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BOULDER, CO - Oct. 15, 2021: ...
University of Colorado, Boulder’s Trevor Woods takes back a blocked punt for a touchdown against Arizona during the NCAA football game on October 16, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

On Saturday night, the Colorado football team will be at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz., searching for its first win of the season.

Arizona, meanwhile, has a shot to move above .500.

Colorado (0-4, 0-1 Pac-12) has won two straight against the Wildcats, but Arizona (2-2, 0-1) is a 17.5-point favorite.

Ahead of this matchup, BuffZone beat writer Brian Howell got together with Arizona beat writer Michael Lev, from the Arizona Daily Star, to chat about this game.

Lev: I feel like I’ve been in your shoes before – covering a team in the throes of a losing streak and the disarray that comes with it. How did Colorado get into this predicament?

Howell: That is a loaded question because there are so many reasons they are in this spot. First off, I think the losses of talent in the offseason have impacted this team more than Karl Dorrell may have anticipated. In addition to graduation, six of their best players from a year ago are playing at other schools now. And, CU didn’t replace those guys with experienced transfers. In a lot of cases, they have freshmen or inexperienced youth filling the gaps. There are a lot of veterans on this team, but also a lot of young guys who are getting their first real shot to play this year. Second, they’ve been a mess at quarterback. The coaches couldn’t pick a winner in the offseason, two-man QB race and wound up using both in the first three weeks. By last week, they had already ditched that plan and moved onto option No. 3. They’ve had four different QB plans in the first four weeks and not surprisingly, they’ve struggled. Defensively, they’ve had a lot of veterans who just simply aren’t playing well. I don’t know if they are struggling with the new 4-3 scheme (adjusted from last year’s 3-4) or what, but that unit has really had rough go.

Howell: Arizona has been much better offensively this season than we saw a year ago. How much of that can be attributed to the addition of Jayden de Laura? Or would you say there are other factors, as well?

Lev: First of all, Arizona fans and coaches can relate to the instability at quarterback. The Wildcats went through it last year – and, really, the year before. It just makes it hard in all aspects. Jayden de Laura has been a huge upgrade, without question. He hasn’t been flawless – six picks are too many through four games – but he has brought playmaking ability that was lacking for most of last year. He’s athletic and aggressive, and he can really do damage in the intermediate areas. But it isn’t just him. The O-line has been better – not great, but better. WR Jacob Cowing has been an equally significant addition. WR Dorian Singer continues to improve. Freshman WR Tetairoa McMillan has flashed his immense talent. And TE Tanner McLachlan – a former walk-on who transferred from Southern Utah – has been maybe the biggest surprise on the team.

Lev: What can you tell us about Josh McCown’s kid?

Howell: Owen McCown has a lot of talent and really good football IQ. There’s a reason Josh McCown was in the running for an NFL coaching job right after he stopped playing, and it’s clear Owen has learned a lot about the game and the QB position from his father. He just seems to have really good field awareness already. He’s also got a strong arm and he’s confident in that arm. He’s made some really nice plays so far. He’s also got some gunslinger to his game, so he’ll make mistakes. He threw an interception against UCLA and was lucky he didn’t have a couple more. He’s also pretty small at this point, listed at 6-2 (although that seems exaggerated) and 175 pounds. He took some hard hits vs. UCLA, but kept getting up.

Lev: So there’s hope! And to quote Andy from Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Do you see any other reasons for optimism heading into this game?

Howell: Yeah, I think there are some reasons for optimism. You really have to be a glass-half-full type of person to find them, but CU does have some good, young talent and they are starting to utilize that more lately. In addition to McCown, they’ve got some young talent at receiver (Jordyn Tyson), running back (Anthony Hankerson), tight end (Caleb Fauria) and on defense. If that young group can play well and the veterans can play to their capability, CU can win this game. But, they’ve got to have a lot of things click and we just haven’t seen it yet.

Howell: CU’s run defense has been horrible this year. I know Arizona hasn’t been lighting it up on the ground, but we’ve seen Michael Wiley in the past and they appear to have some good athletes in the backfield. Do you think Arizona has the ability to take advantage of CU’s run defense and get its own run game going a bit this week?

Lev: I really do think Arizona can run the ball in this game. To quote the Cranberries, “Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?” The Wildcats had their run game going at Cal last week but went away from it in the second half when they fell behind. They also struggled to run the ball vs. Mississippi State – just 40 net yards – but that was an SEC defensive front, not what they’re about to face. Wiley is averaging 6.0 yards per carry. DJ Williams, whom I think we’ll see more of this week, is averaging 5.0. If ever there were a week to get the run game going, this is it.

Lev: Why has Colorado’s run defense been SO bad?

Howell: That is a great question and it’s really a surprise because coming into the season, it was widely viewed that the strength of the defense – and maybe the whole team – was the front seven on defense. That group is absolutely loaded with experience. All of those guys have played a lot of football and they’ve all looked much better at times. But, for whatever reason, CU is having issues with guys not being in the right gap a lot of times and when they are, there have been tackling issues. According to PFF, CU leads the Pac-12 in missed tackles against the run. Because that group is so experienced and has played better, I believe it can get better, but through four games, they’ve looked out of place and get pushed around a lot.

