Steven Montez led the country in completion percentage through five games, which really isn't too surprising when breaking down the type of passes he's been throwing.
CU's offense this season has thrived on short, high percentage passes that have often turned into big plays.
Last Saturday, Southern California wasn't falling for it. From the opening play, the Trojans made it clear they weren't going to be beat the same way others had been.
The Buffs opened with a pass to Laviska Shenault that he caught three yards behind the line of scrimmage. The Trojans were ready, bringing him down almost immediately for a 3-yard loss.
The next play was a pass to KD Nixon across the middle that he caught at the line of scrimmage. Again, the Trojans were there almost immediately, tackling Nixon for a 1-yard gain.
In all, Montez was 12-for-13 on passes thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage, but the Buffs gained just 24 yards on those plays. Nine of them gained 2 yards or less. The one incompletion was a pass that hit off Shenault's hands into the arms of USC's Ajene Harris for a pick-six.
"They took away our short passes," Montez said.
Chalk up a win for USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who had two weeks to prepare and got the best of CU co-offensive coordinator and play-caller Darrin Chiaverini.
In his first year calling plays, Chiaverini has made the short passes a significant part of the offense. Montez is 72-of-79 on passes thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage through six games (13.2 per game). In 12 games last year, he only threw 61 of those passes (5.1 per game).
Pendergast and the Trojans were ready. CU completed the passes, but the Trojans were often there with an immediate tackle. Overall, 16 of Montez's 26 completions went for six yards or less against the Trojans, including four that went for negative yards.
"They knew what we were going to do. They kind of had us figured out," Montez said.
The only other team to really take those passes away from the Buffs was UCLA, but the Bruins didn't have the pass rush or downfield coverage to match it and the Buffs were still successful on offense that night.
USC was aggressive in not only getting after Montez, but winning the battles at the line of scrimmage. Counting Montez's 21 incompletions, the Buffs had 41 offensive plays result in zero or negative yards.
"It just felt like that defense was playing in Colorado's backfield all night," USC head coach Clay Helton said.
It all started with the Trojans' ability to shut down the short passing game.
"They did a really good job of that," CU head coach Mike MacIntyre said. "They were breaking down hill on it, dropped eight a lot, a thing they haven't really done out of that personnel group. They had a week off so, they were interchanging out of the same personnel group, had the same group on the field. They took advantage of that. We started finding some stuff that would work, but it was a little bit too late."
USC forced Montez to throw the ball downfield more, and he struggled. He was 4-for-16 on passes throw 10 yards or more downfield and was often under duress.
Perhaps Pendergast came up with the blueprint to stop CU's offense, although it certainly helps to have the talent that USC has on the field. CU's next opponent - No. 15 Washington - is even more talented on defense, so Chiaverini and the Buffs have their hands full this week trying to come up with a way to respond.
A few thoughts from the weekend:
1. Colorado's 5-0 start had a lot of fans thinking about the possibilities. Pac-12 title. Running the table. College Football Playoff?! Saturday's loss should serve as a reality check, though. This is a good team, but Colorado's not an elite program right now. The Buffs are on their way to very good season, but this won't be their only loss of the season.
2. The Buffs have played against two solid defensive lines - Nebraska and USC - and haven't been able to run the ball against either of them. Together in those games, the Buffs have 139 yards on 72 carries (1.93 per carry). Take out Laviska Shenault's 49-yard touchdown run against USC - a well-designed and well-executed play - and it's 90 yards on 71 carries. To be fair, 11 of those "carries" are sacks, totaling 77 lost yards. Still, CU's tailbacks - Travon McMillian and Kyle Evans - have combined for 99 yards on 45 carries in those games and only one run - a 12-yarder by McMillian against Nebraska - went for longer than nine yards. This week, the Buffs face perhaps the best defensive line in the Pac-12 (Washington), and they've got November dates with Washington State and Utah - which both rank ahead of USC against the run. Utah, in fact, is No.2 in the country against the run. It may be tough sledding on the ground during the second half of the season.
3. Nobody does more talking to the media than quarterback Steven Montez, and he's always been very engaging and loose during press conferences. So, I was a bit surprised when he got testy with a reporter after the game on Saturday when he was asked how capable the offense could be if Shenault has to miss any time with an injury.
Montez: "You said how capable?"
Montez: "Like if Laviska's not there, then no yards? Is that the question you're asking?"
Reporter: "I mean "
Montez: "OK, no, if Laviska is hurt or if Laviska his healthy, I think we're going to run our offense and I think we've got a bunch of different guys that can do that. Obviously Laviska is built a little bit differently and he's probably the best player we've got on our team, right? But, we've got other good players as well that can go out there and make plays."
I don't bring that up to criticize Montez for an out-of-character response. I bring it up because I think it shows that Montez has full confidence in a lot of his teammates - despite the fact that Shenault has stolen the spotlight this season.
The week's best Buffs
It's not as easy to come up with this list after a loss as it has been after the wins. But, there were some good individual performances against USC.
1. WR Laviska Shenault: The sophomore had his roughest game of the year, and yet he's still at the top of this list. He didn't even play the fourth quarter because of a toe injury, but still accounted for 44.5 percent of the Buffs' total offense (118 of 265 yards), and he scored another touchdown.
