Folsom Field should be electric on Saturday night, as Colorado looks to cap one of college football’s best turnaround seasons with a Pac-12 South title and a victory over Utah. If the Buffaloes knock off the Utes, coach Mike MacIntyre’s team can book a trip to Santa Clara, Calif. next Friday for the Pac-12 Championship. If Utah wins, coach Kyle Whittingham’s team would send USC to the title game.
When Mike MacIntyre took the job at Colorado in 2013, he came to Boulder with the reputation of a coach specializing in rebuilding efforts. After all, he transformed San Jose State from a 1-12 team in his first year into a 10-win program (MacIntyre did not coach in the bowl) in 2012. MacIntyre’s hire was a much-needed boost for Colorado after Jon Embree’s 4-21 record from 2011-12. Considering the roster situation and overall talent level MacIntyre inherited, progress was slow through his first three seasons. The Buffaloes won only two games in Pac-12 action and did not exceed four wins in a season. But MacIntyre’s work on the recruiting trail, player development program and hires with assistant coaches paid off in a big way this year. Colorado is 9-2 and on the door step of winning the Pac-12 South.
Coming off its best season since joining the Pac-12 (10-3), Utah is poised for another solid year under coach Kyle Whittingham. The Utes posted back-to-back losing seasons in 2012-13 but made a quick rebound to 9-4 in 2014 and won 10 games for the first time since 2010 last fall. Utah’s loss to Oregon last Saturday eliminated this team from contention for the Pac-12 South title. However, regardless of what happens against Colorado, the Utes will have a winning record in conference play for three consecutive seasons. And with Whittingham leading the way, it’s safe to say Utah is going to be a factor in the Pac-12 South for the foreseeable future.
Colorado holds a 31-28-3 series edge over Utah. However, the Utes have won four out of the five meetings since both teams joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
Utah at Colorado
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Colorado -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Joe Williams Against Colorado’s Run Defense
The return of Joe Williams to lead the Utah ground attack is one of the best storylines out of the Pac-12 this season. The senior rushed for 49 yards in the opener and 26 against BYU in Week 2 but decided to retire following the victory over the Cougars. After a four-game absence, Williams returned to the team following a rash of injuries hit Utah’s depth chart at running back. The senior has responded with five straight 100-yard efforts, including 332 yards in a win over UCLA and 181 against Arizona State on Nov. 10. Behind an offensive line that features standout blockers in left tackle Garett Bolles and guard Isaac Asiata, Williams averages 6.9 yards per rush.
It’s no secret how important the run game is to Utah’s offense. The Utes rank second in the Pac-12 in attempts (477), with the passing attack generating only 212 yards per game in conference play. The arrival of quarterback Troy Williams has helped Utah’s passing attack take a step forward this season, but the offense is still a run-first attack.
Can Williams extend his 100-yard streak to six games and keep the offense in manageable second and third-down yardage? Colorado ranks fifth in the Pac-12 against the run and only one opponent over the last five games has eclipsed 150 rushing yards. The Buffaloes have a senior-laden front seven, which is headlined by tackle Josh Tupou and linebackers Jimmie Gilbert and Kenneth Olugbode.
For Utah to win on Saturday, Williams and the Utah offensive line have to win the battle up front.
2. The Quarterbacks
Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau earned Athlon Sports Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance in last week’s win over Washington State. Liufau completed 21 of 47 throws for 345 yards and gashed the Cougars on the ground for 108 yards and three touchdowns. The senior has been dealing with a few nagging injuries throughout 2016 but is one of the reasons why Colorado has an opportunity to clinch the Pac-12 South on Saturday. Under the watchful eye of co-coordinators Brian Lindgren and Darrin Chiaverini, Liufau has posted arguably his best all-around season in Boulder, completing 67 percent of his throws and rushing for a career high of 424 yards. In addition to his efficiency, the senior has only three interceptions on 233 pass attempts. Taking care of the ball is a priority on Saturday against a Utah secondary that has registered 17 picks in 2016. Safety Marcus Williams is one of the top defenders in the Pac-12, while cornerback Dominique Hatfield has recorded four pass breakups. Shay Fields (43), Devin Ross (56) and Bryce Bobo (41) are Liufau’s go-to targets and are a good test for a Utah secondary ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense.
On the other sideline, Troy Williams hopes to end the regular season on a high note in his first year in Salt Lake City. The former Washington quarterback transferred to a junior college for one season (2015) and landed at Utah prior to spring practice this season. Williams has provided a big-play element to the passing game and has 2,419 yards and 14 touchdowns so far in 2016. He’s also a capable runner (227 yards) and ranks third among Pac-12 quarterbacks with 17 completions of 30 yards or more. The Utes may not have a household name at receiver, but this group has developed into a solid position unit under new assistant Guy Holliday. Tim Patrick (38 catches) is the primary target, and Raelon Singleton (17.9) is a candidate to stretch Colorado’s defense vertically. The Buffaloes have a standout secondary, anchored by cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon and safety Tedric Thompson. Can Williams connect on enough plays to keep the defense from stacking the box? Or will Colorado’s secondary win the matchup on the outside, preventing the Utes from establishing any rhythm on offense?
3. Utah’s Pass Rush
After ranking near the bottom of the Pac-12 in scoring since joining the league in 2011, the Buffaloes have a much-improved attack in 2016. This unit averages 35.5 points a game and 5.8 yards per play this season. In addition to Liufau’s ability, the offense has found a spark on the ground behind running back Phillip Lindsay (1,081 yards), and the offensive line has improved after surrendering 40 sacks in 2015. However, this unit will be tested on Saturday night. The success of Utah’s defense starts up front with a relentless pass rush. End Hunter Dimick (14 sacks) is the headliner off the edge, and tackle Lowell Lotulelei can dominate the interior, with Pita Taumoepenu, Filipo Mokofisi, Pasoni Tasini also working as disruptive forces in the trenches. The Utes also rank third in the Pac-12 against the run and limit opposing rushers to just 4.1 yards per carry.
In Colorado’s two losses this year, quarterbacks Sefo Liufau and Steven Montez were sacked a combined eight times. In order for the Buffaloes to establish the run and take a few chances downfield, the offensive line has to perform better against a standout line than it did in losses against USC and Michigan.
The Buffaloes are a 10-point favorite, but it’s worth noting all five of the matchups between Colorado and Utah as Pac-12 members have been decided by seven points or less. Stopping Joe Williams is the top priority for the Buffaloes on Saturday night. If Williams is contained, Colorado can force Utah out of its comfort zone on offense. And when the Buffaloes have the ball, Liufau needs to continue his mistake-free play, with the offensive line keeping an aggressive Utah front in check. The Utes are a tough matchup for Colorado, but there’s simply too much at stake for MacIntyre’s team. With the division title on the line, the Buffaloes find a way to pull this one out in the fourth quarter and book a trip to Santa Clara next Friday.