Colorado at USC – A Preview … “T.I.P.S.” for the Buffs’ trip to Southern California

Is it somehow fitting that USC plays in a stadium named the Coliseum?

For most opponents, the trip to play Southern California takes on the look of the Christians being fed to the lions, with the Trojans winning almost 75% of all of the games played their since the stadium opened in 1923.

Colorado is 0-4 on its previous trips to USC’s home field … and haven’t looked particularly good in most of those games. The Buffs have only played the Trojans once in Los Angeles as a member of the Pac-12, and that was a 50-6 embarrassment in 2012.

USC comes into the game this Saturday (4:00 p.m., MT, Pac-12 Networks) ranked 22nd in the nation. The Trojans being ranked when playing the Buffs is nothing new … in the last seven meetings between the two teams, USC has come into the game against Colorado as a ranked team (the only time CU hasn’t played a ranked USC team? In 1927 … when there were no weekly national rankings).

For Colorado to turn the tide of past results, a great deal will have to go right for the Buffs.

“I think we keep improving, we’ve just got to keep fighting, which we’re doing,” said CU head coach Mike MacIntyre. “There’s talented teams all throughout our schedule but, if you look at the top 25, you’ll see that there’s more top 25 teams in the last six (games) right now. That’s why you play in the Pac-12 too, that’s why you’re in it and that’s why our kids are in it. We’ll keep growing up and we’ll keep competing and end up getting it done.”

Colorado is 0-3 in Pac-12 play in 2014. In all three games, the Buffs, while losing the contest, did manage to beat the spread in each game.

The Buffs are a 19-point underdog to the Trojans.

We’ll see …

Here are this week’s “T.I.P.S.” for Colorado at USC …

T – Talent

Colorado has faced, and will face, some very prolific quarterbacks in 2014.

USC’s Cody Kessler is not one of them.

That is not to say that Kessler is not a quality quarterback. The best description would likely be “extremely efficient”. Kessler is ninth nationally in completion percentage. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 16 of his 20 career starts, and at least two in nine of those games.

Then there is this … has thrown 11 touchdown passes so far this season, and only one interception. No interceptions in his first 190 passes this fall, and he has just two interceptions in his last 11 games overall.

That’s not a good omen for a Buff defensive backfield with only three total interceptions in six games.

While Kessler is deadly efficient, he is not the Buffs’ biggest concern. Javorius Allen, a/k/a “Buck” Allen, leads the Pac-12 (and is in the nation’s top 25) in rushing, all-purpose yards and rushing touchdowns. Allen is the only player in the country with at least 750 yards rushing and 250 yards receiving, and is the first Trojan since Reggie Bush and LenDale White to post five 100-yard rushing games in a season.

And it’s not as if the Buffs are not familiar with Allen … he ran for three touchdowns in USC’s 47-29 win in Boulder last season.

Want more?

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor is amongst the nation’s leaders in receptions and punt returns (and yes, Agholer also had a touchdown last season against the Buffs).

This just in … USC has talented players.

The numbers posted to date by the USC defense are not particularly daunting. The Trojans are 59th in rushing defense (CU is 72nd); 90th in passing defense (CU is 79th); and 74th in total defense (CU is 81st). The biggest difference between CU and USC on defense is in the all-important category of scoring defense. Colorado is giving up 35.7 points per game (88th in the nation), while USC is giving up only 22.3 (44th nationally).

One major reason for the Trojans’ success in keeping opponents out of the end zone is All-American defensive end Leonard Williams. “He’s a beast,” said MacIntyre. “He’s 6’5”, at least 310 pounds and he can run faster than Kyle Ringo, which is pretty impressive. He’s a really, really excellent player”.

There are other All-Americans and potential All-Americans on the defensive roster, of course, including linebacker Hayes Pullard and safety Su’a Cravens. This is USC, after all.

The Buffs’ best hope? Wear down the still thin USC roster. “The one advantage you would have is: they play those guys a lot,” said MacIntyre. “So, hopefully we can keep the ball going and wear them down. We might be able to negate their pass rush that way some. But, they’re very talented.”

I – Intangibles

What a difference a play or two makes.

In CU’s last two games, the Buffs were just a play or two away from posting a pair of Pac-12 victories. A double-overtime loss to Cal, followed by a last-minute drive that wasn’t against Oregon State, left the Buffs with a winless conference record. The Buffs went into their bye week with a 2-4 overall record, hitting the halfway point of the 2014 season with little hope of a bowl game.

In USC’s last game, the Trojans were a missed 36-yard field goal on the game’s final play away from a loss to Arizona. USC almost blew a 28-13 fourth quarter lead to the Wildcats, a loss which would have given the Trojans three losses in their last four games. Now, instead of wondering whether hiring Steve Sarkisian was the right choice, and limping into Saturday’s game with a 3-3 record, the Trojans are 4-2, and leading the Pac-12 South with a 3-1 record.

Momentum is a fickle beast, and it currently rests with the Trojans. Had USC lost to Arizona on a last-second field goal last Saturday, a weekend after losing on a last-second Hail Mary to Arizona State, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Trojans coming into game against Colorado with a completely different mindset. A 3-3 USC team, out of the national championship and conference races, and with a restless fan base, would have been a different animal.

And what of the Buffs? Did the bye week help or hurt?

“I think we keep improving, we’ve just got to keep fighting, which we’re doing”, said MacIntyre. “Our coaching staff is fighting and working hard, and our players are. They’re in tune to it. There wasn’t any practice where I felt like I had to pull teeth to get them going. They came out there ready to go in meetings, which shows they’re really focused and realizing that they are getting better”.

