Buffs prepare to open Pac-12 play against UCLA Bruins


Buffs vs. Bruins
UCLA sophomore running back, Soso Jambo, tries to move the ball down the middle of the field during the Buff’s 20-10 win over the UCLA Bruins at Folsom Field on November 3, 2016. (Robert Hylton/CU Independent)

As the Colorado Buffaloes football team returns from their bye week, there’s a general feeling of freshness in the air, bodies and minds rested and refreshed. The team begins the official Pac-12 season Friday as the University of California Los Angeles Bruins pay the Buffs a visit at Folsom Field.

“I kind of feel like this game is a season starting all over again,” said junior quarterback Steven Montez. “We got through the preseason and played pretty well. We just need to get back to square one and just stay humble and hopefully do our thing on Friday.”

The Buffs (3-0) cruised past Colorado State, Nebraska and New Hampshire, respectively, in the non-conference portion of the schedule and will now enter the Pac-12 season Friday night against the struggling UCLA Bruins (0-3).

The Bruins are coming off a bye week of their own and are still in search of their first win of the 2018-19 season, their first under head coach Chip Kelly.

“He knows what he’s doing,” said Mike MacIntyre, head coach, of his conference rival. “It just takes a while sometimes … I know Chip (Kelly) will get it turned around. I just hope it’s not Friday night.”

MacIntyre knows as well as any coach how difficult the transition to a new team can be. In his first season with Colorado in 2013, MacIntyre went 4-8.

“[Kelly’s] a great coach [and] he has a great staff,” said sophomore inside linebacker Nate Landman. “He’s getting that team ready. They’ve had a tough schedule. Their record obviously isn’t what they want it … No doubt he’s going to have that team ready.”

The Buffs need to be ready for the challenge. Despite their mediocre record this season, the Bruins have historically gotten the best of the Buffs. In the MacIntyre era, Colorado has only bested the Bruins once (Nov. 3, 2016, 20-10 at Folsom Field), owning a 1-4 record during MacIntyre’s six-year tenure.

“[UCLA] has got our number,” MacIntyre said, “We’ve had some unbelievable games out here … it’s going to be a heck of a battle.”

MacIntyre understands that UCLA has thus far played worthy opponents and are a better team than their 0-3 record might suggest.

“They have speed, athleticism and it’s going to be a really tough test for us,” MacIntyre said. “We’ve prepared well and our guys are excited about playing at home again on Friday night.”

A lot of people are quick to judge the Bruins’ poor defense, a group that has surrendered an average of 37 points to opposing teams in each of its first three games. For comparison’s sake, the Buffs defense has given up an average of just 18 points during the same three-game span.

But as MacIntyre will say, UCLA has had an objectively tougher three games than the Buffs. When asked about the Bruins’ deficient defense, MacIntyre gave UCLA the benefit of the doubt.

“Well number one, they’ve played some really good offenses … I think that’s part of it,” MacIntyre said. “The second part: They’re all new, the whole staff is new, the defense is new. They’ve changed their defense from the year before … that takes a while to adjust to. They’ve played three games, they had a bye week, so I expect them to be much better on defense.”

For the Buffaloes, defense has been a strong suit, thanks in part to a pair of sophomore studs: defensive end Mustafa Johnson and inside linebacker Nate Landman. Johnson leads the Buffs in sacks (3.5) and is third in the entire Pac-12, while Landman leads the team in interceptions (2), also good for the second-most in the Pac-12.

For the Buffs defense, however, there’s a glaring issue that has presented itself as the team prepares for UCLA: which Bruins quarterback will get the start?

UCLA senior signal caller Wilton Speight, who transferred from the University of Michigan, was named the starting quarterback to begin the season but injured his back midway through the Bruins’ opening game. He may be eligible to return from his ailment this week, however, coach Kelly told media earlier this week that he isn’t guaranteed the starting job back.

“Whoever gives us the best opportunity against Colorado or Washington or whoever we’re going to play, is going to be the guy that’s going to play,” Kelly told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week.

In light of Speight’s injury, freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson emerged as a legitimate starter for UCLA. Kelly has put Colorado’s coaching staff and players in quite the predicament — who does the team prepare for?

“Anytime you say ‘prepare for two quarterbacks,’ I break out into cold sweats from the Arizona game from a year ago,” MacIntyre said.

For those still haunted by that game, it was a similar situation the Buffs find themselves in going into Friday. On Oct. 7, 2017, the Arizona Wildcats came into Boulder and lost starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins on the game’s opening drive. Enter Khalil Tate, the Wildcat’s speedy, mobile quarterback. Unprepared, the Buffs allowed Tate to run all over them to the tune of an FBS-record 327 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

“We prepare for that,” MacIntyre said. “It’s hard to prepare for two offenses … it’s hard to find out in one game, you kind of get it as the quarters go along, hopefully. Hopefully your defense is able to adjust to different things … We’ll be ready for either one and hopefully we can adjust.”

Whether it’s Speight for Thompson-Robinson, Colorado’s capable defense must be ready. It’s a difficult challenge, however, as UCLA’s two quarterbacks are two very different players. Speight tends to stay in the pocket, whereas Thompson-Robinson is reminiscent of Arizona’s Khalil Tate — very much able to run the ball if pressured.

“They have two quarterbacks: a running quarterback and a throwing quarterback,” Landman said. “Our scout team does a great job of simulating that. We’re ready for both of them.”

It’ll be an important game for the Buffaloes, who will look to start off their Pac-12 season with a win on Friday. Colorado went 2-7 against its conference rivals last season and if they hope to compete, every win counts.

“Pac-12 play is huge,” Landman said. “We want to relive that 2016 season and get back to that Pac-12 Championship, and it starts now. UCLA is a great team, we prepared hard for them … We can’t wait to get out there.”

The Buffaloes and Bruins kickoff from Folsom Field at 7 p.m. Friday.

Contact CU Independent sports staff writer Scott MacDonald at scotty.macdonald@colorado.edu and follow him on Twitter @ScottTopics.

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