It may take at least a year or two for the Colorado football team to establish the type of run game that head coach Mel Tucker would like to see from his offense.
During the past few weeks, however, the Buffs have shown signs of getting there.
In back-to-back wins over Stanford and Washington, the Buffs racked up 379 rushing yards on 82 carries, an average of 189.5 yards per game and 4.6 per carry. The ability to run the ball in the fourth quarter has been vital to the Buffs (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) chewing up the clock and securing wins.
“It is important to be able to run the ball on your terms, when you want to run it and when you need to run,” Tucker said after the Buffs’ 20-14 win against Washington last Saturday, when his team ran for 207 yards on 41 carries, including five straight runs to finish the game.
CU’s run game will get its toughest test, by far, of the season when they visit No. 6 Utah (10-1, 7-1) on Saturday (5:44 p.m., TV: ABC).
Utah’s run defense has been historically good this season. The Utes lead the country, allowing just 55.9 rushing yards per game. No team in the Football Bowl Subdivision has allowed fewer than 63 yards per game since TCU in 2008 (47.1).
Opponents are gaining 2.29 yards per carry against the Utes, the country’s lowest number since Alabama gave up just 2.01 per carry in 2016.
“It’s where it all starts for us on defense is taking away the run, or stopping the run,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said this week in his press conference with local media. “We’ve got a team (in Colorado) that does a pretty good job of running the ball this week; a tailback (Alex Fontenot) that’s been pretty productive. That’s got to be our M.O. That doesn’t change week to week.”
Arizona State is the only team to reach 100 rushing yards against Utah (gaining 111 on 33 carries). Nine of Utah’s 11 opponents have finished with 67 yards or less. Only four rushing touchdowns have been scored against the Utes, including one in the past eight games.
Defensive tackle Leki Fotu and defensive end Bradlee Anae are two of the best defensive players in the conference, while linebacker Francis Bernard leads the Utes in tackles. Six different Utes have at least six tackles for loss this season.
“I think a lot of teams have struggled with their front four,” CU quarterback Steven Montez said. “They’ve got some experienced guys up there, very talented guys. But I think we’re talented too, so I don’t see why we can’t go execute and play fundamentally sound football and do some good things on offense.”
The Buffs will need a big game from Fontenot, who rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown against Washington and ranks sixth in the Pac-12 with 82.5 yards per game.
Freshman Jaren Mangham, who has 441 yards on the season, is capable of running tough, as well.
CU may also need some rushing success by Montez. He’s been running more lately, with 139 yards in the last four games. He had 35 yards in the first seven games.
“I love running the football and I’ve always said that,” Montez said. “I think it’s really fun to get out there and run the rock and you take some hits, but hey, that’s football. Everybody’s taking hits in football, so I enjoy it. I like trying to make people miss. You wouldn’t think at 6-5, 235 that I could shake the linebackers and some of the DBs sometimes but I think they get surprised a little bit; I kind of fool them into thinking that I’m not an athlete.”
Matching the Utes
CU hasn’t had nearly the same success against the run, as the Buffs rank eighth in the Pac-12, allowing 148.7 rush yards per game. Last week, however, the Buffs held Washington to 32 yards on 32 carries and they’re gaining confidence in the run defense.
“Props to (defensive line coach) Jimmy Brumbaugh for teaching us technique on every play of what we need to do and how to strike blocks and how to read offenses,” nose tackle Jalen Sami said. “We’re all stepping up and improving our game that much better.”
This week, the Buffs will try to stop Utah’s Zack Moss, who lead the Pac-12 with 115.8 rushing yards per game. That’s a significant challenge, but Sami said it is motivating to try to match what the Utah defensive line has done.
“That definitely adds fuel to the fire to our D-linemen, because we’re a pretty solid D-line,” he said. “We play hard, we love each other, we play for each other. Just hearing that Utah’s defense is physical, we like to like step up to the plate and just play the same thing and just hard knocks – hit, hit – in the trenches.”
Praise for Shenault
Add Whittingham to the list of opposing coaches who have raved about Buffs receiver Laviska Shenault, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior who has been regarded as a possible first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
“He’s tremendous after the catch; he’s a great runner,” Whittingham said. “Some receivers after they catch the ball, there’s not much there and they get a few yards here and there, but he is explosive after the catch and really like a running back. After a reception, he turns into a running back and he could probably play running back. That’s how talented he is. If that’s where he wanted to be and what he wanted to focus on, he’s got the size and the talent to do that.”
The last Pac-12 team to lead the country in run defense was Oregon State in 2007 (70.6 per game). … Utah ranks second nationally in time of possession (35:03) per game and the Utes have held nine of 11 opponents to fewer than 65 offensive snaps. CU, meanwhile, has had at least 65 plays in 10 of 11 games. … Montez needs 19 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for his career, while Fontenot needs 132. … Last year in Boulder, CU ran for 34 yards on 34 carries against the Utes.