File this under keys to the game Saturday for the Colorado football team: The defense has to get its eyes right.
The Buffs are not only facing the leading individual passer in the Football Bowl Subdivision in Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion and the third-ranked passing offense in the nation, they're facing an offense that uses a screen game expertly for big gains.
"They try to throw you off with the motion, get motion one way and screen back to the other," CU defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. "You just have to understand formations and situations when they like to do it. It's a multiple number of things."
There are plenty of firsts to be noted in this one (1 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network). It's the first time the Buffs have ever played at Oregon State. It's the first time the Buffs have gone on the road under coach Mike MacIntyre. (The road wasn't exactly friendly to the last two CU coaching staffs). And it's the first Pac-12 Conference game of the season.
The Buffs (2-0) are also coming off a first of sorts. They haven't played a football game for three weeks because of historic flooding in and around Boulder that postponed a Sept. 14 game against Fresno State that was schedule ahead of a bye week.
And they won't escape the rain in Corvallis. Saturday's forecast calls for a 100 percent chance of rain with winds from 25-35 mph and gusts up to 50 mph, according to Weather.com.
If the Buffs are going to overcome all the adversity they have faced in recent weeks and remain undefeated, they will need to slow down the Oregon State offense while not losing any of the momentum they built in their two victories when they made big plays on both sides of the ball.
Baer had his hands full this week as he prepared his defense for everything it will face from the Beavers.
"It uses the backs, the wide receivers and the tight ends," Baer said of the OSU screen game. "It utilizes a multiple number of screens. I don't know how many it is but we're going to see at least 10 and maybe more. A lot of their big chunks in the game are off screens. They will screen to (wide receiver Brandin Cooks), slip screens to the back, middle screens to the tight end, middle screens to the back, bubble screens, a bunch of them."
Oregon State (3-1) hasn't been running the ball well in the first four weeks of the season. It hasn't helped that it lost starting running back Storm Woods to a concussion in the second half of an overtime victory at Utah two weeks ago. Woods is unlikely to play against the Buffs.
The Beavers are last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense averaging just 55 yards a game on the ground. They're the only team in the conference without at least one run of 20 or more yards. Their longest run through four games went for 12 yards.
But all of that can be misleading because the short passing game in offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf's offense is really an extension of the running game or supplemental to it. And the screens the Beavers offense employs are a big part of that.
"It's a way to kind of get a long handoff," Langsdorf said this week in a phone interview. "Instead of trying to pound it inside, we'll try to push the ball on the edge a little bit and that's kind of a replacement for our stretch running game is getting the ball on the perimeter fast and treat it like a run. It counts as a pass in the stats, but for us we're treating it as the run game and that's the way you get the ball to the outside pretty quickly without having to hand it off."
While OSU running backs aren't chewing up the yards on the ground, they have been effective as part of the passing game on screens and dump downs. Woods and fellow running back Terron Ward have combined for 24 catches for 199 yards through four games.
Baer believes the screen game could be an even bigger part of the OSU game plan this week because the Beavers' offensive line is banged up. Coach Mike Riley said he expects to be without three or four of his regular offensive linemen against the Buffs.
CU senior defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe is a prime target for screen plays. He is the Buffs' best pass rusher and screens are often designed to slow down the pass rush.
Uzo-Diribe said defending good screening teams is all about film study and not being fooled.
"You have to recognize it," Uzo-Diribe said. "When the offensive lineman pats you on your back, coach always jokes, he's not telling you, 'Good job.' It's usually an indication that it's a screen play. He's just trying to invite you up field and they can just dump it over your head."
While the CU defense will contend with a strong passing attack, the Buffs hope to get their running game going to complement the seventh-ranked passing attack in the nation in terms of average yards per game.
CU quarterback Connor Wood is off to as good a start as anyone could have asked from him this season, but now the competition level increases and the question to be answered is whether he and his teammates can rise to the challenge.