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CU Buffs defense off to good start, but still grinding

Buffs have held both opponents under 300 total yards

DENVER, CO - September 11, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder's Justin Jackson goes for Texas A&M's Zach Calzada during the September 11, 2021 game at Empower Field in Denver.  (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
DENVER, CO – September 11, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder’s Justin Jackson goes for Texas A&M’s Zach Calzada during the September 11, 2021 game at Empower Field in Denver. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

So far, so good, but Colorado defensive coordinator Chris Wilson isn’t basking in the success of his group yet.

Through the first two weeks of the season, the Buffaloes (1-1) have been exceptional on defense, but there’s too much work ahead for Wilson to get excited.

“I don’t know if I’ve been excited; I think I’ve just been grading the process,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve really been more engaged in the process than the excitement part. What I’ve seen is what they do every day is they find a way to improve and that’s just been our base mantra. Every day they come out, we talk about the points of emphasis and they work at it. That’s what you get excited about.”

On Saturday, the Buffs host Minnesota (1-1) at Folsom Field (11 a.m., TV: Pac-12 Networks) in what will be another tough test for the defense.

Colorado defensive coordinator Chris Wilson talks to players on the sideline during a scrimmage at Folsom Field in Boulder on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

The physical Golden Gophers have an experienced, three-year starter at quarterback in Tanner Morgan, a talented and committed running game and big offensive linemen.

“It’s gonna be two blue-collar teams playing this week, and guys who do what they do really well,” Wilson said. “That’s what it’s got to be for us every week.”

Through two games, the Buffs are allowing just 8.5 points per game (tied for fifth nationally) and they’ve held both opponents – Northern Colorado and Texas A&M – under 300 yards in total offense.

The Buffs have been particularly stingy against the run, allowing just 59.0 yards per game. That’s even more impressive when considering the talent A&M has at running back.

Despite losing star running back Mohamed Ibrahim to a season-ending injury, Minnesota will challenge the run defense again. Trey Potts gained 178 yards in his starting debut last week.

“Looking at them on offense, they’re definitely a run-first offense,” CU head coach Karl Dorrell said. “They really churn out yards, and they’re pretty efficient at doing that.”

Defensively, the Buffs will be ready, as they continue to gain confidence each week.

“This has been the most exciting defense that I’ve been a part of,” said linebacker Robert Barnes, who transferred from Oklahoma in January. “I think we’ve got guys that trust each other. We’ve got coaches that trust the players. And at the end of the day, everybody on the defense plays hard, plays well, steps up when it’s time to make their play. It’s just the chemistry. You can feel it out there, even in practice.”

Barnes, who missed the opener with an injury, said the chemistry played a significant role in last week’s success against A&M.

“When we get out there in those moments, it’s like we’re literally looking at each other’s eyes just going out there having fun, playing with your brothers,” he said. “I think that we take the field with a certain confidence. You’re not gonna run the ball on us, you’re not gonna pass the ball on us. It’s gonna be a three and out every time.”

A&M went three-and-out eight times against the Buffs, who are allowing just 0.74 points per possession.

It has all started with the physicality up front. Linebacker Nate Landman leads the way, but Barnes, Carson Wells, Guy Thomas and the defensive line have been integral, as well.

“We play like we’re angry,” defensive lineman Na’im Rodman said. “It feels like it’s personal, but it’s really not. It’s just how it is. And that’s how we want ourselves to be portrayed, as just an aggressive defense that doesn’t take no for an answer.”

The secondary has been led by cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez, while safeties Isaiah Lewis and Mark Perry are also playing well.

“We have a lot of interchangeable parts (in the secondary),” Perry said. “Just overall as a secondary I feel we’re getting better with communication and just having the confidence to go out, and it doesn’t matter who’s across the line from you; we’re gonna get the job done.”

So far, it’s worked well for the Buffs. Wilson, however, knows there’s too much work ahead to enjoy the past success.

“I asked the guys today, I said, ‘Anybody who coached or played last week, who in this group can’t get better?’ And everybody knew we can improve: coaches, players, everybody,” Wilson said. “We can be better, we can improve. That’s been the focus for those guys.

“There’s not a lot of rah-rah. It’s just a lot of work and they’re buying into the work and they’re buying into the process that we’re instilling.”

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