CU Buffs, Oregon bringing more physicality to Pac-12

Defense becoming a main focus for Buffs and Ducks

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado’s Carson Wells and the Buffs are trying to play a more physical type of football under Mel Tucker.

College football in the West has been known for its offense for years.

The Pac-12 Conference, in particular, has produced countless elite quarterbacks and receivers for decades, going back to the days of the Pac-10 – before Colorado and Utah joined the group in 2011.

Recently, the Pac-12 has started to shift its focus.

Last year, the two teams in the conference title game – Utah and Washington – featured hard-nosed running games and dominating defense. Stanford has been an annual contender with the same formula. Under third-year head coach Justin Wilcox, California has changed its program with a complete flip in focus from offense to defense, and second-year head coach Herm Edwards is building Arizona State with that basic model.

On Friday night at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., two more teams trying to establish that identity will square off when Colorado (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) visits No. 13 Oregon (4-1, 2-0).

It wasn’t long ago that Oregon became a national power because of its innovate, fast-faced offense, but second-year head coach Mario Cristobal now has the Ducks leading the conference in defense.

Oregon’s path to success this season is one that CU’s first-year head coach, Mel Tucker, would like to follow.

“I like Oregon; I like the way they play football,” Tucker said this week. “They’re very sound on offense, they have a good offensive line, they’re strong, they like to run the ball. … Defensively, they play very, very fast and they’re physical, they’re strong up front, and they have pass rushers. And so I like the way their team is built.”

Given the backgrounds of Cristobal and Tucker, it’s no surprise they are trying to build their teams on a foundation of toughness, and it was no surprise they had positive things to say about each other this week.

In 2015, Cristobal and Tucker both worked at Alabama under head coach Nick Saban, who has built one of the great powerhouse programs in college football history.

Cristobal, 49, won two national titles as a player at Miami, where he was an all-conference offensive tackle. He then spent six seasons as an assistant at Miami, which has traditionally had one of the most physical teams in the South. Cristobal coached Alabama’s offensive line – annually one of the best in the country – for four years, from 2013-16 before coming to Oregon.

This year, Cristobal’s Ducks feature one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Justin Herbert, but they are winning with a defense that is suffocating the opposition and an offensive line that ranks among the best in the country.

Embed from Getty Images

“I really like watching Mario coach,” Tucker said. “He’s very, very intense. He’s a physically imposing guy, he has a passion for the game. Obviously he’s a very accomplished offensive line coach, and anyone will tell you that, but he’s got great leadership ability. His guys always play hard for him and then you can see that on the tape now.”

Like Cristobal, Tucker, 47, has been around physical football most of his career. He played at Wisconsin, has worked for Saban at three different places, won a national title at Ohio State in 2002 and at Alabama in 2015. He spent a decade coaching defense in the NFL and the previous three years as the defensive coordinator at Georgia – yet another program built on running the ball and playing defense.

While Cristobal is further along in his process at Oregon, he can see the foundation being laid by Tucker at CU.

“When you watch his team play, you see his personality,” Cristobal said during a press conference with Ducks media this week. “He’s an extremely smart guy that has always had his units play with a lot of toughness and physicality.

“There’s absolutely no flinching by that team. You see his image, his DNA in the way his team is playing.”

When Tucker takes his Buffs into Eugene on Friday night, he’ll see an up close example of what he’d like CU to become.

“That’s what I like, yep,” he said. “Be able to run the ball and, you know, big, strong physical offensive line and skill guys, and, obviously, the quarterback’s got to make it go. Defensively our goal is to be able to stop the run and take the ball away and be hard to score on, and that’s how they play.”

CU, which is 11th in the conference in scoring defense, may not be there yet, but because Cristobal knows Tucker’s vision, he’s not taking Friday’s game lightly.

“I know Mel Tucker really well,” Cristobal said. “It’s a tough football team that’s really 10 points away from being undefeated and having a ranking in the top 25 somewhere. We’re fully aware of what they bring to the table. Tremendous amount of respect for them and that’s why we have to continue to be at our very best come Friday.”

Game at a Glance

Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) at No. 13 Oregon Ducks (4-1, 2-0)

Kickoff: 8:05 p.m. MT

Where: Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. Capacity: 54,000. Playing surface: FieldTurf.

TV: FS-1

Radio: KOA (760 AM & 94.1 FM)

Odds: Oregon by 21

Series: Oregon leads 12-9, including 5-1 in Pac-12 play