CU Buffs vs. Utah Utes scouting report

Buffs take aim at No. 6 Utah

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Davion Taylor has 61 tackles this season.

Buffaloes scouting report

Head coach: Mel Tucker, 1st season (5-6)

Record: 5-6, 3-5 Pac-12

Last week: Defeated Washington, 20-14, at home

Key players on offense

  • RB Alex Fontenot, So., 6-0, 195: 172 att., 825 yards, 5 TD; 24 catches, 120 yards
  • QB Steven Montez, Sr., 6-5, 230: 238-of-379, 2,651 yards, 15 TD, 10 INT
  • WR Laviska Shenault, Jr., 6-2, 220: 52 catches, 721 yards, 4 TD; rush: 18 att., 136 yards, 2 TD

Key players on defense

  • ILB Nate Landman, Jr., 6-3, 230: 127 tackles, 7 TFL, 15 third-down stops
  • DE Terrance Lang, So., 6-7, 280: 37 tackles, 5 sacks, 12 QB pressures
  • STAR Davion Taylor, Sr., 6-2, 225: 61 tackles, 8 TFL, 1 sack, 7 pass breakups, 12 third-down stops
Colorado’s Steven Montez makes a move against Washington’s defense  on Nov. 23.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

CU offense: During conference play, California is the only Pac-12 team to score fewer points than the Buffs, who are averaging just 19.8 per game. Over the last six games, that average has dropped to 15.7. Coming into the season, the Buffs were expected to have a high-powered attack, but in the past few weeks, they’ve evolved into a grind-it-out ball control type of offense. The Buffs won their last two games with long, efficient drives, leaning on the run game more than earlier in the year (49.7 percent runs the first seven games; 58.6 percent the last two). QB Steven Montez has been efficient in directing the offense the last two games.

CU defense: This group has played its best ball the last two games by getting pressure on the quarterback and limiting the run game. CU ranks eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (148.7 yards per game), but has allowed just 79.5 yards per game and 2.8 yards per rush in the last two outings. Coordinator Tyson Summers has also dialed up more pressure and been creative in bringing pressure from different positions. The Buffs have generated seven sacks the last two games, compared to seven in the previous seven.

CU special teams: Punter Alex Kinney is coming off a game in which he was named Pac-12 special teams player of the week, and he’s been one of the conference’s best punters all season. In the Pac-12, Kinney is tied for third in average (44.4) and tied for first in placing 21 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Since filling in for the injured James Stefanou, place kicker Evan Price has been perfect, going 5-for-5 on field goals and 4-for-4 on extra points.

CU keys to beating Utah                             

Brave the elements: There could be snow in the forecast and the Buffs haven’t handled bad weather very well. Since the start of 2017 they’ve played three rain or snow games, going 0-3 and being outscored 99-17.

Run the ball: Utah has the best run defense in the country, but the Buffs have a solid run game. The offensive line has to play well, the running backs have to run with power and QB Steven Montez needs to make good checks at the line to get them into good plays.

Stop the run: Utah also has the best run offense in the conference and Zack Moss is the best RB in the Pac-12. The Buffs have to find a way to limit his effectiveness.

Play loose and have fun: Yes, the Buffs have a bowl game on the line, so there’s pressure there, but the vast majority of pressure is on the Utes. Have fun and play like there’s nothing to lose and the Buffs could actually find themselves in position to win.

Buffs notables

  • With a win, the Buffs will become bowl eligible for just the second time in the last 12 seasons (also 2016). During that stretch, the Buffs have come into the finale with a 5-6 record four other times (2008, 2010, 2017 and 2018) and lost each time, all on the road.
  • Steven Montez comes into this game needing 77 passing yards to become the Buffs’ all-time leading passer, and he needs 37 yards in total offense (passing or running) to become the all-time leader in that category. His predecessor, Sefo Liufau, currently holds those records. Montez also needs 19 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for his career.
  • In the first nine games of the season, the Buffs allowed 53 plays of 20-plus yards (5.9 per game). In the last two, they’ve allowed just five (2.5 per game).
  • The Buffs have allowed just 16 quarterback sacks this year, down from 34 last year and 39 in 2017. The last time CU gave up less than 20 sacks for a full season was 2007 (16).
  • CU has two receivers ranking among the Pac-12’s top 10 for receptions and yards per game. Shenault is seventh in average yards (72.1) and ninth in average catches (5.2), while Tony Brown is 10th in both (63.5 yards, 5.0 catches).
  • The Buffs have lost 13 in a row to top-10 opponents, dating back to a 2007 win against No. 3 Oklahoma. On the road, they have lost 14 straight to top-10 teams, dating back to a 1995 win at No. 7 Kansas State.

