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Q&A With The Ralphie Report About The Buffs

Nelson Spruce had one catch against Oregon St. last year, for 9 yards. Steven Nelson, closing in on Spruce, above, will need to keep close tabs on the Buffs' best receiver, who has stepped up his game considerably since then.
Nelson Spruce had one catch against Oregon St. last year, for 9 yards. Steven Nelson, closing in on Spruce, above, will need to keep close tabs on the Buffs' best receiver, who has stepped up his game considerably since then.
(Photo by Andy Wooldridge)

Oregon St. makes the trip to Boulder this weekend. It's the first time the Beavers have visited the Buffs since Colorado joined the Pac-12 4 years ago, as the conference schedule rotation had the teams missing each other the first 2 years after expansion.

Last year was the Buffs first ever visit to Corvallis, and the teams have only meant 6 times, once all the way back in 1931. Prior to last season, the last meeting was in 1988. So the teams, and their fans, aren't nearly as familiar with each other as is the case with most conference matchups.

What we do know is that Colorado has struggled in the Pac-12 South since they have come over from the Big XII. We also know that they have one of the most productive QB-WR combinations in the conference, in sophomore Sefo Liufau and junior Nelson Spruce.

Liufau didn't play against the Beavers last year, as he didn't take over the quarterback job until the second half of the Arizona St. game 2 weeks later, after Colorado had gotten bombed in back to back games by the Oregon schools, first 44-17 in the game at Oregon St., in a game Sean Mannion threw for a school record 414 yards, and 6 touchdowns, and then a week later, 57-16 by the Ducks. On their way to another blowout 54-13 loss in Tempe to Arizona St., Connor Wood was pulled in favor of the then freshman Liufau for the second half by head coach Mike MacIntyre, and he has started every game for the Buffs since then.

With All-Pac-12 WR Paul Richardson, now with the Seattle Seahawks, the primary receiver for the Buffs, Spruce had 1 catch against the Beavers, for 9 yards.

Fast forward to last week in Berkeley, and Liufau completed 46 passes, for 455 yards, and 7 touchdowns, and ran for 72 more yards. Spruce hauled in 19 of Liufau's passes, setting a new Buffs record for catches in a game for the second week in a row, for 179 yards, and 3 touchdowns.

And Colorado still lost, 59-56 to California, in double overtime.

But there's more to the Colorado story than that, wo we got together with the guys at The Ralphie Report, our brother SBN site that covers Colorado inside and out to get a scouting report. Jack Barsch gave us a great look at what Beaver Nation can expect Saturday at Folsom Field.

We also attempted to answer the questions they had for us,

BTD: Both teams come in off frustrating road losses. The way the games in Berkeley and the LA Coliseum played out about as differently as possible, but in the end, both the Buffs and Beavers had every reason to expect better outcomes. The Beavers played terribly on offense, and wasted a good defensive effort. The Buffs played tremendously on offense, but it went for naught due to defense and special teams. Oregon St. should come out angry on Saturday, and Colorado should come out encouraged. Which emotional response do you expect to be more effective? What will the Buffs do to address Angry Beavers, and what will they do to build on their effort last week?

Jack: I wouldn't be so quick to say the Buffs aren't angry. While those outside the program, us fans, are encouraged with what we saw, Coach MacIntyre has made it more than clear he expected to win that game, and he is tired of losing. While they are encouraged and fired up, they are as pissed as the Beavers about losing. I don't know if the Beavers remember last year's meeting, but CU certainly does, and after playing close in the first half, they were decimated in the second by Brandin Cooks. I expect the Buffs to try to redeem their name and get their first PAC-12 win of the season. To build on last week, it's simple but not easy. They just have to play a complete game. We've seen a dominating defense and a high-flying offense this year. Just put it together and we're good to go.

BTD: Sefo Liufau threw the ball all over the place in Berkeley, and 7 of those 46 completions led to the end zone. Nelson Spruce caught 19 of them, breaking the school record for the second week in a row, for 179 of Liufau's 455 yards, and 3 of the touchdowns. Yet, in part due to the limitations of the Pac-12 Channel, most fans still don't know that much about how they do this.

It won't tip the game plan, since the coaching staffs have all the game videos, but it might make a more interesting viewing experience for the fans to hear a first hand analysis of these 2 great players. What do Liufau and Spruce do that works so well? What kind of routes should we expect to see Saturday?

And what would you do defensively if you had to try to slow them down? Is it more effective to sell-out blitzes, or focus on coverage schemes to control Liufau? Can Spruce handle physical defenders? Or should Oregon St. use speed (Steven Nelson?) to shut him down?

Jack: Liufau throws the ball to Spruce, and that's all that needs to happen for Spruce to go off. Spruce is the ultimate security blanket and then some. He just makes Liufau's job that much easier. Spruce will run every route in this offense's tree, but he's probably famous for the Spruce curl. 10 yards, come back two, and go up the sideline for YAC.

Honestly, it's hard to figure out what the best way to beat this offense is, because they usually beat themselves. If you sell out, they usually have screens to counter. If you sit back, they have a lot of coverage breakers and rub patterns. Sefo is a bit inexperienced, so the Beaver's best bet would be to mix up looks and give him uneven schemes to look at. Spruce can most definitely handle physical defenders, and thus far he's handled speed well, too, as he doesn't rely on athleticism to make plays. Honestly, doubling may be the only way to stop him.

Beyond Spruce, who should fans watch for? Liufau found 11 other receivers last weekend alone, so he obviously spreads the ball around, but which targets can get open on their own, and which ones are doing a good job of playing opposite other things that are working (like Spruce)?

