BOULDER - The Colorado Buffaloes offense has struggled this season, with quarterback Steven Montez throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns (six each) and lead rusher Phil Lindsay fighting to find holes and get loose. Many of those issues come back to the offensive line, where injuries and frequent position shifts have left the front five lacking chemistry.
The starting offensive line was projected as a combination of Jeromy Irwin, Gerrad Kough, Johnathan Huckins, Tim Lynott Jr. and Aaron Haigler, but thanks to injuries, suspensions and other factors, they have yet to settle into a permanent formation.
The most veteran player on the line, sixth-year senior Irwin, was suspended for the Buffs' first two games of the season. A team captain and one of the most valuable players in the front five, Irwin knows just how important it is for him to remain eligible.
"Not being on the field isn't fun," he said. "I've experienced a lot of that in my career from injuries. I really just want to be out there for my teammates. I came back for a sixth year to lead this team to a Pac-12 Championship, that's our goal and nothing's changed. If I'm not out on the field, I feel like our chances go down a little bit because I'm the leader and I have a lot of experience up front. So that's something I need to do, continue to stay on the field."
The offensive line has seen plenty of movement, with Irwin's absence and an injury to Huckins both forcing coaches to get creative. While he believes settling on a front five could be helpful, Irwin also understands that they have to step up as a group, no matter who is on the field.
"Ideally for an offensive line you want to have five set guys," Irwin said, "but if you look across the board at every D-1 school and all of college football, it's rare to see a full five start the whole season and not miss any games or anything. So you have to be prepared for hurdles and that's something we've had to overcome. John (Huckins) banged up his quad in the second game and had to miss the third one, but that's something we're going to have to adjust to. You know, we haven't played to the standard that we want to play to and that's something we have to come out here and work on every day, just getting better. No matter who we put in, those guys have to step up and perform.
"In this conference. they attack weaknesses," Irwin added. "I'm not saying guys are weak, but we aren't performing at the standard we want to be performing at. We come out here every day and although there may not be as much chemistry with some of the younger guys as there is with some of the seniors, that's something we have to make work. Because at the end of the day, if we can't make it work we aren't going to be a successful team."
There is no single area where the offensive line wants to boost their level of play. They just want to be better overall. For Irwin, that goes back to fundamentals.
"[We want to improve] everything—run game, pass protection," Irwin said. "I mean, we give great effort every game, we play hard, and that's something that I'm proud of, that we're proud of us a group. But at the end of the day, it's all about technique and that's just the name of the game, especially with the offensive line. You can be as athletic as you want, but if you don't have the technique, you're not going to improve the way you want to."
A Pac-12 tilt with UCLA this weekend could be the perfect opportunity for the Buffs' offensive line to get back on track. Keeping pressure away from Montez will give him the best chance of keeping up with Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen, and paving the way for Lindsay could help him break off his first huge game of the season against the porous UCLA run defense.
Irwin knows the offense's success this week is partially on his shoulders, and he is ready for the challenge.
"We don't want to give up a sack, that's my mentality. I don't want to let him get hit, I don't want to give up a sack," Irwin said. "But the reality of football is you get beat every now and then. What matters is how often you get beat, so we need to limit how often we get one-on-one and get beat and we need to limit our errors and double teams. We need to get better so we can give Phil the 150-200 yard games that he wants. Phil is a tough guy, and we respect him and he respects us, but we need to improve as an offense. I think that's pretty clear to everyone, there's a lot of speculation about how we're doing but you have to block that out at the end of the day and come ready to work. This week is a new week, we're going to explode on that team."
Irwin and the offensive line know that some of the offense's struggles come back to them. This weekend, with all of their projected starters ready to take the field, they have an opportunity to show exactly what they are capable of doing.