Nota bene: During the bye week after their first five games, Colorado fired head coach Dorrell and DC Wilson. OC Sanford got the former job and DL Chatman the latter for the remainder of the season, and so far they’ve played three games with the interim staff after the bye week. Parallel to this, all season long the Buffaloes have been constantly switching between three different quarterbacks. While one has now transferred out, they played the first half of their first game after the bye with a different signal-caller than the one who finished that game and has taken all subsequent snaps. I’ve charted all eight of the Buffaloes’ games this season, but I’ve separated out the statistical analyses for pre- and post-bye week, and all film clips in this article will be from their three most recent games with what appears to be the QB who’ll finish the season.
The strongest part of Colorado’s offense throughout the year has been its efficiency run game, and I expect them to lean on it for the rest of the season to try for lower-possession games and help take pressure off the quarterback and the defense.
One of CU’s senior backs has been hurt for most of the year, #8 RB Fontenot, and another who’s looked pretty good, true freshman #22 RB Hankerson, will probably redshirt the rest of the year according to Jack. But the three backs who remain available look more than capable of carrying the load to me: #20 RB D. Smith, #44 RB Offerdahl, and #21 RB Stacks.
Over the entire season, the Buffs have had an almost perfectly average rushing efficiency rate prior to garbage time: 81 successful designed runs vs 82 failures given the down & distance, or 49.5%. That number has been boosted a bit by the records of the two other QBs, #12 QB Lewis (now transferred out) and #7 QB McCown (a true freshman Jack thinks will redshirt the rest of the year), who were both pretty able running quarterbacks. With #5 QB Shrout taking snaps, who’ll likely finish the year, the Buffs have only a 45% rush efficiency rate – he’s not really a runner himself and I think opposing defenses know that and have reallocated resources just to stopping the RB.
Here’s a representative sample of successful rushing plays under the interim staff with Shrout taking the snap:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – I’m pretty sure this is designed as an A-gap run, but the back sees that OLB is going to work inside and let the DB blitz set the edge, so when the LT picks it up he has a big B-gap hole to run through, with a nice backfield cut.
- :13 – The RT is a little slow to find work on this zone run, but the back seems happy to run through him and the OLB both for extra yardage.
- :31 – The WRs in this offense grade out pretty well on my tally sheet for being eager and effective blockers against DBs. That’s #18 TE Fauria (son of CU legend Christian) getting the seal block, he grades out the best in his unit but left the game last week with an injury and we’re uncertain if he’ll be back.
- :45 – Here’s the longtime player and former walk-on #38 TE Russell on the split zone block, he’s pretty eager about it but not as effective. He’s doing a pretty good job here though, and the back’s taking on the LBs with some power.
Last year Colorado’s offensive line played extraordinarily poorly for most of the season, and midway through they fired their OL coach. In my preview back in May, I worried that Sanford’s jumbo OL, power-run offense that he’d employed at Minnesota, Notre Dame, and Boise St would be a very bad (and potentially dangerous) match with that personnel. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that neither have obtained throughout 2022 - he’s used a much more roster-appropriate 11-pers spread option offense that Pac-12 fans will find familiar, and I think the offensive line is much improved.
That said, the interior of the offensive line (which has had the same two guards but rotated between three centers) has been strikingly inconsistent from play to play, and I haven’t been too impressed with the three different tackles who’ve rotated in those two spots at any point. Jack and I discussed this extensively on the podcast but neither of us have a good explanation for why they’re so hot-and-cold or what’s prompting the constant rotations, so it’s something of a mystery what version of line is going to show up on Saturday or how well they’ll play down to down.
Since the scheme, coaching, and backs aren’t really problems, it’s just those plays that the line inexplicably performs poorly that are the biggest reason the Buffs’ run game stalls out. That inconsistency is why they don’t really put together an explosive rushing offense: they average just 4.0 adjusted YPC with only about 13% of designed runs gaining 10+ yards (those figures stay basically the same regardless of QB or which games are included in the sample). Some examples:
- :00 – This is the most common form of backfield penetration on my tally sheet, the guard and tackle get split and it seems like neither know who’s supposed to be picking up the OLB.
- :06 – Pretty simple here, the DTs are just beating both the guards with better get-off and lower pads. That’s my biggest criticism of the interior linemen in run blocking, they play pretty high.
- :12 – I think this is either the wrong read or Shrout just doesn’t have the greenlight to keep the ball. Handing it off with the unblocked end bearing down on the back contributes to the fumble. I’ve only tallied two designed QB runs by Shrout in 165 meaningful snaps he’s taken this year, and they even brought in a fourth quarterback, #9 QB Carter, for one snap to do the only QB run of last week’s game.
- :32 – Everybody in the building knows what this play is going to be in short yardage, and the DL just wins their uncomplicated job.