Howell: I’ll ask the same question to you, because Arizona has struggled against the run, as well. Not nearly as bad as CU, but they’ve still struggled. What is the reason behind their struggles on the ground and how big of a concern is that this week?

Lev: “Gap integrity” has been a big topic of discussion around here lately. It was lacking big time at Cal last week. Bordering on non-existent. That was one issue. Another was tackling; the Wildcats had a season-high 18 missed tackles, per PFF. Another aspect I would cite is lack of depth and experience at linebacker. MLB Jerry Roberts, the only veteran in the group, is playing too many snaps. The others on the two-deep – Kolbe Cage, Jacob Manu and Ammon Allen – are either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. They’re all undersized. It’s an ongoing concern and one of the reasons linebacker is a priority for Arizona in recruiting.

Lev: How have the team’s struggles – and Karl Dorrell’s shaky status, which we’ll get into in a bit – impacted recruiting?

Howell: I think that remains to be seen. CU got a lot of verbal commitments before the season and as of now has not lost anyone from that list. They had several recruits on campus last weekend and many of them tweeted about loving their visit. So, it appears to have had little impact yet. But, that could definitely change if this continues, especially if the Buffs wind up moving on from Dorrell.

Howell: From the outside, Jedd Fisch seems to have set the blueprint for how to generate excitement for a program in the dumps. How do you feel he has been received by the players and fans during his time there?

Lev: The buy-in from the players seems legit. They never stopped playing hard last season – even in that miserable performance at Boulder – and that has continued this year. Fisch is a big “trust the process” guy, and the players have echoed that idea in interviews. The fans remain patient. I think the honeymoon period ended pretty quickly when Arizona lost to NAU last year – the last time the Wildcats were favored. But most knowledgeable fans realize this is a long-term project, and it feels like Arizona might be slightly ahead of pace. Fisch repeatedly has referred to “the build” and even has referred to this year as Year 1 (with last year being Year 0). So that also has created a set of expectations that are more long term in scope. He and his staff managed to land a top-25 recruiting class amid a 1-11 season, and that class already has shown great promise. Arizona’s current ranking for 2023 isn’t quite as high – No. 43 overall per 247Sports – but the Wildcats have 19 commitments and, supposedly, a handful of highly rated “silent commits.” I have no idea why they’re silent. Then again, there’s a lot I don’t understand about the recruiting world. In short, there’s stability here, and it seems like the program is trending up. Fisch likely will get a contract extension at the end of the season.

Lev: What does the future hold for Dorrell? Could he conceivably get fired after this game if it’s another blowout loss?

Howell: It’s hard to believe that about 21 months ago Karl Dorrell was the Pac-12 coach of the year and now he’s fighting for his job. I do think it’s possible this is his final game with the Buffaloes if it turns out as ugly as we’ve seen to this point. Maybe even with a close loss. It would be a bit tougher to fire him if the Buffs win. But, considering next week is a bye, I think the timing sets up to where this is a very critical game for Dorrell if he’s going to remain the coach at Colorado.

Lev: Interesting. The bye certainly creates a window for that. What was the reaction up there to Rick George’s “vote of confidence” statement?

Howell: Rick George is really in a no-win spot with the fans at this point. Many of them want him gone, as well, because typically when football isn’t doing well, a lot of fans want sweeping changes. So, because of that, there’s really nothing George can say that will make fans happy and therefore his statement didn’t come across well. I don’t think it did any harm, but it didn’t do any good. I still think it was probably good he said something, rather than staying silent.

Howell: Looking ahead on Arizona’s schedule, it’s a brutal five-game stretch for the Wildcats after facing Colorado. Because of that, is this game viewed as a must-win for Arizona?

Lev: I love that you framed it that way, because I had the exact same thought. This IS a must-win for Arizona. If the loss to NAU last year ended Fisch’s honeymoon period, a loss on Saturday could lead to talk of “we need to see other people.” Not that Fisch’s job would be in genuine jeopardy, but the fanbase would not be happy. They could run out of patience real quick.

Lev: The L.A. Times recently polled its college reporters about conference road trips. They ranked Tucson dead last. Please tell me you don’t feel the same way. I happen to think Boulder ranks at or near the top of the league, and I’m not just saying that because we’re chatting.

Howell: It’s funny because I’ve heard people say that about Tucson, but I really don’t agree. There are a lot of good places to visit in the Pac-12 and I really like going to Tucson. I’ve been to Saguaro National Park several times and always enjoy it. I’m a fan of U.S. history, so I’ve also made the journey to Tombstone a couple of times and really like that, as well. Personally, I like Tucson as a city. I’d much rather go to Tucson than Los Angeles or Pullman or Corvallis (although Oregon, in general is near the top of my list).

Lev: I knew you were a good man, Brian.

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