Throughout the night on Thursday, the Colorado offense struggled to find the points it needed to pull away from UCLA.
As far the CU defense was concerned, however, there were enough points on the board to get the job done.
Sure enough, the CU defense stepped up once again, shutting out UCLA in the second half en route to a 20-10 victory.
It was the latest great performance for a defense that has made a habit of them this season.
“The defense is playing really hard, playing really well,” CU head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “They get after it.”
Do they ever. The 21st-ranked Buffs (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) are leading the Pac-12 South division in large part because of their stellar defense.
The Buffs have managed to score just 30 points in the last two games combined, but have won both because the defense has been relentless.
“As a whole unit they are doing really well and just carrying the team right now,” quarterback Sefo Liufau said.
During CU’s current three-game winning streak, the defense has given up just 9.7 points and 222.0 yards per game.
In CU’s first five seasons in the Pac-12, from 2011-15, it held just one conference opponent below 300 yards (Utah had 274 yards in the 2011 finale). This season, the Buffs have held four conference foes below 300 yards, including the last three.
In fact, the Buffs have held their last three conference opponents below 270 yards, the first time they’ve done that since 1987.
UCLA managed just 210 yards and 10 points against the Buffs.
“That’s what we try to come out here and do every single time we step on the field,” cornerback Isaiah Oliver said.
It’s been a remarkable change in a short time for the Buffaloes.
Just two seasons ago, CU yielded a whopping 39 points and 461 yards per game. This season, they rank 11th in the country in scoring defense (17.2 points per game) and seventh in total defense (296.9 yards per game).
Coordinator Jim Leavitt has been the architect of the turnaround. After he arrived in Boulder in 2015, the attitude of the whole defense changed.
Leavitt hasn’t done it alone, however. CU’s entire defensive coaching staff is loaded with talent, as Jim Jeffcoat (defensive line), Charles Clark (cornerbacks) and Joe Tumpkin (safeties) have worked wonders with the Buffs.
Of course, talented players are the real key.
Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is the star of the defense, but corner Ahkello Witherspoon, safety Tedric Thompson, linebackers Rick Gamboa, Jimmie Gilbert, Addison Gillam and Kenneth Olugbode and defensive linemen Josh Tupou, Jordan Carrell and Samson Kafovalu have all been exceptional.
Running back Phillip Lindsay, who is a team captain, has marveled at how the defense has played.
“There’s a lot of NFL prospects on that defense and they have confidence,” he said. “It’s always good when your defense has confidence. Defense wins championships. When we go out there, we look pretty when we score points, but if we don’t have them, then we don’t have a team.”
This past week, as the Buffs prepared to face UCLA, they knew the Bruins were struggling to run the ball. Olugbode was asked if he felt confident if the Bruins had to throw the ball a lot.
“We go into every game feeling confident no matter what they’re going to do,” he said. “Regardless, we just go out there and everyone tries to do their job. “
So far, that’s what they’ve done. The defense hasn’t been bothered by adversity, such as losing standout Derek McCartney to a season-ending knee injury in Week 3. The Buffs also haven’t buckled under less-than-ideal conditions on game day.
As the Buffs head into the final three games of the regular season, they know they’ve finally got a defense that could lead them to a championship.
“Our defensive staff has done a phenomenal job,” MacIntyre said. “Our guys keep playing hard and working at it and keep finding ways to make plays.”