Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
All of Buff Nation is waiting for the return of No. 2 to the Colorado offense, and with good reason.
Laviska Shenault was the nation’s leading receiver when he injured his toe nearly a month ago at Southern California, and the Buffs (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) have struggled without him.
The loss of No. 6 has been just as damaging, however, and maybe more so.
Senior safety Evan Worthington has missed the last game and a half with a concussion after a helmet-to-helmet hit with teammate Kyle Trego near the end of the first half Oct. 27 against Oregon State.
Since then, the Colorado defense has completely fallen apart.
“A guy that’s a pro football player, you’re going to miss him,” head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “That’s just the bottom line, but hopefully he’ll be back this week. We’ll see. Every pro scout that comes in here, all they do is ask me about him. He’s a pro football player.”
CU is hoping Worthington will return Saturday when it hosts No. 10 Washington State (8-1, 5-1) at Folsom Field.
While Worthington hasn’t had a dynamic season, he’s still one of the top playmakers on the defense, with 43 tackles, an interception and tying for the team lead with six pass breakups.
Worthington’s experience (he had started 19 consecutive games before last week) and presence on the field helped CU put together a solid first half of the season on defense.
CU has had multiple injuries in the secondary, including losing Chris Miller for the season, and playing without Delrick Abrams Jr. at Washington on Oct. 20. Abrams was also not up to speed when the Buffs played Oregon State.
Still, the statistical difference since Worthington’s injury is staggering — and the drop-off was immediate.
Going into the Oregon State game, the Buffs ranked 31st nationally in pass efficiency defense. Worthington played essentially the entire first half against the Beavers, who scored just three points and couldn’t move the ball through the air.
During Worthington’s seven and a half games, opposing quarterbacks had completed 52.6 percent of their passes, with nine touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 112.69 rating.
Oregon State changed quarterbacks for the second half on Oct. 27, and Jake Luton carved up the CU secondary while Worthington stood on the sidelines.
In six quarters since Worthington went out, quarterbacks have completed 72.6 percent of passes for eight touchdowns, one interception and a stunning 201.35 rating. CU has dropped all the way to 65th nationally in pass efficiency defense in just two weeks.
Coincidence? Maybe. But, there’s no denying the Buffs have missed the senior.
“Evan’s made a lot of plays for us and he’s a great playmaker on deep balls with his length and his instincts and his leadership,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “Not having him out there, we’re definitely not as good, but we still have guys that can make plays. They just have to start making them.”
Sophomore Derrion Rakestraw started in Worthington’s place during Friday’s 42-34 loss at Arizona and played well. He picked off a pass and nearly had another.
Rakestraw doesn’t have Worthington’s experience and instincts, though — at least, not yet. Worthington not only makes plays against the run, but provides great support in the back of the defense for the corners — who have struggled of late.
“It’s impacted a lot,” linebacker Drew Lewis said of losing Worthington. “Any time you see a starter go down, especially one of his caliber, I think that has a detrimental effect on the team. When you put a new guy in there, there’s that lack of chemistry initially and then any type of communication problems that could occur that you just aren’t on the same page.”
Over time, Lewis said, that chemistry and communication could develop, but there’s no question the Buffs would love to get Worthington back on the field Saturday.
Worthington’s return may not completely fix the Buffs’ defense, but it would certainly help.