A look at the box scores tells the tale. By the end of last season, it was obvious how to beat the Colorado Buffaloes.
Run the ball.
The Buffs ranked ninth in the Big 12 Conference and 86th in the country in rushing defense in 2008. They allowed 166.3 yards per game. CU gave up 21 rushing touchdowns and an average of 4.4 yards per carry.
Mouthwatering numbers for any opposing running back.
Coach Dan Hawkins lists good run defense among the common characteristics shared by most good football teams. When asked this week about his team’s need for improvement in that area this season, he said it’s the defensive statistic he looks at most.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day if you had to pick what you would be first in. I’d want to be first in run defense,” he said. “That’s what I want to be first in.”
Hawkins’ Buffs were first against the pass in the Big 12 last season, but he brushes off that statistic as probably being a product of teams having so much success on the ground.
CU took a serious step backward against the run last year at a time when it was loaded with experience in its defensive front. The Buffs had given up fewer than 130 yards a game on the ground in 2007 and were rewarded with a bowl game.
It’s a new year, but many of the same Buffs are back on the defensive side of the ball, except along the defensive line where a lot of young and inexperienced players will be trying to shore things up this season.
That fact normally doesn’t lend itself to improved rushing defense, but CU coaches have emphasized stopping the run this offseason more than ever before and they have implemented scheme changes they hope will help.
“That’s been a big focus during the offseason and during camp is stopping the run,” sophomore free safety Anthony Perkins said. “When it all comes down to it, stopping the run has just got to be your mindset. You’ve got to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to stop the run. We’re going to make you beat us other ways, but we’re not going to let you run the ball on us.'”
More than half of Colorado’s opponents ran for 150 or more net yards last fall. The biggest day was predictable. It came against West Virginia, which was one of the least balanced offenses Colorado has faced in recent years. The Mountaineers were running the ball almost as much as Texas Tech passes it and they racked up 311 yards on the ground in an overtime loss to CU in Folsom Field.
It might have been that game that exposed the Buffs as being weak against a determined approach to rushing the ball. CU stopped its share of attempts for little or no gain but was susceptible to the big play. The Buffs gave up seven touchdown runs of 39 yards or more over the course of the year.
“Our guys just have to understand the offense a little better,” defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “We’ve got to get an extra guy down in the box somehow. In certain situations, we’ve got to get those guys to understand the run fits. It starts up front, controlling the line of scrimmage and then getting an extra defender down there to help make the tackle. But those guys have got to understand that stopping the run is a priority.”
To drive that point home, CU coaches are teaching the gang-tackling mentality.
They have spent hours on the practice fields during spring ball and more this month yelling to defenders to get to the ball on every play. Defenders are expected to sprint across the field even when they are nowhere near the play and touch the ball carrier.
Senior cornerback Cha’pelle Brown said the Buffs have to be better against the run this year for the team to reach its goals. He said playing in a conference such as the Big 12 where most of the offenses are spread wide across the field, it’s critical not to miss tackles, especially the one-on-one situations that occur when a player gets the ball in space, either on the run or through short passes.
“I think that’s the biggest thing really in the Big 12 because it’s so spread out,” Brown said. “You might have good coverage but if the quarterback runs and you miss a tackle, it can go for 30 or 40 yards or maybe a touchdown. So the biggest thing is to make that first tackle or try to gang tackle and everybody get around the ball.”