2. DL Mustafa Johnson: He continues to be the consistent star of the defense. He had five tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss, and was more disruptive than those numbers suggest.
3. P Davis Price: Time to give the junior some credit for the job he's doing as a fill-in for injured starter Alex Kinney. Price punted nine times for 377 yards. His 41.9 average was a season high, he had a 55-yarder, and he landed four punts inside the 20.
4. LB Nate Landman; His performance was quieter than we're used to seeing from him, but he still led the team with 10 tackles, including one for loss, and played a big role in CU holding the Trojans to just 62 rushing yards.
5. S Evan Worthington: Not a perfect night, of course, as the secondary gave up some big plays. But, Worthington had an interception - the first by a CU defensive back this season - and was in on four tackles, including one for loss.
Stat of the week
If Laviska Shenault has to miss any time with his toe injury, the Buffs may not be in trouble, but they'll certainly have to find some people to step up. Shenault has been Montez's targeted receiver on 36 percent of his throws (72 of 200) this season.
Shenault, in fact, has been targeted more than the next two receivers combined. KD Nixon (42) and Tony Brown (28) have combined for 70 targets.
Pac-12 players of the week
Colorado punter Davis Price was the only Buff nominated this week. Here's who I voted for:
Offense - Joshua Kelley, UCLA: He got his season going against Colorado, and he hasn't slowed down. In a 37-7 rout of Cal, he had 30 carries for 157 yards and three touchdowns. He had 11 runs that resulted in first downs or touchdowns.
Defense - Keisean Lucier-South, UCLA: Bruins finally win and get some attention! Lucier-South had 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack that forced a fumble, his first career interception and a fumble recovery that he returned 38 yards for a touchdown.
Special teams - Mitch Wishnowsky, Utah: Averaged 48.2 yards on four punts and landed three of them inside the 20. Two of his punts landed inside the 10. He also had a fake punt that he ran 28 yards for a first down.
Pac-12 Team of the Week
UCLA: The Bruins have been playing better each week and they busted loose for their first win of the Chip Kelly era. UCLA dominated Cal, 37-7. With a tough schedule in the second half, I don't think they get to a bowl game, but they've been the most improved team in the conference from Week 1 to now.
National Team of the Week
Michigan: Since a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame in the opener, the Wolverines have been on a tear, winning six in a row. Their 38-13 win against Wisconsin on Saturday was impressive. Michigan has allowed just 14 points per game during the winning streak - and the loss at Notre Dame doesn't look so bad with the Irish sitting at 7-0.
A few thoughts on the Pac-12 after Week 7:
1. Oregon just might be the best team in this conference. The Ducks really should be undefeated right now, had they simply held onto the ball late in regulation against Stanford a few weeks ago. With a poor non-conference schedule and a loss already, they may not have an argument for the College Football Playoff, but they've already had their toughest tests and could head into the Pac-12 title game at 11-1.
2. Utah will be dangerous in the second half of the season. Tyler Huntley is playing well at quarterback and the defense is exceptional. Despite an 0-2 start to conference play, the Utes are very much in play for the South title. They get USC at home this week. Win that game, and Utah is in the driver's seat.
3. UCLA is not done winning this season. The Bruins had been playing better the previous two weeks and then exploded in a 37-7 win against Cal. I still don't think they'll get to a bowl game, because they've got Utah, Oregon, USC and Stanford still on the schedule, but they win more games and get some momentum going into the offseason.
After week 7, here's how I rank the teams in the Pac-12:
1. Oregon (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12): Ducks are a bad fumble away from being undefeated.
2. Washington (5-2, 3-1): Huskies played well in Eugene, but that was a costly loss.
3. USC (4-2, 3-1): They've been up and down, but made a statement with the win against Colorado.
4. Washington State (5-1, 2-1): Cougars are quietly having a great season, but the next two weeks - vs. Oregon and at Stanford - will make or break their year.
5. Utah (4-2, 2-2): Suddenly the Utes are a contender in the South.
6. Colorado (5-1, 2-1): Suddenly the Buffs chances for the South don't look great.
7. Stanford (4-2, 2-1): Sputtered into the bye, but don't count them out in the North.
8. Arizona State (3-3, 1-2): Had a much-needed bye last week.
9. UCLA (1-5, 1-2): Really nice win for Chip Kelly and company.
10. Arizona (3-4, 2-2): Really bad loss for Kevin Sumlin and company at Utah. Wildcats will struggle to reach bowl eligibility.
11. California (3-3, 0-3): So much for that great 3-0 start and national rankings. Bears back near the bottom of the conference.
12. Oregon State (1-5, 0-3): Beavers maintain their spot at the bottom after the bye.
Quote the of week
Steven Montez, talking about the Buffs finally getting the offense going in the fourth quarter at USC, after they were already down three touchdowns:
"I don't know how much you want to buy into that. I still think we have to get it going earlier. Getting it going in the second half, it's not cutting it anymore, especially when you play good teams like USC, good teams like (Washington). You can't come out for the first half and not play ball. You have to come out and play clean and get some explosive plays, get the run game going. We just have to start a lot earlier. I think we started way too late. I think we've struggled a little bit in the first half and a lot of that is on me. I have to get those guys motivated to go out there and do what we need to do on offense."
Contact staff writer Brian Howell at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.