Colorado (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) at No. 15 Washington (5-2, 3-1)

When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Husky Stadium, Seattle

TV / radio: KDVR (31) / 850 AM

In preparing to face Colorado last week, Southern California head football coach Clay Helton certainly singled out the offensive stars of the Buffaloes.

Helton made particular note of the Buffaloes' defensive linemen, however, including one in particular.

"You look at those front three, the big men, and they're doing a wonderful job of being able to diagnose and getting through run lanes," Helton said. "And Mustafa Johnson is a tackle for loss nightmare right now."

Although the Buffs (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12), who rank No. 25 in the Amway Coaches' poll, lost to USC last Saturday, 31-20, Johnson and his line mates once again were impressive in the trenches.

Led by the line, CU's front seven on defense has made a tremendous jump from 2017.

"As a whole, everybody is gaining a lot of confidence, especially the D-line," senior linebacker Rick Gamboa said.

CU visits No. 15 Washington (5-2, 3-1) on Saturday and brings the Pac-12's No. 4 rushing defense to Seattle. The Buffs are allowing just 136.8 yards per game on the ground and 3.8 yards per carry. USC had 51 yards on 26 carries. Most importantly, only five rushing touchdowns have been scored against the Buffs — the fewest allowed in the conference.


Advertisement

In addition to stopping the run, the Buffs' front seven had contributed to the team's 16 quarterback sacks — 5 ½ of those by Johnson.

So far, it's been a complete turnaround from 2017, when CU allowed 208 rushing yards per game (10th in the Pac-12), 5.23 per carry (10th), 23 rushing touchdowns (seventh) and generated just 19 sacks (11th).

"I've been pleased with their play," defensive coordinator DJ Eliot said. "We've got a big challenge ahead of us, but those guys have done some good things this year."

Colorado’s Javier Edwards, Israel Antwine, and Mustafa Johnson have been a part of big turnaround on the Buffs’ defensive line.
Colorado's Javier Edwards, Israel Antwine, and Mustafa Johnson have been a part of big turnaround on the Buffs' defensive line. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

A big reason for the turnaround up front has been significant changes in personnel.

A year ago at this time, Johnson was wearing a wearing a Modesto (Calif.) Junior College jersey, while Israel Antwine was starring at Millwood (Okla.) High School, and Davion Taylor was still learning the game at Coahoma (Miss.) Community College.

Johnson and Antwine are now starting at defensive end, while Taylor is the starter at Buff back.

The Buffs are also getting a significant contribution from end Terrance Lang, who redshirted in 2017, and linebacker Nate Landman has gone from seldom-used true freshman to a bona fide star.

That's five major additions to CU's front seven in one year - six if including outside linebacker Alex Tchangam, another junior college transfer who is coming on of late.

"All those guys have definitely been making plays and bringing a new energy to the defense," Gamboa said. "When you see a guy next to you making a play, next play you want to make a play."

While the new players are stepping up, so are the veterans.

Nose tackle Javier Edwards is vastly improved and has been dominant in several games. Drew Lewis led the team in tackles last year at inside linebacker, but to make way for Landman he moved to the outside and is emerging as a force.

Gamboa has been a rock in the middle, as usual, while linemen Jase Franke, Chris Mulumba and Lyle Tuiloma have done well in the rotation up front. (Franke tore his ACL vs. USC, however, and will miss the rest of the season).

Gamboa said the entire group is much more athletic and in better condition than a year ago. That's allowed the Buffs to rotate throughout the game and stay fresh.

Meanwhile, Eliot has tailored the defensive scheme to fit his new set of players. Johnson, for example, sometimes lines up more outside than a tradition 3-4 end, and he's wreaking havoc on defenses with 5 ½ sacks and 12 ½ tackles for loss. He's on pace for a school record 25 tackles for loss.

"We have different body types up front (than 2017)," Eliot said. "We're quicker than we were last year, so our scheme has been adjusted for that. We have new players and because we have new players, they have a different skill set, so we've adjusted our schemes to where we've got them on the run more and moving them more and I think those things have helped us."

Of course, the addition to energetic new defensive line coach Kwahn Drake has paid off, as well.

It's all combined to create the right formula for the Buffs to become more of a force up front, and it's a big reason they are having success as a team.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33