Jack: On offense, watch out for Shay Fields. The superfrosh has 29 receptions to his name, and while that pales in comparison to Spruce, it is no small feat. He's as shifty as they come, and has some wheels to him, too. He's a regular feature on screens, and he scored on an end-around against Hawaii. He's sure to get some use on Saturday.

Another name is Tony Jones, the senior running back played well against Cal and he should get consistent carries.

BTD: Coach MacIntyre's decision to go for it on 4th down in the second overtime essentially lost the game when it didn't work, making it almost an automatic win with a field goal for California. He's taken some heat for that decision. But Will Oliver had already missed 3 field goals, which had to be a consideration. Did Coach MacIntyre make an emotional mistake, or was he just in a tough spot? And how do Buff fans feel about it?

Jack: Oh boy, this question still hurts. The Achilles heel of this offense has been goal line play, and that was no exception. It was pretty obvious, and has been confirmed by Coach Mac, that it was supposed to be a toss to Tony Jones, but Jones mis-stepped. It was there, too. Anyways, Coach Mac made the right call, and it might've won the ball game. I know I feel terrible, and I know we all feel disappointed about the end result, but encouraged about competitive in the whole game.

BTD: Speaking of Oliver, and special teams, he's been perfect for 3 years ocn extra points, and only ever missed twice, so he's a good kicker, at least at short range. But he's never been real reliable at any distance. Is it a strength or an accuracy issue? What can Colorado do about this, and is this likely to become a decisive issue again this week?

Jack: Oliver has largely been solid throughout his whole career, and he has to be kicking himself over last week ( I know, it was too easy, I had to). Will always performs better in the thin Colorado air, as do most kickers, and I doubt he'll ever let a performance like that happen again. Also, shout out to Mr. Oliver for facing the press after that loss, that shows the character and responsibility that this team is made of.

BTD:. Colorado is below average defensively, ranking in the 70s against both the pass and the rush. But there doesn't appear to be one aspect that's drastically lagging compared to others. Is that "progress"? Do certain types of play prove particularly effective? Do some thing not work against Colorado? Is it mostly a depth issue with the D?

Jack: Well, those stats are a little surprising to hear, because I feel like there is a clear strength to this defense. The secondary has played very well thus far, and the run defense was a disaster at the beginning of the year. It seems to have leveled off a bit, but running the ball has been a proven way to beat the Buffs this year (ASU, CSU).

Unless you're Jared Goff and have a ridiculous day, which Sean Mannion is capable of, it is hard to find consistent success against this defense against the pass. Depth certainly is an issue with the defense, but not the biggest one. The biggest is youth, and that issue is being resolved by the week. Expect the defense on Saturday to be different than the one at the beginning of the year, and expect the defense at the end of the year to be much improved. Another underrated factor affecting this defense is Addison Gillam's regression. His stat line is still gaudy, but he is not affecting the game like he used to.

If Tedric Thompson ends up playing, watch him. He has balled out this year at the safety position, and brings a lot of excitement 20 yards deep. Also, Derek McCartney at defensive end.

BTD: The Buffs have produced some notable next level talent (Paul Richardson, Nate Soldier, etc.) even while struggling their way through rebuilding their program. Who are the next NFL-grade players to come from Colorado?

Jack: The Buffs should always have an NFL contingent, however small it may be. This year, we have few graduating players, let alone NFL caliber players. Daniel Munyer may get a look, but he has looked a little slow and small this year. Really the only guarantee is Greg Henderson, one of the better Buffs of all time. He's big enough, has cover skills, and can play press or zone. 2016 should yield more fruit for the Draft harvest.

BTD: Facilities upgrades are underway, and being in the Pac-12 makes recruiting, especially in California, easier as well. How are the Buffs doing in that regard? Is the move from the Big XII to the Pac-12 paying off?

Jack: Athletic Director Rick George is God, as far as CU fans are concerned. Within a year of coming to Colorado, he has started an initiative for new facilities, secured the necessary funds for said facilities, and completed construction on the new seating of the facilities. He is the man, and while the new stadium seats are the tip of the 150 million dollar iceberg, he has shown enough for us to have faith that the rest will be completed in a timely manner.

By the start of 2015, an entirely new complex should be in place for the athletic department that rivals the top tier of the PAC-12. The move from the Big 12 was necessary and beneficial towards CU. The PAC is a much better culture fit and financial boon, plus a lot of Forever Buffs live out on the west coast. The only problem is a lack of a rival, but that happens naturally as time goes on.

BTD: At this point, do Buff fans believe they have the right guy in Coach MacIntyre? Or is the jury still hopeful, but also still out?

Jack: I'm sold on MacIntyre, but I would say the latter is probably where most of the fans are. He needs at least 3 years, enough time for his first class to become upperclassmen, to be accurately judged, but I love what he has done so far. Anyone who follows the program closely will tell you how different this team is from the dreaded 2012 disaster. They have fight for all four quarters, and they look like they're having some fun out there. CU looks bigger, stronger, and faster than they did two years ago, and while he gets a slight pass this year, the expectation is a bowl game or bust next year.

BTD: Can Colorado capitalize on elevation, or any other Folsom Field advantage, against a bunch of low-landers? Are you going to just let Ralphie romp over everyone on the Beaver bench?

Jack: If they keep their pace up, they sure as hell better capitalize on the elevation. They currently run the 2nd most plays per game at right around 88. The problem with the elevation advantage is a lot of our young players also aren't acclimated, so it might backfire. I would love to make Folsom a fantastic home-field advantage, with the stands packed and the air sucked out of the opponents. Don't know if that will ever happen, though. Hopefully we can control Ralphie, we don't want our best thing taken away from us.

Thanks, Jack! Great stuff. Looking forward to an interesting game Saturday!