the beginning of Colorado’s resurgence in the college football theater. The dominos are falling, and with the team’s recruiting class looking better and better as the days and weeks go by, the future of this program is looking very bright.  

Q: Who do you think will win? And why?

JG: The Buffaloes are going to win this game. I honestly predicted them to lose to Wazzu, 45-31. I was really impressed with Falk and thought that he inevitably would get the better of CU’s defense, despite their prowess as a cohesive unit. But I was wrong, and the Buffs soundly beat the Cougars. Utah is a solid team, but this is Colorado’s year. The seniors on this team simply will not allow a loss to happen. The team has all the pieces in place to get to the Pac-12 title game. I certainly don’t expect a blowout, but I think the Buffs will put this one away comfortably. I’ll say 42-24. The crowd at Folsom this Saturday is expected to be a sellout. It’ll be the biggest showing since I’ve been here, and since MacIntyre took over the program before the 2013 season. The stage is set, and I wholeheartedly believe the Buffaloes will deliver.

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@kbrenneisen