LOS ANGELES – Among the many issues the Colorado offense has had this year is its struggles when inside the red zone.
The Buffaloes went into Friday’s game at No. 8 USC ranking 126th in the country in red zone scoring, at 70.8%. Only 45.8% of those red zone trips resulted in touchdowns.
CU (1-9, 1-6 Pac-12) improved that mark in Friday’s 55-17 loss, going 3-for-3, but a missed opportunity cost the Buffs a chance to put some early pressure on the heavily favored Trojans.
USC (9-1, 7-1) got off to a slow start offensively and led just 2-0 when CU’s Alex Fontenot had a 37-yard run to the Trojans’ 18-yard line. His next run went for seven yards to set up second-and-3 at the 11.
Quarterback JT Shrout missed wide-open tight end Brady Russell for what would have been a touchdown on second down. Then, after a 1-yard Fontenot run on third down, the Buffs settled for a 28-yard Cole Becker to take a 3-2 lead.
Ultimately, it might not have made a difference in a game that got out of hand, but the missed opportunity to seize momentum epitomized CU’s season.
“I think you gotta go try to get seven in that point,” interim head coach Mike Sanford said. “We had some decent runs, but just when you’re in that position, our defense is playing the way it is, you want points on the board. … I think seven there obviously makes it a little bit different.
“(We’re) continuing to address that and find the playmakers in the pass game and I think that’s gonna be important for us our last two weeks.”
To the Buffs’ credit, they scored touchdowns on their next two trips to the red zone.
“We did run the ball well in the red zone as the game progressed,” Sanford said.
Defensively, CU had been solid in the red zone this season, holding opponents to 82.0% (56th nationally), but USC went 5-for-5 with four touchdowns.
Racking up sacks
CU continues to have a hard time preventing the opposition from scoring, but the defense has been much better at creating impact plays in recent weeks and the Buffs believe that is one of the first steps towards playing better defense.
“We’re trying to emphasize turnovers,” defensive tackle Jalen Sami said. “That gives us energy, that changes the whole game. One pick-six can change the whole game. We’re just waiting for those opportunities and we’ve got to just do our job. If we’re doing our job every time and all 11 guys are doing it, those turnovers will come to us. You’re seeing it — we’re making more (plays), getting more (tackles for loss).”
CU went into Friday with a Pac-12-worst six sacks, but got three against the Trojans. They also got a first quarter interception, by cornerback Nikko Reed.
Jamar Montgomery and Quinn Perry had solo sacks, while Josh Chandler-Semedo and Chance Main shared a sack. CU’s sacks came on two different USC possessions, and the Trojans failed to score on both possessions.
Although those impact plays haven’t been nearly enough to make up for mistakes on defense, the Buffs are encouraged by the increase of those plays.
“I think you’re also starting to see some great individual efforts, like Jamar is doing some really good things, Guy (Thomas) is doing some really good things,” Sanford said. “I think even Robert Barnes, you’re seeing some good individual efforts. … The young talent is starting to emerge and some of those fifth and sixth year seniors that probably hadn’t had the success, they’re starting to believe in themselves.”
USC’s Tuli Tuipulotu leads the country in sacks and is second in TFLs and he was dominant against the Buffs. He racked up 2.5 sacks, forced a fumble and batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage. “Tuli is as advertised,” Sanford said. “I think he’s probably the best pass rusher that we’ve seen all year.” … USC announced Saturday that running back Travis Dye, injured in the second quarter Friday, will miss the remainder of the season. Dye is second in the Pac-12 in rushing. … Next up for the Buffs is a trip to No. 24 Washington on Saturday at 7 p.m. MT in Seattle.