Surprising Buffaloes shoot for statement at USC
Colorado is ranked for the first time in more than a decade. But that doesn't mean the Buffaloes still aren't underdogs.
Colorado (4-1 overall, 2-0 Pac-12) will put its first ranking since 2005 on the line when it travels to USC (2-3, 1-2) Saturday for a 4 p.m. ET kickoff from the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"We've got to keep playing games," Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said.
"Every team that's left to play can beat us, and we can beat every team left. We have to come and play Colorado football, that's what I tell them all the time. Play Colorado football; that means take care of yourself. Then, you go out there and play and see what happens."
The matchup is between the most surprising team in the league against probably its most disappointing. The Trojans stumbled out of the game in Clay Helton's first full season as head coach, losing 52-6 to Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and then later dropping games to Stanford (27-10) and Utah (31-27).
But all is not lost.
The Trojans have a chance to get right back into the Pac-12 South race by beating front-running Colorado. USC is hoping last week's 41-20 home win over Arizona State was a turning point.
"It could be," said cornerback Adoree' Jackson. "That's one of those things where you never know what may happen. But it could be a turning point and we just want to keep this momentum going and keep it going from there."
Colorado has a quarterback controversy after Steven Montez filled in well during the past two weeks for injured senior Sefo Liufau. The redshirt freshman threw for 293 yards and three touchdowns in a 47-6 win over Oregon State last Saturday after throwing for 333 yards and three scores in a win over Oregon.
Montez also rushed for 163 yards and two scores in those two games.
MacIntyre was asked Monday who would start against the Trojans.
"We'll see how this week goes," he said.
Montez said he found out in the middle of last week that Liufau would not be ready to play against the Beavers, and he might not find out if he is starting against USC until Saturday.
USC has moved past its quarterback controversy. Helton inserted redshirt freshman Sam Darnold into the starting lineup after three games, replacing junior Max Browne.
Darnold threw for 352 yards last week in his second career start, and his ability to run is also forcing defenses to account for him, helping to free up the rest of the Trojans' ample playmakers, such as All-American wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. He is starting to assert himself after a slow start through three games.
Smith-Schuster caught three touchdown passes last week against Arizona State, and he has 15 catches in the past two games for 221 yards.
Helton was asked to compare Darnold to recent USC quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler.
"He can be as good or better than those two guys," Helton said. "He's got several attributes that are hard to defend. He's a dangerous weapon."
Perhaps there is a caveat to Darnold's performance last week because the Sun Devils entered the game with the worst pass defense in the country. Colorado is at the opposite end of the spectrum, ranked ninth in passing yards allowed at only 150.4 per game.
Three of Colorado's opponents have failed to pass for more than 100 yards.
"I think you can see it in our play and the way we talk to people and the way we feel, we carry ourselves differently," said safety Ryan Moeller said. "I wouldn't say that any one of us is getting a big head by any means. I think everyone is very level headed and ready to take it to the next step."
The Buffaloes also have a strong running attack, rushing for at least 247 yards in each victory. But they managed only 64 in their toughest game -- a loss to Michigan, when Liufau went out with his injury. USC is 79th nationally in rush defense, allowing 170.8 yards per game.
Colorado went 2-25 in the Pac-12 during MacIntyre's first three seasons. The Buffs won a total of five league games in their first five seasons in the league after jumping from the Big 12.
"The wins give us a lot of confidence," safety Tedric Thompson said. "Being able to get these wins right now is good, but we have to keep on the road. We can't get too high or too low on ourselves."