The trademark of the 2016 Colorado football team was its top 20 defense. It was a group that played confident, played with passion and made life difficult on the opposition.
Last Saturday, in a 44-28 win against California, the Buffaloes weren't as dominant as that group a year ago, but they displayed the same type of energy in what was one of their best games of the year.
"One thing you saw from the defense was it looked like we were having fun," safety Ryan Moeller said. "Not that we weren't the weeks before, but it's just different. It's a little more infectious. It felt more like the defense from last year.
"I think when you really start to have fun, especially on defense, you play with way more enthusiasm and you play with a little more pep in your step."
Of course, as head coach Mike MacIntyre pointed out, it's not too hard to have fun on a sunny, 60-degree day in Boulder in the fall, but that wasn't the only reason the Buffs had fun on defense. They made it a point of emphasis going into the game to enjoy themselves on the field.
"As captains, me, Fo (Afolabi Laguda) and Derek (McCartney) all came together and talked to the defense and told them that we need to start having fun again," junior linebacker Rick Gamboa said. "On defense, people weren't playing with passion or emotion and I think Saturday we showed that we were having fun. We were celebrating as a team and as a defense and I think that helped us."
CU (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) started the season strong on defense, holding Colorado State and Texas State to just three points each in the first two games.
Then, on Oct. 7 against Arizona, the wheels fell off. In that game and the next one, against Oregon State, the defense really struggled, especially against the run.
Oct. 21 at Washington State was an improvement, but the Buffs lost that game 28-0. Last Saturday against Cal, the defense certainly had a different vibe.
"I feel like all-around, we felt a lot looser," linebacker Drew Lewis said. "We had a lot of guys flying around making plays and we had a bunch of us in the backfield. We had three or four guys get their first sack of the year. It was impressive defense like it was last year."
CU had its best game of the year against the run, holding Cal to 61 yards on 25 carries. The Buffs also registered four sacks and six total tackles for loss, and safety Nick Fisher put an exclamation point on the day with his fourth-quarter, 100-yard interception return for touchdown.
Reminiscent of last year, the Buffs also brought some pressure to the quarterback with its defensive backs, including a sack from safety Evan Worthington. That was the first sack of the season for a starting defensive back.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said he was impressed by the way his crew tackled, stopped the run and brought pressure, and he believes part of the reasons the Buffs had more fun on defense is that they've continued to grow as a group.
"We've concentrated on the process, and concentrated on getting better and having energy at practice and making the corrections but staying positive and pointing out the positives from each game," Eliot said. "I think that's allowed the players to continue to grow and continue to enjoy playing the game and practicing hard and playing hard in the games, too."
With good preparation, the Buffs made it a point of emphasis to celebrate more often with each other throughout the game.
"No matter what it was, whether it was a tackle for a loss or a sack or a pass breakup, we just wanted to celebrate and go back to having fun," he said. "There wasn't too much passion or too much emotion showing as a defense (before last week)."
Moeller said getting that 2016 feel again was a "great confidence booster." Now, the Buffs have to try to duplicate that effort as they head to Arizona State (4-4, 3-2) this week.
"I'm confident that we can continue to get better and continue to do those things on defense," Eliot said.