Throughout Colorado’s current four-game losing streak, head football coach Mel Tucker has often had to focus on the positives in keeping his team going.
One of those positives has been the progress of the Buffaloes’ run game. CU’s total rushing yards have increased each of the last six games. Picking up 196 yards on the ground last week helped to keep the Buffs (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) in the game before a 35-31 loss to Southern California.
“The past several weeks, we’ve been able to run the ball,” Tucker said. “Offensive line does a great job, our backs run really hard. They’re very well coached and show a level of toughness.”
The tailback tandem of Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham has been very good this season for the Buffs, who visit UCLA on Saturday night (7:10 p.m., TV: Pac-12 Networks).
Fontenot ranks eighth in the Pac-12 with 78.1 yards per game and he’s got a chance to give CU its fourth consecutive 1,000-yard rusher. Mangham needs just 81 yards to become only the ninth freshman in CU history with at least 400 yards.
“I’m really pleased with those guys,” running backs coach Darian Hagan said. “Alex had carried the ball 11 times in his career prior to this year and Mangham was coming right from high school where he was the guy; now he’s splitting duties. I’m happy with their progress and their knowledge of the game.”
What the Buffs are lacking from the running back position, however, is big plays and touchdowns.
The longest run of the year for the Buffs was a 32-yarder by Fontenot on the third play of the season, against Colorado State. He’s had six total runs of 20-plus yards, but only one that resulted in a touchdown (a 22-yarder, also against CSU). Mangham’s longest run went for 19 yards.
“We’ve had a number of those where we could have taken them to the house or taken long runs and either we’ve fallen because we were all out of whack, because we’re trying to burst through the line of scrimmage and we’re leaning too much, or someone who just gets us by our foot by not picking your feet up,” Hagan said. “It’s just things like that, little technique things we can fix that need to become second nature.”
That comes with more experience, so Hagan is not worried about the lack of big plays at this time.
“Those things will come, but right now we’re just concentrating on moving the chains,” he said.
Fontenot and Mangham have done that – combining for 47 rushing first downs – but haven’t reached the end zone much. Between them they have seven touchdowns, with six in the first two games. The last touchdown by a CU running back was Fontenot’s 1-yarder to cap the opening drive at Arizona State on Sept. 21.
Receivers Tony Brown and Laviska Shenault and quarterback Steven Montez have had CU’s most recent rushing touchdowns. That trio has converted a combined six red zone runs into 50 yards and three touchdowns the past four games. During that same time, the Buffs running backs have combined for 18 red zone carries for 37 yards.
Like the long runs, Hagan believes the touchdowns will come.
“When our number is called, we’ve got to produce and just got to keep on pounding and all of that stuff will break through,” he said. “You never know when you can go from not having touchdowns in four or five games and all of a sudden you may go in and get three touchdowns when you’re not expecting it. So we just keep on going, keep on playing.”
Despite the scores and long runs not being there, the Buffs are getting good production out of a young group that also includes freshmen Deion Smith and Joe Davis.
“I’m happy with all those guys,” Hagan said. “It’s just hard with the running back position where it’s three, four guys and there’s one football. So it’s kind of hard, but they’re all team-oriented guys; they’re unselfish. When your number is called, be ready to show up.”
Among the skill position players, Fontenot leads the Buffs with 35 first downs earned (29 rushing, six receiving). … CU is tied with California for last in the Pac-12 with only one run of 30-plus yards. Last year, the Buffs tied for second, with nine. … CU kicker James Stefanou ranks sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring, at 7.6 points per game. He’s third among kickers. … Linebacker Nate Landman is second in the conference with 10.1 tackles per game. He’s one of only 14 players nationally averaging at least 10. Those statistics are based on press box numbers. CU’s official stats, based off coaches’ film, has Landman at 11.7 tackles per game. … CU’s captain for this week: receiver KD Nixon, star Davion Taylor and punter Alex Kinney.