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Better surge up front has powered solid start for CU Buffs defense

  • BOULDER, CO: University of Colorado's Drew Lewis sacks UCLA's Dorian...

    Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer

    BOULDER, CO: University of Colorado's Drew Lewis sacks UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson. (Photo by Cliff Grassmick/Digital First Media Group/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images)

  • Colorado defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson has been supplying pressure off...

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson has been supplying pressure off the edge this season.



No. 21 CU vs. Arizona State

When: 2 p.m., Saturday

Where: Folsom Field

Line: Colorado -3

TV / radio: Pac-12 Network / 760 AM

Much like head coach Mike MacIntyre, who recently lamented a few opportunities the Colorado secondary has suffered in terms of grabbing interceptions, defensive coordinator DJ Eliot likewise is quick to recount some opportunities up front the Buffaloes have missed in corralling opposing quarterbacks.

Those regrets, both valid, underscore how far the Colorado defense has come through four games. The Buffs are getting in the right spots and, for the most part, making plays. A year after the Buffs generally struggled on defense, a resurgence has been buoyed by an improved pass rush up front. Unlike last year, when the Buffs’ struggles at stopping the run and generating a pass rush allowed opposing quarterbacks to get comfortable, the Buffs have been getting in the face of opposing passers far more frequently.

It’s an early trait the No. 21-ranked Buffs hope to continue Saturday in their biggest challenge of the season, as Herman Edwards and the Arizona State Sun Devils visit Folsom Field (2 p.m., Pac-12 Network).

“I’m pleased. We’ve missed some opportunities,” Eliot said. “We had some missed sacks in that last game (against UCLA). I wish we could’ve finished the play, but we got there. So I’m pleased with where we are. We just have to continue to get better because we’re going to have bigger challenges ahead, for sure.”

While sacks aren’t necessarily indicative of a defense’s overall effectiveness, the Buffs nonetheless struggled in that department in 2017, registering just 22 in feast-or-famine fashion. Nearly half of that total was compiled in two games (six against Texas State, four against Cal), and in six of nine Pac-12 games CU didn’t record more than one. In two of those six games (Arizona and Oregon State) the Buffs didn’t record a single sack.

Through the Buffs’ 4-0 start, the defense has set a pace that should easily topple last year’s totals of 22 sacks and 54 quarterback hurries. CU has recorded at least two sacks in every game and heads into the ASU showdown with 13 sacks and 34 quarterback hurries. Perhaps more encouraging than the overall numbers is how the Buffs have dialed up pressure from a number of angles. That checklist includes improved play by holdovers on the interior of the defense (Javier Edwards, Jase Franke) to veterans up to old tricks at new positions (Drew Lewis) to newcomers like Davion Taylor and Mustafa Johnson supplying pressure off the edge.

“I think it’s more consistent because I think it starts up front with our defensive front,” Lewis said. “Those guys are getting more experience and they’re getting more comfortable playing in there. We’re seeing that on game days. Then you add the outside linebackers and the inside linebackers. I’m trying to get into the scheme more and we’re still working on different schemes where we have guys looping in and guys working different combo games up front. We’re working on all that kind of stuff to try and get to the quarterback.”

The Buffs understand their one game-at-a-time approach will be put to a test as the schedule takes a more demanding turn. Given CU picked up 10 of those 22 sacks in 2017 during a 3-0 run through an underwhelming nonconference slate, it’s easy to wonder how well the Buffs’ defense will keep pace through the Pac-12 schedule.

One key difference, notes Eliot, is the leadership of this year’s squad.

“I think we have the players in the right spots,” Eliot said. “We have a lot of speed off the edge now with Davion and Drew. Some of the other guys have done a good job over there too. I think we have the right mindset and great leaders, and that’s the key. We have great senior leadership with guys like Rick Gamboa and Nick Fisher. Javier Edwards. Those guys have done an excellent job of keeping the team together and building the culture that we need to be successful.”

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