While going through pre-practice stretches recently, Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau realized that for the first time during his career, November has real meaning for the Buffaloes.
“I think I was talking to (linebacker Kenneth Olugbode) and a couple of other guys in stretch lines a couple days ago and I was like, ‘Usually during this time of the year, we’re playing for pride, and now we’ve got something to play for,'” Liufau said during Tuesday’s weekly press conference. “It’s a great feeling, and it just adds a lot more intensity to practice and a lot more focus and just the need to go out there and succeed and show up every week.”
The No. 21 Buffaloes (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) will host UCLA (3-5, 1-4) on Thursday at Folsom Field with the opportunity to solidify their hold on the top spot in the Pac-12 South division.
CU enters the week with a half-game lead over Utah and USC in the South and can’t afford to lose ground against a struggling Bruins team that has lost three in a row.
After going 5-40 during Pac-12 play from 2011-15, the Buffs find themselves in a conference title race for the first time in years.
“We are in the heavyweight battles, which is what wanted to be in,” head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “We’re there now, so now we have to go perform in the heavyweight fights. The kids are excited about it, I’m excited about it and now we have to go do it.”
Thursday’s game will be CU’s second as a ranked team this season. The first one, Oct. 8 at USC, resulted in a 21-17 loss. Liufau said the Buffs need to come out better this time around.
“Being ranked is also going to give extra incentive to teams to come out there and give us their best shot,” Liufau said. “Each game is critically important. Each game is, like I always say, a championship game because destiny is in our hands.”
Impact of kicking game
Giving the struggles of the CU kicking game, the decision to attempt field goals or go for it on fourth down in enemy territory won’t be as easy it used to be for MacIntyre.
“It’ll really depend on how the game is going and how we’re doing,” MacIntyre said. “It’ll also depend on the wind in our stadium. As you know, the wind swirls in Folsom at times, so we’ve got to really be alert to that. Then, we’ll see how they’re kicking in warm-ups and get a feel for that.”
Ever since senior Diego Gonzalez tore his left Achilles’ tendon on Sept. 17 at Michigan, the Buffs have struggled to find consistency with their kickers. Davis Price, Chris Graham and even punter Alex Kinney have attempted field goals, going 8-for-13 combined, with three extra points.
Price missed the Buffs’ Oct. 22 game at Stanford because of mononucleosis, and Graham and Kinney combined to go 1-for-4 on field goals. Price is still battling mono and it’s still unknown if he’ll play Thursday.
If Price is unable to go, MacIntyre said Graham will get the first shot to kick, with Kinney backing him up.
According to reports from Los Angeles, UCLA star quarterback Josh Rosen is likely done for the season with a shoulder injury. The Bruins are likely to start fifth-year senior Mike Fafaul for the third straight game.
Fafaul threw 70 passes in the Bruins’ most recent game, a 52-45 loss at Utah on Oct. 22.
“The No. 1 thing is we have to be able to pass rush, but they do get the ball out of the hands quick,” MacIntyre said. “We’re going to have to tackle well in space. And they’ve got guys that can make you miss.”
Taking it personal
During a 35-31 loss at UCLA on Oct. 31, 2015, the Buffs dominated statistically, but UCLA hurt the Buffs on big plays.
CU defensive lineman Jordan Carrell was particularly bothered by the 82-yard touchdown run that the Bruins’ Paul Perkins had during the second quarter.
“It all came down to our (defensive) line,” Carrell said. “We didn’t go the right way on a play and they went out the gate to the touchdown. We’re more disciplined this year.”
This year, the Bruins are last nationally in running the ball, and Carrell said it’s vital for the Buffs to be strong against the run.
“I think they’re going to try to establish the run early,” Carrell said. “If we can fill our holes and let our secondary play how they play, I believe we have the best secondary. If we force them to pass, I don’t think they have a chance.”
MacIntyre said running back Phillip Lindsay (ankle) and right tackle Aaron Haigler (knee) are both healthy and ready to go for Thursday. … Sophomore Isaiah Oliver is slated to return punts for the Buffs.