Obviously, the Colorado offense has been in a rut of late.
Now former head coach Mike MacIntyre described it as “inept” after last weeks’ 30-7 loss to Utah.
A big reason for CU’s struggles has been their inability to get anything going in early downs, and that will be a focus when the Buffs (5-6, 2-6 Pac-12) visit California (6-4, 3-4) on Saturday.
“The key to (putting up more points) is going to be shortening first and second down,” quarterback Steven Montez said. “It’s tough to get third and longs, especially third and 10, third and 12. If we shorten the down and distance on first and second down, and get more positive plays going toward the first down markers, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
During their 5-0 start to the season, the Buffs averaged 6.5 yards on first downs and 6.3 yards on second downs. Because of that, they faced third and five (or less) 45.8 percent of the time. With shorter distance to the first-down mark, CU converted 43.1 percent of the time averaging 7.2 yards on third downs.
In the last six games, all losses, the Buffs have averaged 4.4 yards on first down and 5.0 yards on second down. That has led to third and five or less just 30.4 percent of the time. Not surprisingly, the Buffs have a 28.3 percent conversion rate in those games, averaging only 4.6 yards on third down.
Gaining more yards on first and second downs is, in large part, on the offensive line. That group will aim to open more holes in the run game and, of course, hope to keep Montez upright.
“Our objective is to keep (Montez) healthy,” junior lineman Aaron Haigler said. “He’s hurt a little bit right now, so that objective is a little bit heightened. We’re doing everything we can to figure out a way to make a clean pocket for him and make it where it’s something where he can step up in and feel comfortable and not feel like he has to run out of there.”
Moving the chains and having some sustained drives will certainly give CU a chance to end its losing streak.
Run game key for CU defense
Cal has played great defense most of the season, and especially of late. The Bears, however, haven’t done much on offense.
Cal is last in the Pac-12 in scoring (22.7 points per game), and the Bears have scored just 40 points in the last three games combined. In their six games, they had 49 against Oregon State, but just 64 in the other five games combined.
CU, of course, doesn’t want this to be the day the Bears get rolling on offense. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said the key will be stopping the Cal run game.
“When you play an offense like that, they’re trying to keep the game low scoring,” Eliot said. “Controlling the clock and keep it low scoring. You’ve got to be able to stop the run, you’ve got to be able to stop the (run-pass options).”
Eliot said Cal is capable of big plays, but that’s not his major concern. “They can get a lot of average plays. They can get 4, 5, 6 yards and keep drives alive and eat up a lot of clock.”
Cal is sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing, with 169.5 yards per game and they are tied for last with 12 rushing touchdowns. But, they are tied for fourth with 4.4 yards per carry.
The run game has essentially been Patrick Laird (771 yards) and the quarterbacks. Backup Brandon McIlwain is second on the team in rushing (402 yards) and starter Chase Garbers is third (307). Outside of Laird, no other running back has more than 90 yards for Cal.
McIlwain actually leads the team with two 100-yard games, but both of those came early in the year. He has just 43 yards in the last five games combined, as Garbers has been the primary option at quarterback.
Milestones in reach for Shenault
Despite missing three full games (and part of another) with a toe injury, Laviska Shenault is putting together one of the best statistical seasons by a receiver in CU history.
Coming into today, he has 79 catches (fourth in CU history for a single season) for 946 yards (10th).
Shenault is certainly capable of adding 11 catches against the Bears (he has three games with at least 11 this season), and if he does, he’ll join Nelson Spruce as the only receivers in CU history with 90-plus catches for a season. Spruce had 106 in 2014.
With 154 yards (a number he’s hit twice), Shenault would hit 1,100 – something that’s been done only four times in CU history.
Shenault could also tie the single-season record for 100-yard games; he currently has five and the record six (Charles E. Johnson twice and Paul Richarson).
In the Pac-12, Shenault already leads the conference in total catches this season and he’s third in yards. For total receiving yards, he’s 168 behind Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell (who doesn’t have any games left) and 87 behind Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry (who plays vs. Arizona today).
Shenault could also tie Mitchell for the most 100-yard games in the conference; Mitchell had six this year.
- Cal backup quarterback Brandon McIlwain played at South Carolina as a true freshman in 2016. His position coach was Kurt Roper – now the QB coach and interim head coach at Colorado. McIlwain threw for 600 yards and ran for 127 at South Carolina.
- CU had just eight turnovers in the first nine games, but the Buffs have had six in the last two games (three each against Washington State and Utah).
- During the last five games, CU has been outscored by a stunning margin of 114-20 in the second half. That including a 68-3 margin in the fourth quarter (and overtime).
- Ronnie Blackmon comes into today with 267 punt return yards on the season, the most by any Buff in 10 years. He could become just the fourth CU player in the last 25 yards to hit the 300 mark. The last to do it was Chase McBride (316) in 2007.
- According to CU’s statistics, 24 of Steven Montez’s passes have been dropped by his receivers this year – 16 of those coming in the last four games.
Contact staff writer Brian Howell at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.