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CU Buffs believe defense trending up

Group dominates early but needs to get better closing out games

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Stanford wide receiver Scooter Harrington (80) gets a first down on the first scrimmage play of the game against Colorado's Nate Landman (53) and Derrion Rakestraw (3), Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group
STANFORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Stanford wide receiver Scooter Harrington (80) gets a first down on the first scrimmage play of the game against Colorado’s Nate Landman (53) and Derrion Rakestraw (3), Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Tyson Summers didn’t need an opponent this week to keep busy.

Colorado’s defensive coordinator has plenty on his plate, even with the Buffaloes (2-0) having their game against Arizona State (0-1) canceled because of COVID-19 issues with the Sun Devils.

Through two games, the CU defense has looked very good at times, especially early in games, but late-game breakdowns have contributed to the Buffs ranking last in the Pac-12 in points allowed, at 37.0 per game.

“I think the obvious part is we’re playing well in the first half,” Summers said. “I think that’s really important. We were able to play with the lead two weeks in a row.

“We’ve got to play better in the second half. We’ve got to be better in coverage, we’ve got to be able to play with a better rush overall and we’ve got to find ways to make plays.”

Summers and the CU staff are working to become a more complete defense as they look ahead to their next game, Nov. 28 at No. 20 Southern California (2-0).

In a 48-42 win against UCLA and a 35-32 win at Stanford, the Buffs’ defense set the tone early.

CU caused four early turnovers to help the Buffs build a 35-7 lead against UCLA. Last week, CU built a 28-9 lead against Stanford, keeping the Cardinal out of the end zone during the first 40 minutes.

“I was really excited and impressed with what our defense did early in the game,” head coach Karl Dorrell said. “Stanford had a couple of drives early in the first quarter that we kept them out of the end zone and at least they kicked field goals.”

Each of Stanford’s first eight possessions resulted in either a punt or a field goal, and a big reason for that early success was CU’s ability to stop the run.

Although CU is last in points allowed, it leads the Pac-12 in run defense, giving up just 122.5 yards per game. In both games, the opposing quarterback has been the leading rusher. Running backs have managed just 105 yards on 30 carries (3.5 average) against CU.

“We’re an attacking front now,” defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson said of the success against the run. “Now that’s on film, it’s not a secret anymore. People know it. We’re playing an attack style defense instead of react and attack. So that’s making a huge difference. And, we just have a huge emphasis on stopping the run and making them one dimensional.”

The issue for CU at times has been that other dimension – as the opposition has taken advantage of the Buffs’ youth and inexperience in the secondary.

UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw for 303 yards and four touchdowns to get the Bruins back into the game on Nov. 7. Last week, Stanford’s Davis Mills threw for 327 yards and a touchdown and gave the Cardinal a chance with three long touchdown drives.

“We’ve got to be able to do a good job in our coverage in the second half and playing with a lead,” Summers said. “We’ve tried to focus on those things and … we’ve got to focus on making opportunities that we’ve got.”

Summers and Dorrell said coaches counted at least a handful of plays against Stanford in which the Buffs got their hand on the ball, but couldn’t catch it for an interception. They had a couple missed opportunities against UCLA, as well.

“I think we’re doing a good enough job in pressure to be able to create some balls that the quarterback is uncomfortable and having to throw the ball right now in a lot of scenarios,” Summers said. “With that, what you should be able to do is be able to play some zones and have your eyes where you can go catch it, but I think a lot of it is just focus and repetition.”

There have been some growing pains as the Buffs play with a young secondary. Several in the secondary have either never played college football before this season (such as true freshman Christian Gonzalez) or are playing in different positions (such as Isaiah Lewis and Mark Perry).

“That’s where we’ve got to be able to continue to improve,” Summers said. “I did see a good amount of growth from week one to week two, and so I think that those things are positive.

“There’s a good bit of shuffling of the deck, so to speak, but I think we got them in the right place. I think they’re working their tails off and I think you’ll continue to see a large amount of improvement with those guys.”

Despite a shortened season, the Buffs are confident there’s time to see that improvement. Summers’ defense got much better in the second half of 2019, and Dorrell is confident the group can do the same this year.

“I think our defense is trending up,” Dorrell said. “We’re getting more familiar with what our players can do. … There’s no question we’re getting better.”

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