Early in the season, the Colorado offense made it look easy.
Every time the Buffaloes took the field, they were a threat to score a touchdown, and often did.
During the past couple of weeks, however, touchdowns — and points of any kind — have been tough to come by for the Buffs.
“It comes down to execution,” running back Phillip Lindsay said. “We’re just not being smooth with it right now. We have to get back to the same swag, the same confidence, and we have to move the ball.”
The good news for the Buffs (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) — ranked No. 21 by the Associated Press, No. 20 in the USA Today Coaches poll and No. 15 in the College Football Playoff rankings — is that their defense has picked up the slack. Despite mustering just 23 offensive points in the last two games combined, the Buffs won both games, 10-5 against Stanford on Oct. 22 and 20-10 against UCLA on Thursday.
“It’s great for the team,” quarterback Sefo Liufau said of the performance of the defense and special teams in recent games, “but I think if the offense can get firing on all cylinders we can make it a lot easier on ourselves.”
Life was easier early this season, as CU’s explosive offense turned heads all over the country. The Buffs scored 41-plus points in four of their first five games and the only time they didn’t, they put 28 on the board against Michigan – still the most points allowed by the Wolverines, who have the nation’s No. 1 defense.
Liufau and backup Steven Montez were both sensational, while receivers Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross put up huge numbers and made big plays routine.
In recent games, however, the Buffs have lost their explosion and have had to rely on their defense to bail them out.
“We were playing so well early on, the bar got set very, very high,” co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini said. “We just have to get back to doing some of those things.
“That’s college football. When you get into the meat of your conference schedule, the Pac-12 games, and teams are a little bit better, sometimes they’re going to give you some problems and things happen a little bit quicker. It’s nothing that we can’t fix. If you’re around this game long enough, you’re not always going to play your best.”
The quality of competition has played a role in CU’s struggles, as Stanford and UCLA are both good defensively and have had answers for CU’s offense.
“There are different schemes that they’re doing at right times that are messing us up at times,” Lindsay said.
After the offense was held to a season-low 304 yards on Thursday, though, Liufau took the blame. He had his roughest outing of the season, throwing his first two interceptions and losing a fumble.
“It definitely starts with me,” the senior said.
Chiaverini, however, said the struggles go beyond Liufau.
“Sefo is critical of himself because he’s the quarterback, but it’s not one guy,” Chiaverini said. “We’re all in this together.
“Offense is such an execution-based thing, where you have to be on time – balls come out on time, the receivers have to be at the proper depth. If you’re off just a little bit, it throws timing off and right now our timing is off just a little bit.”
More than anything, the Buffs’ lack of execution, especially in the red zone, has led to the reduced production.
Twice against UCLA, the Buffs got to the 1-yard line and failed to score touchdowns. On one of those chances, they fumbled a handoff on third down, and on another they got flagged for a personal foul that moved them back 15 yards.
The Buffs have scored touchdowns on just two of eight trips to the red zone the past two weeks. They scored touchdowns on 68 percent of their red zone trips the first seven games.
“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot in the red area the last couple of weeks,” Chiaverini said. “If you get a couple of those it doesn’t look as bad.
“We’ve been moving the ball and getting a lot of first downs and staying on the field. Now you have to finish drives.”
In the thick of the Pac-12 title race, the Buffs know they need to get back on track. Playing Arizona (2-7, 0-6) on Saturday might help. The Wildcats have yielded at least 34 points in each Pac-12 loss and got crushed, 69-7, by Washington State on Saturday.
Regardless of the opponent, however, the Buffs are hoping to find their rhythm soon.
“When you’re struggling, you have to find ways to execute and get better, and we will,” Chiaverini said. “I’m not going to hit the panic button because we had a couple rough outings.”