Throughout his career of mentoring defensive backs, Colorado head football coach Mike MacIntyre has preached the importance of finishing the play.
“You have to be able to do it under pressure,” he said this week. “It’s kind of like finishing a layup under pressure or making a 3-pointer under pressure. It’s that type of situation.
“(This season), we’ve seen glimpses of it where they’ve done well and we’ve seen others where they haven’t. It’s just been a little bit of hit and miss. Hopefully we hit more this week than we miss.”
CU’s cornerbacks have had a rough couple of games – really, game and a half – giving up 660 yards and eight touchdown passes in the last six quarters.
As the Buffs (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) prepare to host No. 10 Washington State (8-1, 5-1) on Saturday, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said it all comes down to the corners finishing those plays.
“If they’re running past you or if they’re busting coverages, where a guy is wide open, then you’re really worried,” Eliot said. “(In the past two games), there was always a body on a body; there was always a guy there. There’s a guy that’s in tight coverage and we just have to finish the play and make it.”
On Nov. 2, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate threw five touchdown passes, often throwing deep passes that fell into improbable spots for big gains.
“Credit to Arizona; they threw some really good balls and made some really good catches in that game, too,” Eliot said. “It was all tight coverage; (Arizona) made great plays and we didn’t make them. We’ve got to start making the plays on those deep balls.”
That will be extremely important Saturday against Washington State, which leads the country in passing yards (397.4 per game).
“I think it’s the last piece,” Eliot said of cornerbacks learning how to finish a play. “I don’t know if it’s the toughest (part to learn), but it’s definitely the last piece to being a great DB. Isaiah (Oliver, who is now with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons) was tremendous at it and we’ve had some other DBs that are really good at it and we just have to keep working with these guys.”
Washington State will do most of its damage with shorter passes. The Cougars lead the country with 146 passing plays of 10-plus yards, in large part because they throw it so much more than other teams. Only 38 of those 146 passes have gone for 20-plus yards, though, and the Cougars are tied for 82nd nationally in 40-yard passing plays (five). CU, by comparison, has 10 passing plays of 40-plus yards.
Big play potential
MacIntyre talked this week about the small, but active, defensive front of the Cougars. It’s a group that has helped produce 60 tackles for loss (the same number CU has produced).
MacIntyre said the Buffs have to expect some negative plays, while taking advantage of opportunities. WSU’s movement up front can, at times, lead to big holes. The Cougars have given up 14 running plays of 20-plus yards (tied for 81st nationally).
“They’re an attacking style defense,” MacIntyre said. “They’re small up front, so they stunt and move a lot. They’ll have some plays they’ll get you in the backfield. I always look when they do that as feast or famine. Hopefully we’ll be able to bust a couple, but you can’t get down on yourself if they get some negative pays. You just can’t have too many of them.”
Running back Travon McMillian is hopeful that he and the Buffs can take advantage of their opportunities.
“With movement and stuff they do, you can gash them off the running game and that can be a benefit for us,” he said.
For that to happen, though, the Buffs’ offensive line, which has had a roller-coaster season, has to play well.
Quarterback Steven Montez said Washington State’s movement and talking up front will be a challenge for the CU linemen.
“A lot of those times when they’re moving and stemming, they’re yelling things,” Montez said. “It’s tough to sit there and hold your water when they’re yelling that stuff in your face. It’s going to be a challenge for our guys, but we have some guys that have played a lot of football and I think they’re up for the challenge.”
A few notables going into Saturday’s game:
- A strength of the CU defense this season has been the play of the inside linebackers, but linebackers coach Ross Els said this week, “It’s not good enough. Not even close. When you lose four games in a row, it’s a whole defensive effort. If you give up a deep ball, is it because of coverage? Is it because of lack of pass rush? Is it because we are, as linebackers, not in the right spot? You can’t put that on the secondary. We’re not playing very well.”
- Washington State has been pretty solid on third-down defense this year, allowing conversions just 34.4 percent of the time. A year ago, in Pullman, Wash., CU was 1-for-17 on third downs against the Cougars.
- If Laviska Shenault returns to the CU lineup, he’ll have a chance to continue his climb up the charts. His 60 catches rank 10th for a single season in CU history and he need just seven to move up to 7th. His 780 yards rank 13th, and he’s just 120 yards away from the 10th 900-yard season in program history.
- Shenault is just 52 receiving yards away from reaching 1,000 for his career.
- In its history, CU is 25-93-3 against Top-10 teams. They are 0-6 against top-10 teams under MacIntyre.
- Montez ranks fifth in CU history with 6,388 career passing yards. He needs 94 yards to pass Kordell Stewart – inducted into the CU Athletics Hall of Fame on Thursday – for fourth.
- Montez is also fifth in CU history in total offense (7,159), but needs just 92 yards to pass both Joel Klatt and Cody Hawkins for third.
- Two CU offensive linemen – Tim Lynott (22 years old) and Joshua Jynes (18) – will celebrate birthdays on Saturday.
Contact staff writer Brian Howell at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.