What to watch: No. 24 UCLA vs. Colorado

“Colorado is definitely an underrated team,” receiver Jordan Payton said this week. “People sleep on them a lot.”

Will UCLA? The No. 24 Bruins are back in position to win the Pac-12 South, but need five straight victories to do it. The Buffaloes don’t look like an imposing hurdle, not after an in-conference losing streak that finally ended at 14 games last weekend.

Las Vegas sportsbooks now has UCLA listed as a consensus 23-point favorite. Here’s what to watch in today’s noon kickoff at the Rose Bowl.

When UCLA has the ball

No Pac-12 team has totaled fewer than 200 rushing yards against it this season, and through all eight games, the Buffaloes have surrendered 1,676 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Only 19 teams in the FBS give up more than Colorado’s 5.06 yards allowed per carry.

UCLA’s Paul Perkins is one of the conference’s best running backs, but the Bruins might not want to overwork him given the knee injury that forced him out of last week’s win over Cal. While Perkins is expected to suit up, look for backup Nate Starks and freshmen Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi to get some carries.

But the Buffs are at least noticeably better than they were the past few years, when they ranked near among the worst in the country. First-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has installed a scheme that relies more on man coverage, and one that has better utilized the existing roster. Look for him to try and throw different pressures at freshman quarterback Josh Rosen.

Defensive back Chidobe Awuzie has been the biggest beneficiary of the coaching change, racking up a team-high four sacks as well as six pass breakups and two interceptions. He and the rest of the Buffaloes have registered 14 takeaways this season, making at least one in every game. They’ll likely need more than that to make it a close game. Continue reading

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Five questions: Daily Camera’s Brian Howell on Colorado

UCLA’s window at the Pac-12 South title opened up after USC’s defeat of Utah, but the Bruins have little room for error. Jim Mora’s squad is in a three-way tie for second in the division, and should be heavy favorites in two or three of its final five regular-season games. First up in that order is Colorado, which only has five conference wins since joining the Pac-12. Brian Howell of the Boulder Daily Camera answered five questions about the Buffaloes, who are looking for more signs of progress in their third season under Mike MacIntyre.

1. Colorado lost 14 straight Pac-12 games before winning at Oregon State this past Saturday. How much of a mental toll did that take on the team?

Quite a bit, but more so than the 14 losses, it’s the amount of close losses that weighed on this team. This past Saturday was the seventh time in their last 13 Pac-12 games that the Buffs have either led or tied at the half, and it was the first time they pulled off a win. Five of their Pac-12 losses since the start of 2014 have come by a touchdown or less. So, it’s really been the fact that they’re close – but not quite there – that has bothered them the most.

2. The Buffaloes’ defense has gone from awful to middling in a year, at least statistically. How much credit does new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt deserve for the turnaround? How does he utilize the team’s personnel differently than his predecessor Kent Baer did?

Leavitt deserves a lot of credit. From the start, the players have loved his fiery personality and they love playing in this defense, which is set up to allow the guys more freedom to play, rather than having to think so much. One of the biggest, and most important, changes Leavitt has made personnel-wise is utilizing all the skills of Chidobe Awuzie, who is their best player on defense. Continue reading

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First look: No. 24 UCLA vs. Colorado

Colorado's last trip to the Rose Bowl featured this beautiful reunion between brothers Gus (left) and Sam Handler — a sight we unfortunately won't see again this year. (Michael Owen Baker/File)

Colorado’s last trip to the Rose Bowl featured this beautiful reunion between brothers Gus (left) and Sam Handler — a sight we unfortunately won’t see again this year. (Michael Owen Baker/File)

No. 24 UCLA Bruins (5-2, 2-2) vs. Colorado Buffaloes (4-4, 1-3)
Kickoff:
Saturday, Oct. 31, 12 p.m., Rose Bowl
TV: Pac-12 Networks (Roxy Bernstein, Glenn Parker, Jill Savage)
Radio: AM 570 (Bill Roth, Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook)

Scouting report: Colorado is very consistent in its mediocrity this season, ranking No. 80 nationally in both yards gained per play (5.48) and yards allowed (5.72). … The defensive number is actually a significant improvement over Mike MacIntyre’s first two seasons, which saw the Buffs rank outside the top 100 and give up more than 6.0 yards per play. In 2012, they were dead last at 7.11. … Credit that development in part to the arrival of new defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt — a man with an impressive on-field record, but who also got fired by USF for hitting a player and obstructing the school’s ensuing investigation. He has never admitted fault. Colorado is fifth in the Pac-12 with 19 sacks after ranking 11th in the conference for three straight seasons. … The Buffaloes’ offense has become much more run-heavy, though not much more efficient. They’ve run the ball 358 times and passed it 274 times, compared to 451 runs and 545 passes a year ago. They remain in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in scoring (29.8 points) and third-down conversion (39.2%).

Series history: Colorado has only beaten five Pac-12 opponents since joining the conference in 2011. UCLA isn’t among them. The Bruins have won four straight against the Buffaloes, with last year’s 40-37 victory being the only one that came by fewer than 20 points. UCLA also leads the all-time series, 8-2, losing two straight in 2002 and 2003.

Key players:

QB Sefo Liufau, Jr., 6-4, 240 — 160/260, 1,870 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT, 168 rush yards, 5 TD
— He separated the AC joint in his right shoulder a month ago, but hasn’t missed a game. He’s played his best football in his last two games, completing two-thirds of his passes for 479 yards and three touchdowns, while adding three more scores on the ground. Continue reading

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