Whether you believe in the thin air factor or not, there’s little debate that the Colorado Buffaloes play much better at home than on the road. Three weeks ago, Colorado opened Big 12 play by winning at home against an Oklahoma Sooner team that had looked undefeated. Two weeks later, the Buffs traveled to Manhattan and were stomped by 20 points by Kansas State.
All of which brings us to Saturday, when Dan Hawkins’ Colorado team (4-3 2-1) plays host to the Jayhawks.
As he did at Boise State, Hawkins prefers a multiple offense that gets a lot of players involved and makes the other team defend the whole field, all the while looking out for misdirection and gadget plays. As he gets more of the horses needed to compete in a big-time conference, Colorado is only going to improve.
As it is right now, they are headed in that direction. Typically known for their defensive prowess, the offense is putting up 384 yards and 26 points per game, a step up from last year’s numbers. A large part of that is freshman triggerman Cody Hawkins (5-foot-11 190 pounds). One of the league’s bright young quarterbacks, Hawkins has completed close to 56 percent of his passes for 1,680 yards, or 240 yards per game. The key to stopping Hawkins comes with pressure — Colorado’s offensive line gets him hit early and often, and he will sometimes make mistakes when hurried. Hawkins has 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions on the year.
Perhaps the offense’s lone gamebreaker makes his living on the ground. Hugh Charles (5-8 190) is averaging 6.1 yards per carry and 87 yards per game, to go with his three touchdowns. Charles also uses his speed in the receiving game, where he has caught 14 passes for 126 yards. Bowling ball Demetrius Sumler (5-10 215) is a change of pace and short-yardage back. He has more than 300 yards rushing on the year and four touchdowns. Shifty Brian Lockridge (5-7 175) also sees time.
The Buffs lack a great wide receiver, which means that Hawkins rotates through a ton of them. Seventeen different receivers have caught passes for Colorado this season, led by Z-receiver Scotty McKnight (5-10 190) who has 31 catches for 374 yards. The other starter is X-receiver Patrick Williams (6-2 200), while McKnight’s backup Dusty Sprague (6-4 190) provides experience and another reliable target. Backup X-receiver Josh Smith (6-0 180), a true freshman, supplies a downfield threat. Six of his 11 catches have gone for more than 20-yard gains. Tight end Tyson DeVree (6-5 245) is the most reliable red zone target, averaging close to a touchdown every three catches.
The offensive line is young and inconsistent. On one hand, the line paves the way for a running game that is averaging 142.7 yards per game. On the other, the line has allowed 42 tackles for loss this year, along with a whopping 39 quarterback hurries, and Hawkins is among the most-hit quarterbacks in the Big 12. The best player is left tackle Tyler Polumbus (6-8 300), who has five games this year that he graded out at 80 percent or better. Right tackle Ryan Miller (6-7 320) and left guard Kai Maiava (6-0 295) are both true freshmen who played their first full game against Kansas State. Center Daniel Sanders (6-3 310) and right guard Edwin Harrison (6-4 300) round out the line.
The defense, as it has been the last few years, is an underrated strong suit. The defense starts with the line, which both makes plays and opens things up for the linebackers behind. Defensive tackle George Hypolite (6-1 285) has 28 tackles, seven for loss and three sacks, while tackle Brandon Nicolas (6-3 290) has put up similar numbers with seven tackles for loss and two sacks. Defensive ends Maurice Lucas (6-4 260) and Alonzo Barrett (6-3 235) have combined for six tackles for loss and three sacks. Most of the pressure comes from the line — only one player not on the defensive line has a sack.
That would be linebacker Jordan Dizon (6-0 220), an All-American candidate who paces Colorado in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks. He has 97 tackles already this year (that’s 14 per game for those without a calculator), seven tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. Linebackers Jeff Smart (5-11 210) and Brad Jones (6-3 225) are the team’s third and fourth leading tacklers with 43 and 41 tackles respectively, a number that still adds up to 13 tackles less than Dizon’s total. They have also combined for four tackles for loss.
Terrence Wheatley (5-10 175) is one of the Big 12’s top cover corners, breaking up nine passes and picking off two. He returned one of those for a score. Benjamin Burney (5-11 190) joins Wheatley at the other cornerback spot. Strong safety Daniel Dykes (6-2 210) is second on the team with 53 tackles, while free safety Ryan Walters (5-11 200) knows how to fill up a stat sheet with 38 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and three passes broken up. Kansas fans might remember him as the safety who caught Todd Reesing’s fumble last year and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown.
Colorado has typically won with a strong defense and special teams, and this year is no different. Kicker Kevin Eberhart, while no Mason Crosby, is 17-17 on extra point attempts and 12-17 on field goals, including a 54-yarder. Punter Matt DiLallo averages 41.4 yards per kick. Wheatley returns kickoffs, and he’s a good one, averaging 25.4 yards per return, including a 68-yarder earlier this year.
Colorado won’t be the most talented team Kansas has faced so far, but the Buffs are too balanced not to be taken seriously, and Boulder is never an easy place to play.