Brian Howell’s Rewind: Are CU Buffs committed enough to the run game?

Brian Howell’s Rewind: Are CU Buffs committed enough to the run game?

Colorado running back Anthony Hankerson, left, fends off UCLA linebacker Darius Muasau during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

The Colorado Buffaloes have a problem with their run game. But, it’s the not the issue that it might appear to be.

Going into the final month of the regular season, the Buffs are the third-worst rushing team in the country, at 78.6 yards per game. Only Colorado State (74.0) and Hawaii (56.1) are worse.

In terms of yards per carry, CU is last in the country, at 2.51. Hawaii is just ahead of the Buffs, at 2.53.

In this (delayed) edition of the Rewind, we look at the Buffs’ run game – or lack thereof – through the first eight games, as well as …

• A rare type of loss

• Best of the Buffs vs. UCLA

• Notes and quotes

Grounded ground game

On record, the Buffs have had just one season worse than this one in terms of average rushing yards per game: 59.7 in 1984.

“It’s a struggle to run the ball,” CU head coach Deion Sanders said after last weekend’s 28-16 loss to UCLA. “And we’ve got to figure that out because now you’re one dimensional and it’s easy to stop a team when they’re one dimensional and that’s who we are at this point of time.”

Sanders is absolutely correct about that. The Buffs are too one-dimensional on offense. CU finished with a season-low 38 rushing yards against UCLA.  That’s already the sixth time in eight games that the Buffs have finished with 70 yards or less on the ground. Five times they’ve finished with less than 60 yards.

But, is it a struggle because the Buffs CAN’T run the ball, or because they WON’T run the ball?

CU’s 2.51 yards per carry is dismal, but that average is, of course, significantly impacted by the fact that quarterback sacks are accounted for in the rushing stats. CU has given up 42 sacks (nationally only Old Dominion, with 43, has given up more) and lost a whopping 381 yards on those sacks – 126 more than the next-worst team (FIU, at 255).

Those 42 sacks have accounted for 16.7% of CU’s “rushing” attempts.

Take out the sacks and the CU’s average vaults to a much-more respectable 4.83 yards per carry (1,010 yards on 209 attempts).

Colorado running back Dylan Edwards (3) tries to elude Arizona State defensive back Shamari Simmons (7) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz.

Dylan Edwards and Anthony Hankerson have handled the bulk of the workload at running back. Edwards is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and Hankerson 4.2.

Unfortunately, neither one gets much of a chance to run the ball. The Buffs hand off to their running backs only 19.6 times per game.

Against UCLA, a quartet of running backs got a grand total of 11 carries. Four of those came in obvious get-off-the-field situations: a 3-and-18 handoff to Edwards, two straight handoffs to Hankerson to end the first half, and one to Alton McCaskill on the last play of the game.

Prior to a Sept. 30 game against USC, Sanders was asked if the Buffs needed to be more committed to the run game. He said, “That’s just like asking your wife are you committed to a good meal every night if she can’t cook. We’ve got to be able to cook the meal, right, before we could commit to it. We gotta be able to cook the running game before we commit to it.”

That’s true to a point. But you’ve also got to dedicate some time to prep the meal, and the Buffs just haven’t done that.

Ironically, the USC game was the only one in which the Buffs really committed to the run. Not surprisingly, that was CU’s best game on the ground, with 193 yards on 45 attempts. Hankerson finished with 74 yards on 16 carries and Edwards had 44 yards on 12 carries.

Against UCLA, the Buffs never really gave the run game a chance – despite some early success. Edwards had a 3-yard run for a first down on the second play of the game and an 8-yard run on second-and-10 on the Buffs’ second possession. Those were the only handoffs in 23 first-quarter plays for the Buffs.

In the third quarter, with the Buffs within one score, they ran 11 offensive plays and never handed off to a back. The first time the Buffs handed off to a running back in the second half was with 6:30 to play, down 28-9. Sy’veon Wilkerson had an 8-yard run to kickstart the only touchdown drive of the night. McCaskill added a 9-yard run late in that drive.

There’s no question that CU has a sensational quarterback in Shedeur Sanders. The head coach’s son is one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Shedeur is getting pummeled, however, in part because the Buffs are too one dimensional.

Coach Prime was asked once again, after the UCLA game, if it would help for the Buffs to commit more to the run.

“I think we committed to it on first down and it was second and 15,” he said, referring to a handoff to Hankerson to start a second-quarter possession. “When we’re getting negative yards on first down, that’s a tremendous loss because now you know you want to throw the ball on second down and they’re calling their defenses pertaining to that loss.”

That’s true, but bailing on the run too quickly plays right into the hands of the defense. UCLA had no reason to respect the CU run game, so the Bruins were able to come after Shedeur. They racked up seven sacks and hit Shedeur 17 times.

All those hits put the spotlight on the offensive line struggles. No question, the line is struggling in pass protection, but as my colleague Pat Rooney pointed out earlier this week, we still don’t know if this line is good at run blocking (although the non-sack average suggests they are solid).

Over the years, I’ve had numerous offensive linemen tell me that they would much rather run block than pass block, because they can be more aggressive, rather than playing on their heels so much.

I’ve also had numerous running backs over the years say they need several carries to get into a rhythm within a game.

