Unrelenting red zone defense propels Buffs in early season

Scott Hood, Staff Writer
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It’s not like Colorado State and Texas State didn’t have opportunities to score touchdowns.

They did.

Four times in the first two games of the season, the aforementioned opponents have driven into the red zone. Only twice have they scored points with field goals.

Touchdowns? None.

Through two games, Colorado’s red zone defense scoring percentage of 50 percent (2-4) is second best in the Pac-12 behind Arizona (45.5 pct.). The Buffs, tied with Stanford for the second fewest red zone opportunities allowed (4), are the only conference team yet to surrender a touchdown in the red zone.

In comparison, Oregon State has already allowed 13 red zone touchdowns in three games. Nine Pac-12 teams have yielded three or more red zone touchdowns.

Mike MacIntyre isn’t simply enthralled with those numbers, but also by the tenacity shown by the Buffs defense when the opponent has managed to penetrate inside the 20-yard line.

“We’ve played lights out in the red zone,” MacIntyre said earlier this week. “We haven’t given up anything where we’ve fitted it wrong or busted a coverage. I’ve been impressed with how sound we have been in the red zone with our fundamentals, alignments and understanding our coverages. Our defensive coaching staff has done a phenomenal job of having our guys prepared.”

An early third quarter sequence in last Saturday’s victory over Texas State exemplifies the Buffs’ unwillingness to concede anything in the red zone.

The Bobcats had second-and-8 at the COL 11-yard line, their deepest penetration of the day. A second down run produced nothing before Buffs DT Leo Jackson sacked the TSU quarterback on third down for a 4-yard loss back to the 15, forcing Texas State to settle for a 32-yard field goal.

Nine plays run by Colorado State and Texas State in the red zone have netted minus-2 yards. In addition, the Buffs defense has allowed an average of just 2.0 yards per play (44 plays, 88 yards) when the opponents have crossed midfield into CU territory.

Last week, Texas State gained just 25 yards on 15 plays (1.67 yards per play) run on Colorado’s side of the field. The previous week, Colorado State gained 63 yards on 29 plays (2.17 yards per play) run in Buffs territory.

“What I’ve been most surprised about the defense is we haven’t totally blown a coverage or blown a situation,” MacIntyre said. “We’ve lined up right. We’ve played hard, we’ve made checks. We’ve handled different situations really well, we’ve played third downs correctly. We haven’t played two deep too many times. We understood what was happening to us.

“It’s not a cookie cutter thing. That has helped us from having a wide open guy. Even when we’ve given up a big play (Ex: TSU’s 55-yard run on 1st play from scrimmage), we’ve rallied and handled adverse situations. I thought we would struggle early with a few bonehead mistakes, but we haven’t had those. That’s a credit to the players and a huge credit to the coaching staff for how we’ve been teaching them.”

While CU’s red zone defense has been close to perfect, the coverage units on special teams must improve in their execution, MacIntyre said, even though the Buffs rank third in the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage (42.2 net yards) and fifth in punting (41.3 net yards).

“I’d like to see our coverage units make a jump,” said MacIntyre, who is 3-0 against FCS opponents at Colorado. “Our guys have been kicking well. We’ve had some errors you see on film, but they haven’t been exploited. I’d like to fix those things before they do get exploited. We’re working hard to sharpen those things up.”

EMOTIONS WILL BE HIGH ON NORTHERN COLORADO SIDELINES: Northern Colorado is getting $350,000 from the Buffs to make the short trip from Greeley to Boulder for Saturday’s game. UNC had last week’s game at Florida cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, so they haven’t played in nearly two weeks.

“Our guys are itching to get onto that big stage and see where we are,” UNC coach Earnest Collins Jr. said this week on the Big Sky caches teleconference. “I want to see who is going to play with heart, attitude and effort. Anytime you play an in-state school, it’s exciting. A lot of the guys on both teams played with each other in high school. You have friends playing against each other.”

While Florida and Colorado might run different schemes on both sides of the ball, Collins sees the same caliber of upper Division I athlete on film.

“They’re not identical teams by any means, but you’re talking about the same level of athlete,” Collins said. “Some of the things we were going to do (against Florida), we’ll just carry over into this game.”

WEEK 3 PAC-12 SCHEDULE (Sept. 15-17)

Fri., Sept. 15

Arizona at UTEP, 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Sat., Sept. 16

UCLA at Memphis, 10 a.m. (ABC)

Northern Colorado at Colorado, Noon (Pac-12 Network)

Oregon State at Washington State, 3:30 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)

Oregon at Wyoming, 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Texas at USC, 6:30 p.m. (Fox)

Fresno State at Washington, 7:30 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)

Arizona State at Texas Tech, 8 p.m. (FSN)

San Jose State at Utah, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)

Ole Miss at California, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Stanford at San Diego State, 8:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

(All Times Mountain)

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