While I don’t think the coaching changes have affected the offense much (although there’s been a bit more use of tempo recently), the instability at quarterback certainly has. The passing offense with Lewis or McCown taking snaps has been significantly more effective (though still clearly below Power-5 averages) in every category I track than with Shrout. I can’t help but think that the fact that it took the senior with two years’ experience at Tennessee this long to beat out a couple of freshmen is a referendum on the unsatisfactory play across the entire unit.
Colorado’s pass efficiency with Shrout taking snaps has been absolutely terrible, just a 25.5% success rate on 22 successes vs 64 failures. That’s down six percentage points from the entire dataset and more than ten from either Lewis or McCown. The average passing yards with Shrout has been better than with Lewis, 4.2 adjusted YPA compared to 3.9, but much worse than with McCown which was 6.4. The frequency of designed passing plays gaining 15+ yards has basically been the same no matter what - within a percentage point of 10% regardless of QB.
These are some of the worst passing numbers I’ve ever seen. There are occasional pass protection problems and this receiving corps is best described as serviceable, but the main issue is that Shrout is a wildly inaccurate passer and frequently makes poor decisions, with an abysmal 96.72 NCAA passer rating, which is currently last place among all FBS QBs with enough passes to track. Some examples:
- :00 – True freshman #4 WR Tyson has been coming on strong since the bye week, but his game is still pretty raw. I’m not sure if this wild throw from Shrout is even catchable but he could still be making better adjustments on it.
- :07 – Shrout needs to get rid of this ball, holding on to it for too long like this shows up a lot on my tally sheet. Of course it would help if anybody picked up the green dog.
- :19 – This is an unbalanced formation with four eligibles to the boundary, and the defense is probably misaligned. He scans that way and can’t find anything (I certainly don’t love this route structure) but he has to know that there’s an extra defender to the field and the drag route needs to sit down short of him. Shrout throws it wide anyway.
- :30 – This is by far the most common form of inaccurate throw from Shrout, even if there’s no pressure on him at all as with this play - just airmailing it way too high and with no touch at all.
The upside to Shrout is that he’s got a very strong arm which lets him zip some throws that require beating the coverage to the play and also lets him throw some real lollipops downfield. It’s shocking when it happens but I’ve seen it once or twice a game every time Shrout is in, and neither Jack nor I have been able to figure out why those happen when they do. Some examples:
- :00 – The velocity on this throw to #6 WR Arias without setting his feet while still on the bootleg is incredible.
- :14 – Line drive from the opposite hash, threading it past the safety. Really nice zip on this throw to #1 WR Lemonious-Craig.
- :26 – Pretty basic hitch here; I included it because it’s one of exactly two successful passing plays prior to garbage time against the Beavs.
- :37 – The throw is a little behind the receiver but it’s the correct RPO read and more importantly the velocity to beat the DB’s swipe is excellent. Shrout basically embeds the ball into the wideout’s chestplate.
The differences in Colorado’s rush defense performance before and after the bye week are astonishing. In the first five games, the Buffs succeeded on fewer than 35% of designed rush defenses, allowing 7.9 adjusted YPC with almost 21% of opponents’ runs gaining 10+ yards. Those numbers are absolutely horrible.
However, in the last three games they’ve improved to almost 54% in success rate, 3.6 adjusted YPC allowed, and 11.5% explosive rushing allowed. That’s a somewhat above average efficiency score and great yardage and explosiveness for a rush defense. But as Jack and I discussed at length, I don’t think it’s as simple as an across-the-board revitalization by the interim staff, because they’ve faced very different teams in those two sets of games.
It’s very difficult to disentangle the effects of the coaching change from the fact that four of the first five games were against top-15 rushing offenses nationally whereas two of the last three were 88th (ASU) and 106th (Cal). Wilson faced one poor rushing offense, 85th ranked Arizona, while Chatman faced one that’s above-average, 30th ranked Oregon State. The data from those games are suggestive, but too small a sample to extract confident conclusions.
My experience over a decade of charting teams is that rush defense success rate is determined by players, not coaches, and so since it’s the same Colorado defenders all year long I suspect that the Buffs will get knocked back by good rushing teams and stuff bad rushing teams regardless of who’s wearing the headset in 2022. However, I think that coaching and scheme can help prevent efficiency rushes from turning into explosive rushes, and after talking with Jack where I’ve tentatively landed is that Chatman has been a real improvement over Wilson in this regard. So I think that Colorado’s opponents for the rest of the year shouldn’t bet on racking up the frequent 20+ and 40+ yard runs at the same rate that the Buffs were giving up before the coaching change.
I’ve liked Colorado’s defensive linemen for a long time and there’s some strong senior leadership in place, and I think they have some good run-stopping linebackers as well. The biggest effect I’ve seen from the coaching change comes in how they play the safeties in the run game – they’re playing back more and keeping the play in front of them, rather than crowding the box and trying to stop runs dead but frequently getting blown past for big gains as happened early in the season. Some examples:
- :00 – Nice work by longtime defensive front veterans #54 DL Lang, #99 DL Sami, and #91 DL Rodman in this short-yardage run situation.
