The Buffs enter the rivalry game against the Cornhuskers with the same season-saving risk as last year—ose and you’re done; win and you get a bowl bid.
Unlike last year, though, the 5-6 Buffs will not be playing at home. Also, instead of facing a 5-6 Nebraska squad in disarray, Colorado will be facing a Cornhusker team which has won four of its last five games, and has scored less than 28 points in only one Big 12 Conference game this season.
How can the offensively-challenged CU squad pull off the upset in Lincoln? I give you this week’s "T.I.P.S."
T - Talent
Well, it’s official. The Buffs are a triage unit of historic proportions. Heading into the Nebraska game, CU has lost 109 games due to injury or illness, with all but ten of those 109 games from players on the two-deep or regular contributors on special teams.
Associate Athletic Director Dave Plati, CU’s Sports Information Director for the past 25 years, reports that he has no record of the Buffs having so many key players lost to injury in one season.
For the Nebraska game? In addition to those who are out for the season, like Ryan Miller and Rodney Stewart, the Buffs are hurting in the defensive backfield. Senior safety Ryan Walters, who played only one series against Oklahoma State, remains in a protective boot, and is listed as questionable for Nebraska.
The Buffs’ other senior safety, D.J. Dykes, who missed all of the Oklahoma State game with an undisclosed illness, is also unlikely to play this Friday. This leaves the responsibility of containing the Nebraska passing game to red-shirt freshman Anthony Perkins and true freshman Patrick Mahnke, both of whom saw most of the action against the Cowboys on November 15th.
As to the offense Perkins and Mahnke will be trying to stop, there was a report this week that Nebraska starting quarterback Joe Ganz had injured his shoulder. Ganz had an MRI on Monday (November 17th), and sat out practices earlier this week.
According to Nebraska officials, Ganz suffered only a "minor shoulder injury", and will be ready to go against Colorado on the 28th. Whether Ganz will be able to go full speed, or if the Cornhuskers are just trying to redirect the media and the Buffs, we won’t know until kickoff.
If Ganz is a full go, he will lead a potent offense against Colorado. Ganz is 12th in the nation in total offense, putting up over 300 yards per game (Cody Hawkins, in contrast, is averaging just over 150 yards of total offense per game). The favorite receivers for Ganz are wideouts Nate Swift and Todd Peterson, who, like Ganz, are seniors.
The running game was supposed to be led by another senior, Marion Lucky, who was the leading returning rusher in the Big 12 this season. Lucky, however, has been supplanted by sophomore tailback Roy Helu, Jr., as the Cornhuskers’ feature back.
Fortunately for the Buffs, the Nebraska defense, statistically one of the worst in the nation in 2007, is only marginally better in 2008. The Nebraska pass defense is 90th in the nation, giving up 234 yards per game, while the Cornhuskers are ranked 91st in scoring defense, giving up 29 points on average throughout the season (and an average of 41 points per game in the three NU outings so far in November).
While getting into a scoring duel with the Cornhuskers is a tough assignment for the points challenged Colorado offense, it may be the only way to be Nebraska this weekend.
I - Intangibles
As Yogi Berra would say, "This is like deja vu all over again". For the fourth time in 11 years, the Buffs will be playing Nebraska with a bowl trip and a potential winning season on the line.
In 1997, the 5-5 Buffs faced off in Boulder against an undefeated and No. 2-ranked Cornhusker squad. A second half rally (recounted below in "This Day in History" section) led by quarterback John Hessler came up just short, and the Buffs stayed home from the postseason for the first time in ten seasons.
In 2003, the Buffs were 5-6 and on a two-game winning streak when the 25th-ranked Cornhuskers came to Boulder. In a see-saw battle which saw four lead changes, Nebraska emerged with a 31-22 victory. The Buffs lost the game, but the Cornhuskers lost their coach, as NU head man Frank Solich was fired the following evening despite the win over CU.
In 2007, Colorado finally broke through. Both teams were 5-6 coming into the contest, and Nebraska seemed to be in the best position to make post-season plans when the halftime score read: Nebraska 35; Colorado 24. Back-to-back interceptions to start the second half, including a 31 yard interception return for a touchdown by Jimmy Smith, ignited a 34-point explosion, leading the Buffs to a 65-51 victory and a bowl bid.
The one thing the first three "do-or-die" games for CU had in common was that they were all played in Boulder. This will be the first time that the Buffs will have a "bowl bid or go home" on the line in Lincoln.
Also working against Colorado is the Buffs’ history in Lincoln. Colorado is only 8-24 all-time at Memorial Stadium, with only three of those (1990, 2002, and 2004), coming in the past forty years.
Still, two of those wins were in the recent past, and Colorado has won four of the past seven games overall in the series. The small band of seniors who are still with the program, including five or six on defense (depending on whether safety Ryan Walters can play), can leave the program as one of the few groups to take three of five from the Cornhuskers.
