Mike Sanford is only 40 years old, but he has been around a lot of football, and in some big-time venues.
What Sanford experienced with the Colorado Buffaloes on Oct. 15, his debut as interim head coach, he’ll never forget. And, he would love to recreate that atmosphere this Saturday when his Buffs (1-6, 1-3 Pac-12) host Arizona State (2-5, 1-3) at Folsom Field (5:35 p.m., ESPNU).
“We’re really excited to get back to Folsom Field,” Sanford said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “I look at this as an opportunity to just tell Buff Nation – the fan base, alums that are coming home for homecoming – we really appreciated the support, the energy, the enthusiasm that was created two weeks ago. … We look forward to doing everything in our power to recreate what I got to experience firsthand with Folsom magic. That’s a real thing. I felt it. It was unlike any other fan base that I’ve personally been a part of, particularly in a time of adversity.”
Sanford took over as interim head coach on Oct. 2 after head coach Karl Dorrell was fired. After a bye week, the energetic Sanford was able to guide the Buffaloes to their first win, 20-13 in overtime, against California. A near-sellout crowd of 50,471 was on hand for family weekend and most of the fans rushed the field after Cal’s final pass fell incomplete.
Recreating that feeling won’t be easy, and it could be dependent on the defense rediscovering the winning formula it had that day.
CU’s offense has struggled all season, even in the win against Cal, but the defense rallied together and manufactured energy and belief within the team and the fans as it kept getting stops and turnovers that afternoon.
The defense took a step back last week in a 42-9 loss at Oregon State, but believes it can get back on track this week.
“It was a little tough (watching film of the OSU game),” outside linebacker Guy Thomas said. “There was some things that we had to get fixed and we did. … We felt like we could have played better.”
In addition to Dorrell, CU fired defensive coordinator Chris Wilson on Oct. 2. Defensive line coach Gerald Chatman was promoted to coordinator and developed an aggressive, free defense against Cal.
The Buffs held Cal to only 297 yards of total offense, including 35 rushing yards. Last week, however, Oregon State, which has a better offense and was playing at home, rolled up 472 yards, with 270 coming on the ground.
“We put in some new fronts for Oregon State because of their stretch play and their outside zone play and I was involved in that decision making from the head coach perspective,” Sanford said. “What I learned myself is just to continue to let (Chatman) and (linebackers coach) Jeff Smart and the defensive staff really just kind of work through what they built systematically and then let them just continue to evolve it organically as it comes forward.”
While the final statistics weren’t pretty against Oregon State, the Buffs felt it was a good learning experience. They were still flying around and making plays (five tackles for loss, one forced turnover) more so than before the coaching changes, but gave up too many plays, as well.
“I think that our preparation last week wasn’t the same as Cal,” senior linebacker Robert Barnes said. “I think that our preparation this week is complementary to Cal in terms of we’re out there flying around having fun. Anytime you’re in a new defense, there’s different elements to it. There’s nuances that come with that.
“Oregon State allowed us to kind of see where the weak points are in this. We’re going and attacking them and plugging those up.”
Barnes is especially encouraged by the Buffs having almost as many takeaways in the past two games (three) as the first five combined (four). CU had also had three fourth-down stops in the last two games.
“The fans, everybody can see that within these short few weeks, we’re starting to get turnovers,” he said. “It’s becoming a habit. It’s becoming something that fans are now looking forward to seeing and it’s contagious. I think that we’ve put an emphasis on those. Those big plays allow us to go win big games.”
Those big plays also create energy on the sidelines and within the home crowd. If the defense can get those big plays, as they did two weeks ago against Cal, Sanford and the Buffs could produce another memorable moment.
“We’re prepping to put out the best product that we possibly can and we’re gonna go and compete and bring unbelievable energy and bring the execution to match that energy to create another great memory,” Sanford said. “That’s the intent for this Saturday.”