- :12 – CU didn’t have a lot of success against OSU’s o-line but Lang is driving the LG to his knees on this play, earning the TFL.
- :18 – Good play by #13 DL J. Jackson, a 2020 Juco who didn’t break in until late last year but has been getting a lot of rotational time this season.
- :31 – Senior #4 OLB Montgomery has finally started putting together a good season, and the new transfer #8 ILB Chandler-Semedo has been a very eager run-stopping backer.
But overall I still think this is a below-average rush defense after considering all factors. To me the most suggestive performance was in week 8 against OSU, with the interim staff facing off against a good rushing offense but not the same elite one that the Beavers have had in some recent years. In that single game they still did a good job keeping plays from going explosive, but they hardly stopped anything at the line – just seven rush defense wins in 21 tries prior to garbage time, and half of those wins they really had nothing to do with (e.g., the back slipping or accidentally stepping out of bounds).
It is difficult to select truly representative plays from a small dataset with the interim staff and given opponents of such varying quality, but here’s what I think is a fair look at unsuccessful rush defenses in those games:
- :00 – I’m a lot less impressed with the rest of the backup d-lineman, and Chandler-Semedo has a strong tendency to stick his nose in early and get trapped. He’s the only guy who can defend this giant B-gap hole and he’s getting blocked out of it by the TE.
- :07 – Anyone who’s watched the Beavs’ film the last five years know that when the fullback in the I-formation scooches offset it’s a dead giveaway of a run in that direction. The backup linemen and #12 ILB Perry are still getting totally cleared out with poor leverage. Note the leading tackler, #43 DB Woods, coming down quickly and with a proper angle to keep this from going really big.
- :29 – Rodman is being combo’d here and leaning into the A-gap with no hope of getting back to the B-gap, so only Perry can plug that hole, but he’s got the wrong leverage and the RG catches him when he figures it out late.
- :35 – I really don’t know what the ILBs are thinking here, this is pretty poor lane discipline. Woods can’t rescue the play this time, the back just outpaces him at the angle he’s chosen.
The pass defense is also a challenge to pin down, but for different reasons. The numbers don’t really change regardless of the coaching staff, and there’s much less variation between the quality of passing offenses they’ve faced. On the season, they’ve successfully defended 107 designed passing plays vs 111 failures, or 49%, and given up an adjusted 7.9 YPA, which are both pretty average numbers. But more than 18% of designed passing plays gain 15+ yards, which is significantly below average.
The pass rush doesn’t really get home without blitzing, and what scheme change there’s been with the interim staff has reduced blitzing even more (again, part of a philosophy to keep the play in front of them). The result has been the fewest sacks per game of any defense in FBS, and on my tally sheet they’re only earning a sack/scramble/throwaway on about 11% of dropbacks which is a pretty low number in my experience. So almost all the pass defense burden is on the coverage, and that’s surprisingly difficult to nail down.
The reason is that, especially under interim DC Chatman, all the strain to defend the middle of the field has shifted to the inside linebackers, and each one of them in the rotation are liabilities in pass coverage. So opposing offenses have really attacked intermediate routes or set up big plays to go into the middle, and I’ve seen very little of the corners on the edges or down the sidelines, or much at all in the way of deep shots. As Jack and I talked about on the podcast, offenses haven’t needed to. Some examples:
- :00 – Because of how narrowly the ILBs play, it’s structurally impossible for the Buffs to defend this wide-side double slant. #20 LB Barnes as the “Buff backer” has to go inside with the No. 2 because he has no ILB help, and the CB can’t possibly cover the No. 1 with underneath help. There isn’t a single successful defense of it on my tally sheet all season.
- :11 – Here’s the big hole in CU’s zone coverage, Arizona exploited it lethally as well. Chandler-Semedo isn’t moving with the receiver very well but even if he had this particular throwing lane is just always uncovered.
- :27 – This mesh-sit plus RB wheel is usually an effective man-beater, but it works especially well against the blitz.
- :45 – I’m not a big fan of Perry in coverage either, and this play puts the safety in conflict which effectively guarantees a touchdown.
Representative pass defense successes have been tough to find, but I think this should be illustrative:
- :00 – No pressure rushing four, which is typical; this ball is just airmailed but it shows off #5 DB Taylor’s athleticism playing center field.
- :22 – I have very few throws against #0 CB Moore on my tally sheet, which is usually a good sign for a corner, although given the rest of CU’s defense I can’t be certain. When I do see him he’s playing with the correct leverage and making tackles, though.
- :28 – Pretty much the only way I’ve seen the Buffs get to the QB is with overload blitzes like this.
- :37 – Great sideline coverage by the other starting corner, #6 CB Reed, working the receiver out of bounds so he has no window to make it to the ball. Incidentally, that should be a flag for sideline interference by #21.