The Buffaloes may have the worst offense in college football. In raw stats they’re last place in FBS in yards per game and 125th in points per game, and in advanced stats they rank 122nd in F+. Excluding the FCS opponent and garbage time, their overall per-play success rate on my tally sheet is 33.5%, which is the lowest I’ve ever recorded for any team in over a decade of charting.
Jack and I had an extensive discussion on the podcast about why this is. Jack is incensed about the outdated offensive scheme; I think it’s not doing Colorado any favors and isn’t a good match for their personnel strengths and weaknesses, but to me the more salient issue for OC Chiaverini is with the actual playcalling within that scheme, which strikes me as lacking strategic awareness and adjustment to the opponent and game situation. That’s most evident on 3rd downs, which on my tally sheet comes in at just a 26% conversion rate, and more than half of those conversions were with 2 yards to go or under.
The biggest surprise about the Buffs is that their offensive line has been playing so poorly, which in my opinion is the biggest part of the problem and is why the offensive scheme, basically unchanged from last year, is producing such wildly different results from 2020 when they did very well. They returned four of their OL starters and had some good options to replace their drafted LT, William Sherman. They also returned OL coach Mitch Rodrigue who seemed to have done a great job with them last year, and so the total collapse in their performance this year and Rodrigue’s firing this week has been shocking.
The reason that I think the o-line is the biggest problem is that I think the skill players look pretty competent. They have some great running backs, including 2020’s Pac-12 Co-Offensive Player of the Year, #23 RB Broussard, and their rushing attack is the more efficient side of the Buffs’ offense: 57 successful designed rushes vs 88 failures, or 39.3% efficiency given the down & distance.
But the line just isn’t opening any holes for the backs, and their yardage really suffers for it even if the backs can squeeze out some extra yardage to sometimes keep ahead of the chains - CU is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry on designed runs. About 11% of rushes go for 10+ yards, which isn’t a terrible number, but 17% go backwards on a tackle for loss or holding foul, which is. Here’s a representative sample of CU rushing from the last two games:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)
- :00 - This should look familiar to Oregon fans - get the defense to align to the field, then trap them inside and run boundary behind a pulling lineman and slicing TE. The perimeter blocking isn’t there for this to go explosive but nice moves by Broussard to get some extra yardage.
- :17 - The playside linemen are both missing their first-level blocks and the backside linemen aren’t getting up to the second level, but Broussard makes the best of it and comes close to a 3rd down conversion.
- :33 - It’s not confined to a single lineman, but the regression across the line is exemplified here by longtime starter #65 C Pursell (who has 1,635 reps over the last four seasons according to CU’s excellent stats & information director) - this is a bad snap, a missed block, and a hold.
The passing offense is even further underwater, with 34 successful designed passing plays vs 93 failures, or 26.8%, and they average just 6.0 yards per passing attempt (they lose almost a full yard from the average if their single longest play is excluded, a 65-yard improvised throw to #38 TE Russell against USC, and Jack relayed that Russell said he wasn’t even in that playcall and just ran down the field on a whim).
Only about 9% of CU’s dropbacks result in a gain of 15+ yards, which is a pretty poor number, and they go backwards an awful lot with about 18% of all dropbacks resulting in a sack or holding foul. In raw stats they rank 114th nationally with 3.14 sacks allowed per game. Again I think the common theme is that the offensive line simply can’t hold up in pass protection, because when #12 QB Lewis is given time to throw his receivers aren’t bad and he’s got a decent arm. Here’s a representative sample of dropbacks from the last two games:
- :00 - I got to see a couple of highlight reel catches by CU’s WR corps, which has some really talented outside receivers like #2 WR Rice and #14 WR Stanley, but in selecting a representative successful play the most common has been #6 WR Arias on short stuff, here getting a safe catch and then fighting for more.
- :09 - It’s an 8-man protection scheme vs a 4-man rush, but the defense still gets through. There’s only two receivers in the pattern and both have multiple defenders on them, and the QB is flushed and winds up throwing it away into the cheer squad.
- :20 - Plays like these are both baffling and sadly common from a veteran offensive line - it’s like the RG and RT have never seen a twist before. The LT is new this year and a surprise to Jack and I that he beat out transfers from both Ohio St and Iowa, because getting bullrushed by an OLB whom he outweighs by 70 lbs is not unusual.
Colorado’s defense is definitely the stronger side of the ball on a per-play effectiveness basis, and I particularly like their 3-4 defensive front. But the DC Wilson’s squad is limited in two ways: first, their excellent middle linebacker, #53 ILB Landman, will likely be out for this game, and second, I see some tackling and angle issues in the secondary and their explosive play defense against both the run and the pass is fairly poor.