Colorado fell behind No. 16 Arizona State in the Buffs’ home opener, 17-0, but rallied to make a game of it.

It will be a true test of the Buffs and their new found mettle to see how they play if (when) that happens again in the second half of the season.

P – Preparation / Schedule

Colorado has always recruited heavily in the state of California. That intensity has only been increased since Colorado joined the Pac-12 and since CU hired Mike MacIntyre and much of his San Jose State staff – a staff very familiar with the California high school and junior college programs – was hired.

When Colorado takes the field in Los Angeles this weekend, it will do so with 55 players on its roster who have California roots (compare: there are no Colorado high school players on the USC roster).

Buff fans are very familiar with the argument that the Colorado State Rams play with a chip on their shoulder when they play against Colorado. Many of the Ram players, the argument goes, were not recruited by the Buffs, even though they may have wanted to play in Boulder, and so play CU with something to prove.

That logic should also hold for the Buffs when they play the Trojans in the Coliseum, as many of the southern California players who are on the Colorado roster may have grown up wanting to pay for USC, but were not recruited by the Trojans.

If that extra incentive is there for some of the Buff players, it hasn’t played out on the field in the state of California over the years. Colorado is 2-17-1 all-time in games played in the state of California, with the only two wins coming in the 1996 Holiday Bowl (against Washington) and against UCLA in Pasadena during the 2002 season. The Buffs are 0-7 in the Golden State since 2002, including the double-overtime loss to Cal earlier this season.

As noted, USC had a tough game in Tucson against Arizona last weekend, while Colorado had a bye. Colorado is 25-19 all-time following a bye week, with an 0-2 record playing a Pac-12 opponent after coming off a bye.

USC had its first bye week on September 20th. The Trojans were coming off a road loss to Boston College, but bounced back with a dominating 35-10 win over Oregon State.

Next weekend, the Buffs return to Folsom Field for the first of a two-game home stand, taking on UCLA in CU’s Homecoming game. USC, meanwhile with have the first leg of a two-game road trip, taking on Utah next weekend.

S – Statistics

In the first half of the 2014 season, Colorado players have broken or tied 50 school records … and, for a change, most of them have been positive. Sefo Liufau has added his name to 23 records; Nelson Spruce 16. Great stuff!

Two records not yet added to the 2014 list give a fair indication of how ridiculous the numbers Liufau and Spruce have been posting:

– The CU record for touchdown passes in a season is 22, set by Koy Detmer in 1996 … Liufau has 19 in the first six games;

– The CU record for touchdown receptions in a season is 11, set by Derek McCoy in 2003 … Spruce already has 10.

Other stats of note:

Happy hankies … Colorado is 109th in the nation in penalties (8.3 per game) and 117th in penalty yards (83.2). Horrible numbers – except when compared to USC. The Trojans is 118th in penalties (9.7 per game), and 115th in penalty yards (78.3).

– Happy trails … Tony Corrente, the Pac-12’s coordinator of officials, resigned last week. Well, it wasn’t due to a lack of “production” by his officiating crews. All but one team in the Pac-12 (Arizona State) is ranked 80th or worse nationally n penalties assessed. Half of the conference is ranked 100th or worse nationally, with three other teams 90th or worse … That’s three-fourth’s of the conference in the bottom quarter nationally in terms of penalties assessed. Hmmm …

Don’t look Ethel! (For those of you too young to get the Ray Stevens reference, I give you this) … USC is 18th in the nation in third-down conversion offense; Colorado is 71st in third-down conversion defense. Coach MacIntyre is well aware of the Trojans’ ability to keep drives going.  “When you watch and you break down the tape, they had a lot of 3rd-&-4s, more than most,” said MacIntyre. “If you do that, then you have a higher percentage of converting. We need to get them in the three to six or seven area and we’ll have a better chance there.”

Time is on our side … Playing keep-away from the opposition is important for both teams. Colorado is 21st in the nation in time of possession (32:34), but USC is even better, coming in at No. 19 nationally (32:44).

You’re not paranoid, they really are out to get you! … Every Pac-12 South team this season will have at least eight days to prepare to play USC, including Colorado, which has had two weeks.

Stat of the week … Turnovers. USC has generated ten turnovers through the first half of the season, while Colorado has generated six. The Trojans, meanwhile, have turned the ball over only four times (including just one interception), while the Buffs have turned the ball over eight times (including seven interceptions). For Colorado to have any chance of upsetting Southern California, the Buffs will have to flip this trend, and create more (perhaps several more) turnovers than they give the Trojans.

Stat of the week II … Explosion plays. Colorado has had 28 “explosion” plays (plays going for over 20 yards) so far this fall, compared to 31 for the opposition. Not bad, especially when compared to the lopsided numbers of 2013. Last season, the Buffs had 42 explosion plays, while allowing 73. So, at first glance, CU seems to be doing much better at keeping even on posting big plays on offense. But … here is the cautionary tale. In the first half of 2013, the numbers were about the same as the first half of this season: 27 explosion plays by the Buffs; 30 surrendered. Which means, of course, that in the second half of 2013, the numbers were awful: 15 explosion plays by the Buffs; 43 surrendered.

The second half of the 2014 season – against six teams which have all been ranked at one time or another this fall – begins Saturday. The Buffs will need to show that they are able to keep up with the opposition in explosion plays if they are to have any chance at posting victories over the next six games.


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