No. 19 CU (5-0) at USC (3-2)
When: 8:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Los Angeles Coliseum
TV/Radio: Fox Sports 1/ 850 AM
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez was still a raw freshman when he led the Buffaloes into the Los Angeles Coliseum on Oct. 8, 2016.
Making just the third start of his collegiate career, Montez and the offense sputtered against Southern California that day and the Buffs lost, 21-17.
On Saturday, Montez will lead the No. 19 Buffs (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) into the Coliseum again to take on the Trojans (3-2, 2-1) in a key South division battle.
Now with 20 starts under his belt, Montez is a different player. He comes into this week leading the country in completion percentage (75.2), throwing for 1,420 yards, 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
"His progression and his growth from two years ago when we first saw him in the Coliseum to where he is now, I think as good a decision maker maybe in our league right now," USC head coach Clay Helton told local media after practice this week.
In 2016, Montez was still filling in for injured senior Sefo Liufau. Now, the junior is firmly entrenched as the starter, and CU head coach Mike MacIntyre believes it helps that Montez has played in the Coliseum before.
"It helps at every position, but to me experience — number of plays, number of situations you're in, pressure situations — really helps a quarterback," MacIntyre said. "The great thing about Steven, he learns from it."
Montez hopes to have a better performance this time around in the Coliseum, but isn't looking back on that game from two years ago.
"We go into this game just like we've gone into these past five games," he said. "We come in, we put in our work in the week and hopefully we play well on Saturday. It's another game for us. It's just the next team on our schedule."
Defense stepping up
CU is giving up 355 yards per game, which might have bothered MacIntyre in the past.
These days, however, with spread offenses and rules geared towards of the offense, MacIntyre's main focus in the 18.4 points the defense is allowing. CU ranks 21st nationally in scoring defense, and that's played a key role in the Buffs' 5-0 start.
"You have to look at defense differently now in today's football," he said. "It's all about points. You're going to give up yards in today's world. If you're not then you're just so dominant. But, you don't worry about yards; you worry about points and you worry about getting them out on different third downs. I'm a defensive guy and I hate to say it, but as I've gotten to watch it, that's what it's all about is points."
Aside from points, MacIntyre said two key stats are third-down and red zone defense. The Buffs rank 29th nationally in third down conversion defense (36.4 percent) and 20th in red zone defense (72.7 percent). Opponents have scored touchdown on just 45.5 percent of their red zone trips (five of 11).
Seeking change with targeting
MacIntyre said he would like to see a change in how college football penalizes players who are flagged for targeting.
On Saturday, CU linebacker Nate Landman was flagged for targeting with 9 minutes, 23 to play in the second quarter and was ejected from the game.
MacIntyre would like to some equality with the penalty. Currently, a player ejected for targeting misses the rest of that half and the entire next half (whether that's the second half of the current game, or the first half of the next one). That could be a penalty of anywhere from 31 to about 59 minutes of missed time.
"I definitely think they should keep the targeting rule, I definitely think they should keep refereeing it like we are," MacIntyre said. "I just think it's not always a fair penalty. I think it should be done like a hockey game. If you get it, you sit out for 15 minutes.
"If you have a second one maybe you're dismissed out of the game."
MacIntyre said he will keep pushing for that change "until I get some traction on it."
USC true freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels has been up and down this season, but MacIntyre has been impressed. "He can make every throw," he said. "(Having a bye last week), I imagine he'll get a little bit better, watching all his mistakes and seeing where he can improve." ... USC is 18-0 at the Coliseum under Helton. ... Montez is 12-8 as a starter.