The Buffs’ rush defense is perfectly even, 77 successes vs 77 failures against opponent designed runs. I frequently see them controlling the line of scrimmage and the backers making sure tackles. Some examples of successful rush defenses:
- :00 - Colorado brought back the entire DL and OLB groups I’ve been writing about and liking since 2019. Here’s a pretty nice job of playing with good pad level, blowing up this outside zone, and Landman securing the TFL.
- :09 - Great penetration playside by #54 DE Lang combined with great speed from the backside by #26 OLB Wells.
- :17 - Wells’ speed off the edge lets him get in the backfield ahead of the puller.
- :24 - I was sure that #34 DT M. Johnson was going to go pro last year, but he got an NCAA waiver and resumed playing for the Buffs a couple weeks ago, with no falloff. Here he’s dominating the RG to blow up the play, with Landman and Wells cleaning up.
But on my tally sheet they’re allowing 5.4 yards per carry outside of garbage time and the FCS game, with 18% of all designed rushes against CU going for 10+ yards. Most of the reason for failed rush defenses is the typical one — the opposing OL is simply winning their blocks — but I also see some problems with lateral speed from the ILBs and DBs sometimes struggling to come down and make the tackle. Some examples:
- :00 - The Buffs’ ILB corps makes up for some speed issues by sticking their noses in very early, leading them to frequently get burned by counters and bends. The DB is also caught flatfooted.
- :16 - Even though CU has stuck with its base 3-4, they adjust the box count based on tight ends, so we frequently see a 3-3-5, or against USC going 4-wide, just five in the box. The Trojans called them on it repeatedly … this is the second of three consecutive 10+ yard runs on this drive.
- :23 - Starter #12 ILB Q. Perry is just way too slow scraping to the play. Landman has to eat the wrap block and Perry needs to get over before the TE can climb up to his level.
- :38 - Seems like Cal picked up a couple of things in Eugene, since this RPO is identical to one Oregon runs. Colorado is in man so the CB is out of the play, the slicing TE bluffs Wells as he’s crashing inside so the QB keeps it, and Oklahoma transfer #20 ILB Barnes stays on the TE who then turns to block him, springing a big run.
Against FBS opponents it looks like pass defense is CU’s strongest quadrant of football, with 86 successes against designed passing plays vs 77 failures. I attribute this mostly to the front again, because I see a pretty decent pass rush especially against some of the weaker lines in the league. Jack and I discussed the secondary at length on the podcast and I remain undecided on them - I see some plays out of the corners which look excellent, but others in which they seem totally lost, and I’m not sure why that is.
The other complicating factor is that there’s a big statistical outlier in Colorado’s FBS games, which was week 2 against Texas A&M. The Aggies’ starting QB was injured early in that game, and the backup was very clearly not ready to play (this gets all the stranger because that same QB played an excellent game several weeks later against Alabama, dealing the Tide their only loss). If that game is excluded, CU’s pass efficiency numbers are once again perfectly even, 59 successes vs 59 failures.
Here’s a representative sample of successful pass defenses:
- :00 - As Jack noted on the podcast, Colorado hasn’t produced a ton of sacks this year, but they are pretty consistently getting QB hurries and contacts.
- :22 - Good pass rush here and I think it affects the throw, and nice coverage by #27 CB Bethel, though I believe he’ll be out for this game.
- :29 - Nice twist up front hurries the throw, and here we’re seeing CU’s zone coverage with the safety over the top.
- :37 - Lang and #1 OLB Thomas are winning against the RT and TE, flushing the QB. It’s a delayed zone blitz so CU has six in coverage, and pretty good discipline by the back end as the routes develop, with Landman waiting to crash on the QB until after his throwing lane coverage is no longer needed.
Just like the rush defense, the big problem here is explosive plays - Colorado is allowing 7.4 yards per pass attempt on my tally sheet, with 19% of dropbacks going for 15+ yards (those numbers go to 8.5 YPA and 22% if the Texas A&M game is excluded). To me this mostly looks like breakdowns in the secondary, though the broadcast camera angles I’ve had to work with have been even worse than usual when reviewing Colorado’s film and I can’t be certain there isn’t something else going on. Some examples:
- :00 - A couple years ago I made a video highlighting #5 DB M. Perry as a box safety terrorizing USC and UW quarterbacks on blitzes, but Jack and I are both a lot less sanguine about him in coverage. Here he’s got the wrong leverage as the trips bunch breaks out and gets beat for an easy slant, the third of three consecutive 13-15 yard passes on this drive.
- :08 - Screen passes aren’t quite as effective against Colorado as they are against UCLA, but they’re still a better than average option given CU’s frequent blitzes (man coverage here on 3rd down), plus the linebacker speed and safety tackling issues I’ve noted.
- :17 - Looks like a coverage assignment error here, with #6 CB Blackmon staying on the man he should be handing off to #3 CB Gonzalez, leaving nobody on the crosser.
- :37 - Yet another blitz, requiring the ILB to cover the releasing TE in man, and there’s just no contest in this footrace.