The Cornhuskers are 7-4, and believe they may be in line for a New Year’s Day bowl (Gator) if they defeat the Buffs. Nebraska would be 8-4, and will have closed out the season with three convincing wins (not to mention a state full of fans looking to travel after being shut out last season). To say Nebraska has nothing on the line in the regular season finale would be inaccurate.
But it pales in comparison to what the Buffs are playing for this weekend.
P - Preparation/Schedule
This is why I don’t gamble.
For Colorado and its die-hard fans to be able to get through the next nine months with some semblance of sanity, there could not be any tongue-wagging from Boulder’s northern neighbor. Colorado State went into yesterday’s game with Wyoming with a 5-6 record. The Rams needed to defeat the Cowboys in Laramie, and get some help, in order to secure a bowl bid.
The Rams, down 14-3, in the second quarter, stormed back to a 31-20 win.
Fine. The Rams finished 6-6, but bowl-eligible does not necessarily mean bowl-bound. A 6-6 Mountain West team is not likely to attract many bowl bids. The conference only has four guaranteed slots, and a mediocre mid-major team with a 6-6 record is not as likely to get an offer as a 6-6 team from a BCS conference. Heading into Saturday, the conference already had four teams with eight wins.
Then Utah beat BYU, 48-24, to all but sew up a BCS bowl bid. Everyone in the conference moves up a slot, and a fifth bowl-eligible team would now be given one of the MWC’s guaranteed positions.
But, wait. UNLV was also 5-6, and was playing lowly San Diego State. If the Rebels were to finish 6-6, they would likely be more attractive to a bowl committee, and the Rams could still be shut out. San Diego State was 1-10 entering the game, with an 0-7 record in Mountain West play.
Final score: San Diego State 42; UNLV 21.
So, the Rams will be going bowling under first-year head coach Steve Fairchild. If the Buffs fail to beat Nebraska, and finish 5-7, you might as well slap honey on us Buff fans and strap us to tree outside the bear’s den. Three straight losing seasons under Dan Hawkins? Steve Fairchild turned around a program in one season—what’s up with your coach? Enjoying that offseason conditioning?
The Ram players are getting in some extra practice for their warm weather bowl. What’s it like to cheer for a team whose coach is 13-24? Who do you think should be favored in the 2009 opener—a team with a winning coach, or a team with excuses who is too afraid to play at a neutral site?
If the Buffs don’t win on Friday against Nebraska, it will be brutal.
Anyone one of three games on Saturday could have spared us from the above. All three turned out the wrong way.
Better luck with the game in Lincoln.
S - Stats
If there is a statistic that is more bizarre this season than the Buffs leading the Big 12 Conference in pass defense (but only 73rd in the country), it is this: Nebraska is ranked second in the Big 12 Conference in pass defense in 2008—and ranked 90th in the nation.
The Big 12? A Woody Hayes "three yards and a cloud of dust" conference it ain’t.
The Buffs can score on the Cornhuskers if they throw the ball well. No secret there. The question is: can the Buffs throw the ball effectively and consistently? If the first 11 games of the 2008 season are any indication, the answer is "no". The Buffs are accumulating less than 200 yards passing per game, good enough for only 86th in the nation, with seven of those games against teams in a conference which cannot stop the pass.
So, where do the Buffs’ hopes lie?
When you are ineffective moving the ball, it helps when you only have to move it a short distance. Nebraska is 110thin the nation in turnover margin. The Cornhuskers have turned the ball over 23 times in 2008, while gaining only 11 (only 0-11 Washington, with 10, has generated fewer). In the last six games, the Colorado defense has generated only five turnovers. A similar lack of production will not due this weekend.
The math is quite simple—Colorado needs to generate at least three turnovers against Nebraska (and perhaps convert one of those directly into a score) for the Buffs to win.
The other manner in which the Buffs can help themselves is in the area of punt returns. Nebraska is ranked 91stin the nation in net punting. Josh Smith, who had never been a kick returner prior to this season, has already contributed his name to the Colorado record books.
Smith has 1,742 yards of total offense this seasn, mostly from returns, and is on a pace for 1,900—third all-time only to Rashaan Salaam and Byron White in CU annals. Smith is ranked only 31st nationally in punt returns, but his average is significantly lower than it would otherwise be if Smith took more fair catches and didn’t suffer as many one and two-yard returns.
Smith needs to break loose once or twice against a mediocre punt team from Lincoln to set up his offensive teammates with easy scoring chances.
There you go. Super simple. Control the ball, create turnovers, take advantage of opportunities, and play to win.
Nebraska is better than it was this time last year. Colorado is arguably worse. The Buffs fell behind 35-24 last year before storming back. Will these Buffs have a similar resolve?
Tune in Friday at 1:30 (MT).
For more on Colorado football, go to http://www.cuatthegame.com