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Utes scouting report

Head coach: Kyle Whittingham, 15th year (130-62)

Record: 10-1, 7-1 Pac-12

Last week: Defeated Arizona, 35-7, on the road

Key players on offense

  • QB Tyler Huntley, Sr., 6-1, 205: 174-of-232, 2,608 yards, 14 TD, 2 INT; rushing: 64 att., 228 yards, 5 TD
  • TE Brant Kuithe, So., 6-2, 235: 26 catches, 487 yards, 4 TD; rushing: 3 att., 14 yards, 2 TD
  • RB Zack Moss, Sr., 5-10, 222: 180 att., 1,158 yards, 14 TD; 21 catches, 320 yards, 1 TD

Key players on defense

  • DE Bradlee Anae, Sr., 6-3, 265: 28 tackles, 12 TFL, 11 sacks
  • S Julian Blackmon, Sr. 6-1, 204: 51 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 INT, 4 PBU
  • DT Leki Fotu, Sr., 6-5, 335: 20 tackles, 7 TFL, 1 sack

Utah offense: Although just third in the conference in scoring (34.7 points per game), the Utes have the most balanced offense in the conference. The Utes are on track to become the first team since Oregon in 2014 to lead the Pac-12 in rushing and pass efficiency. Zack Moss is one of the best running backs in the country, while QB Tyler Huntley is being hyped by the school as a Heisman Trophy candidate. The Utes do have some big-play ability, but do their damage by wearing down the opposition; their average time of possession (35:03 per game) ranks second in the country. TE Brant Kuithe has emerged as a big weapon lately, with nine catches for 213 yards and a touchdown and two rushing touchdowns in the last two games.

Utah defense: This might be the best defense of the Pac-12 era (since 2011). The Utes are allowing just 10.9 points per game; the Pac-12 record is 16.1 allowed by Washington in 2017. The Utes are allowing just 55.9 rushing yards per game – the best in the country since TCU in 2007. They’re also allowing just a 105.11 pass efficiency rating – second best in the Pac-12 era (CU in 2016 allowed a 104.25 rating). They’re on pace to become just the second team to lead the Pac-12 in rushing and pass efficiency defense (Stanford in 2014). The two teams that had the most success against the Utes – USC and Washington – couldn’t run the ball, but had big days through the air.

Utah special teams: The Utes have a pair of solid freshmen handling the duties this year. Punter Ben Lennon is 10th in the Pac-12 in average (39.6), but has landed 15 of his 28 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Kicker Jadon Redding is 8-for-11 on field goals and is perfect (48-for-48) on extra points.

Utah keys to beating CU

Dominate in the trenches: That’s been Utah’s formula for years under Whittingham and the Utes have dominated just about everybody this year, running the ball on offense and stuffing it on defense.

Make Montez uncomfortable: CU quarterback Steven Montez is at his best when he’s got time to operate (not unlike most QBs) and the Utes have plenty of talent – led by Bradlee Anae – to make sure he doesn’t have that time.

Limit Shenault: Laviska Shenault, the Buffs’ best player, has played a key role in the last two wins, with 15 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown and running for a first down on three of four carries. The Utes have to try to minimize his impact.

Don’t look ahead: Utah has a chance to play for the Pac-12 title and maybe get into the College Football Playoff, but not if it doesn’t take care of the Buffs first. Despite being heavy favorites, the Utes can’t overlook this game.

Utes notables

  • With a win, the Utes will claim the Pac-12 South title for the second consecutive season. If the Utes lose, Southern California will take the South and play in the Pac-12 title next week.
  • In six home games, Utah has allowed a total of 36 points (6.0 per game), with 17 of those coming by Northern Illinois in the first half of the home opener – a 35-17 Utah win. In the last 22 quarters at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes have allowed one touchdown (by Washington State) and four field goals in 61 opponent possessions. Utah has given up just three second-half points at home all season.
  • Utah is second in the Pac-12 with 13 interceptions and the Utes have returned four for touchdowns. The rest of the Pac-12 combined has three interception returns for touchdowns.
  • QB Tyler Huntley is 22-8 as a starter and has the most wins by a quarterback in Utah history. Nationally this season, he ranks second in completion percentage (.750) and fifth in pass efficiency rating (187.6).
  • RB Zack Moss is Utah’s all-time leader in rushing yards (3,809) and rushing touchdowns (37). He has 14 touchdowns this season and needs two to set a new single-season Utah record.
  • Saturday’s game will make the 64th consecutive sellout for Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, dating back to 2010.