BOULDER - For the second consecutive season, the Colorado Buffaloes secondary has been their most talent-rich position group, boasting at least one future NFL draft pick in Isaiah Oliver and a breakout talent in Evan Worthington. But instead of dominating defensively, the Buffs have struggled to bring quarterback pressure in Pac-12 play. That is, until this past weekend when the Buffs found their pass rush for the first time in weeks.
CU's pass rush showed up and showed out on Saturday, racking up four sacks and five quarterback hurries and applying constant pressure to Cal's signal-caller. It was the first time since kicking off conference play the Buffs have put together a full defensive performance and the outcome was staggering.
"We definitely had a great game this week as far as pass rush goes," linebacker Drew Lewis said. "We had a lot of guys out there getting in the backfield, a lot of guys had their first sacks of the season, including myself. But it was a great environment to go out and play some smash mouth football. The week before that it was kind of hard to move around because of the weather conditions so that was easier this week and things just kind of clicked for us as a defense."
Lewis, who has been a breakout star on the Buffs defense this season, has nearly gotten to the quarterback several times this season. Saturday marked his first official sack of the year, something Lewis has been aiming for since week one.
"It felt great," Lewis said. "Obviously I was able to get pressure to the quarterback a lot this season, I just was never really able to finish a play and get him on the ground. It felt really great and now I kind of know what to expect. I don't want to get content with it but I do hope to be able to replicate it in the future and do the same thing for the rest of the year."
Like Lewis' first sack, this version of CU's defense has been a long time coming. The Buffs boast a bevy of talent along their defensive line, with veterans Derek McCartney, Rick Gamboa, Lewis and Leo Jackson forming a dangerous and dynamic quarterback threat.
“Obviously, we have ability in terms of pass rush on our team and it hasn’t shown up as much as we would have liked so far this season,” linebacker McCartney said after the game. “But it really did show [on Saturday]. I think we’re just going to keep getting better.”
Part of their ability to finally get things clicking could be traced back to a single element for the CU defense - fun. After a tough shutout at the hands of Washington State, the Buffs came home searching for a new attitude. And their defensive leaders helped them find it.
"As captains, me and Afolabi [Laguda] and Derek [McCartney] all came together and talked to the defense and told them that we need to start having fun again," team captain Gamboa said. "On defense, people weren’t playing with passion or emotion and I think Saturday we showed that we were having fun. We were celebrating as a team and as a defense and I think that helped us.”
Head coach Mike MacIntyre supports whatever gets the pass rush going, whether that's a fresh mentality or perfect weather at Folsom Field.
"Hopefully, they do go out there and have fun," MacIntyre said. "When they have confidence and they’re freed up and making plays that makes it fun. I think Saturday afternoon when it’s 60 degrees and sunny and Folsom is packed and we’re scoring touchdowns and making plays is fun.”
A good pass rush does more than just apply pressure to the quarterback - it also takes a big weight off of the secondary. And freeing up Oliver and Worthington to wreak havoc in the defensive backfield is an enormous advantage for the Buffs.
"That's a huge coaching point that our coaches make - that the better our pass rush is, the easier it will be for the secondary to prevent the deep ball," Lewis said. "And myself included, when I'm trying to pressure the quarterback, I'm trying to get there as quick as possible to help the DBs out. They noticed that too - they said that we were making their lives a whole lot easier."
The Buffs ability to pressure the quarterback facilitated one of their best defensive performances of the year, and certainly their most impressive against a conference opponent. Putting together a full defensive game has renewed the Buffs confidence, something that will be incredibly important as they take on a few dangerous offenses in the final stretch of the season.
"What we're focused on right now is that we want to go to a bowl game, we want to win these last games and go to a good bowl game," Lewis said. "And every win creates that possibility for us, so at this point, we need one more win to verify our chances of getting in there. We know it's possible - we have three games and they're all winnable games for us."
Against Cal, this CU defense looked like they did through the first three weeks - disruptive, shutdown and full of energy. If they can replicate that production through their last few matchups, those final three games become much less daunting, and a bowl dream becomes much more plausible.
"We know what we’re capable of doing," Gamboa said. "We can win any game we play as long as we come out and focus on our side of the ball, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams. As long as everyone is communicating and working together, all three phases are working together, we feel that we have a chance to win.”