At the beginning of the 2016 college football season, Stanford vs. Colorado appeared destined to be a romp, a chance for the Cardinal to take a well-deserved break from facing more worthy competition like UCLA, Washington and Notre Dame. After all, Stanford has outscored the Buffaloes 138-17 in their only three meetings as members of the Pac-12, and the 4-9 Buffs of last season offered no reason to think differently.
But that was the old Colorado.
Now, in Week 8 of the season, Stanford (4-2, 2-2 Pac-12) finds itself in the surprising position of trying to play spoiler to the rising Buffaloes (5-2, 3-1), who rank fourth in the nation in total offense and are now the favorites to win the Pac-12 South, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
“This year, you see them playing with confidence. You see them making those plays to finish games and win games,” said head coach David Shaw of Colorado’s newfound success. “They’re playing hard, they’re playing smart and they’re very well coached in all three phases.”
The Buffs have every reason to be confident heading into Saturday after a 40-16 win over Arizona State. It was the first victory over the Sun Devils in the program’s history, as they racked up 580 yards on offense and held the Sun Devils to a meager 199 in the process.
As for Stanford, Saturday’s contest is about building on the momentum and confidence gained in a 10-point comeback and difficult road victory last week against Notre Dame. A defense that demonstrated its playmaking ability, such as sophomore Quenton Meeks’ 50-yard interception return for a touchdown, and an offense that showed promise in the second half by scoring its first meaningful touchdown since running over USC on Sept. 17, will try to build on their success over the course of a full game in front of the homecoming crowd.
“Getting that last drive in and scoring was big for our confidence,” said sophomore wide receiver Trenton Irwin about last week. “I think we just have to try to progress in every little bit of the game we can. I felt like the offense was clicking. We still had a couple mishaps, but we were clicking like we were at the start of the year.”
The bad news for the Cardinal is they might have to do so without some key players for yet another week.
Although junior running back Christian McCaffrey might practice harder late in the week, he is still “questionable” for Saturday, according to Shaw, and his availability may end up being another game-time decision. Junior cornerback Alijah Holder is said to be “better than last week,” but is also labeled as questionable. In addition, senior offensive lineman David Bright is “doubtful,” and junior fullback Daniel Marx has been ruled out for the fourth straight week.
But regardless of who is on the field for Stanford, the focus will be on limiting errors like the ones that sometimes killed Stanford’s momentum against the Fighting Irish.
“I’m confident in the guys we have. It’s just those one or two plays that kill a drive that we can’t have,” Shaw said. “The thing for us in the last two games has been shooting ourselves in the foot with fumbles, penalties and missed field goals. Those are things we don’t have here and don’t accept here.”
Limiting mistakes, especially on the offensive line, will be vital this week as a Stanford offense that is worst in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed will be pitted against the Colorado defense, led by Pac-12 sack leader Jimmie Gilbert.
“The thing for us is to try to keep our quarterback in rhythm, get the ball out on time and make sure we give every pass rusher the long road to the quarterback,” Shaw said.
On the other side, junior defensive end Solomon Thomas will look to continue improving upon his stellar performance after a self-described “all right” game at Notre Dame. Thomas recorded a career-high 12 total tackles and 1.5 sacks and forced the fumble that closed out the Fighting Irish last week.
“Solomon is that rare combination of athletic ability, speed, mentality and technique,” Shaw said. “The funny thing to me is he has only played a year-and-a-half of football. He’s only going to get better, and I’m excited to watch that.”
The Cardinal will need Thomas as well as the rest of the defense to be at their best on Saturday in order to slow down Colorado’s balanced attack.
The Buffaloes have put up more than 40 points in five of their seven games this season, with junior running back Phillip Lindsay, who sprinted his way to a career-high 219 yards and three touchdowns against Arizona State last week, leading a potent ground game.
Stanford will have to hold off Colorado’s air attack as well, led by senior quarterback Sefo Liufau, who has tallied over 1,000 yards passing on the season despite missing two games.
Even more concerning yet for the Stanford defense is the fact that it must respect Liufau’s legs too, as he has added 164 yards and two touchdowns this season after taking it into the end zone five times on the ground last season for the Buffs.
“He’s just a good football player. He’s got really good instincts,” said Shaw of Liufau. “He’s just one of those guys who plays hard every snap. All of the coaches in the conference really respect him.”
Stanford will look to get one win closer to bowl eligibility and grab an unexpectedly difficult Pac-12 win with a noon kickoff on Saturday at Stanford Stadium. The game will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Samuel Curry at currys ‘at’ stanford.edu.