CU’s offensive philosophy isn’t helping the line or the backs. Understandably, Coach Prime wants the ball in the hands of the Buffs’ best player, Shedeur. But, in leaning on Shedeur so much, it may actually be hurting the Buffs.

Last week I had a conversation with a retired lineman who played for Denver Broncos legendary head coach Mike Shanahan. In his coaching career, Shanahan was always known for having a great run game.

This former player told me, “Mike Shanahan was the only coach I ever had that didn’t let what happened with the runs in the first quarter affect the rest of the game. He knew that if you called enough, eventually one would break. More importantly, even if not running the ball well, by simply showing you WILL run allows you to utilize play action and give your line a fighting chance when throwing the ball so much.

“You really don’t have to be a great running team to use play action. You just have to be a willing running team.”

Eight games into the season, the Buffs simply haven’t been a willing running team, which is unusual for offensive coordinator Sean Lewis. In his last four seasons at Kent State, Lewis’ offense ran the ball on 61% of its snaps. This year, just 42% of CU’s snaps have been runs, including the sacks.

After the UCLA game, Coach Prime didn’t hold back in saying, “The line has to improve,” while adding that in the big picture, “You go get new linemen.”

Certainly the Buffs are going to be busy in the transfer portal in trying to improve the line. But with four games to play, they ought to give the group a better chance to succeed.

Commit to the run early, give the linemen a chance to be the aggressor while handing off to a talented stable of backs. That just might be the recipe to taking some pressure off Shedeur and get the offense back on track.

Colorado safety Shilo Sanders, right, forces a fumble by UCLA running back Carson Steele during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif. Colorado recovered the ball.

Rare outcome

Against UCLA, the Buffs forced four turnovers (two fumbles and two interceptions) and didn’t have any turnovers on offense.

A plus-4 turnover ratio would seem to be a significant key to victory, so I did some research this week. CU has game-by-game stats going back to 1983. In those 41 seasons (1983-2023), I found that this was the 22nd time CU has had at least a plus-4 turnover margin. The Buffs were 21-0 in those games before Saturday’s loss to the Bruins.

Overall, the Buffs have forced four or more turnovers 77 times since 1983, going 62-14-1 in those games. Saturday was the 14th time in that 41-season stretch that CU had at least four takeaways and no turnovers.

Despite the loss, Coach Prime was pleased with the defense forcing the turnovers.

“It’s tremendous,” he said. “I’m tremendously ecstatic about what we accomplished in the turnover aspect of everything. But we still made little mistakes.”

Best of the Buffs

My take on the top Buffs from the loss to UCLA:

LB LaVonta Bentley: Posted eight tackles and a sack.

OLB Jordan Domineck: One of his better games as a Buff, as he posted nine tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss.

WR Jimmy Horn Jr.: Caught a team-high six passes for 35 yards and a touchdown.

CB Travis Hunter: Exceptional night at corner, as he picked off two passes and added two tackles.

PK Alejandro Mata: Went 3-for-3 on field goals and made his only extra point attempt.

QB Shedeur Sanders: Weathered the storm of UCLA’s defense to threw for 217 yards and a touchdown.

S Shilo Sanders: Prior to being ejected for targeting, he was setting the tone on defense. He had four tackles, including one that forced a fumble.

S Rodrick Ward: Finished the night with six tackles and he forced a fumble.

LB Trevor Woods: Led the team with 12 tackles and also had a pass breakup.

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders, right, looks at his son quarterback Shedeur Sanders during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Pasadena, Calif.

Notes and quotes

• Despite the loss, the Buffs sit at 4-4. It’s just the seventh time in the last 18 seasons that CU has been .500 or better through  eight games.

• Coach Prime on how well Shedeur Sanders is playing: “Statistically, you see how well he’s doing. I don’t know who else that they have in these Heisman balloting that takes the abuse that he takes and gets back up. I don’t know if any of these guys could stand and deliver every week like he does with the same stress; the same stress that he delivers from. So I’m proud of him. And not just as a father, but as a coach. I’m proud of his strides in what he’s doing and what he’s seeing.”

• Coach Prime on Travis Hunter’s performance: “Travis is Travis. I keep telling you that. There’s multiple kids I don’t consider myself about their play and their attitude. Travis was gonna bounce back and I know he was gonna bounce back (from a rough game on defense against Stanford). He was coming off of injury and he was taking the offensive side of the ball a lot more serious than he was taking the defensive side of the ball when he first came back (for the Stanford game). And he just had to reset, because he didn’t go home on the break. He stayed, worked out, trained and got his feet up under him and watched film intently and studied the little things so he was prepared and ready today. He gave you a Travis Hunter performance.”

• Shedeur Sanders when asked if this is the most frustrated he’s been: “Just because we took losses, that’s not what’s frustrating in the game. Some wins feel like losses, I would say. You gotta go back and watch the film, honestly, what reads did I miss, what didn’t I hit on, what didn’t I connect? What me and the receivers didn’t see eye to eye on. That’s really the main thing going into it. But it’s not just losses that you feel bad about. You feel bad about (some) wins too.”

• Shedeur Sanders on the defense playing well: “They did everything they were supposed to do. That’s on us, that’s on me. We can’t afford to not put up points like that, especially when the defense is doing their job, doing everything coach is asking them to do. We just gotta take that to the chin and move on to next week.”

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