After a 5-0 start to the season, the Colorado Buffaloes looked to be the surprise team in the predictably unpredictable PAC-12 South. That all changed after a tough loss to USC in week seven, kicking off a new five game streak in the other direction, including arguably the worst loss the Buffaloes have endured since joining the PAC-12, an overtime loss to the beleaguered Beavers of Oregon State where the Buffaloes gave up a 31-point half time lead. Now amid rumors of head coach Mike MacIntyre’s tenure coming to an end, the Buffaloes have two games left to secure bowl eligibility and salvage their once promising season.
Considering Colorado’s first five opponents are currently a combined 18-32 (with Arizona State being the only team they have beaten with a winning record) and their last five hold a 28-22 combined record (Oregon State is the lone team with a sub .500 record), it’s easy to point to the uptick in strength of opponents to the dramatic freefall the Buffaloes season has taken, however it’s no small coincidence that Colorado’s decline started when star receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. was sidelined with a toe injury.
Shenault, a 6’2”, 220 lbs sophomore, has been the breakout player of the year in the PAC-12. Coming out of 2017, Shenault had seven catches and 168 yards and zero touchdowns on his college resume, but easily eclipsed those numbers in the first game of 2018, reeling in 11 catches for 211 yards and a touchdown against Colorado State. His dominance didn’t stop there. Throughout the next four games, the sophomore phenom could be seen grabbing deep balls while tip-toeing the sideline, taking direct snaps from the wildcat position, rolling out from the backfield, and nabbing short dump passes with ease. Through just six games, Shenault had accrued 60 receptions and 780 yards with six receiving touchdowns. Add to that 15 rushing attempts for 87 yards and five additional rushing touchdowns, and it’s clear Shenault is the heart of this Colorado offense. In his return last week, the Desoto, TX transplant averaged 10.2 yards on his 10 catches, but his longest reception went for a mere 18 yards, well short of his previous low of 24 yards and woefully under his 89-yard high for 2018. Whether Shenault’s toe is fully healed remains to be seen, but Utah’s defense will need to expend a lot of resources to keep him contained.
Of course, Shenault couldn’t be successful without junior quarterback Steven Montez. Through a dramatic 2018 season for the Buffaloes as a whole, Montez has been a beacon od consistency, throwing for 2,595 yards with a 66.6% completion rate and 17 touchdowns with just five interceptions. In fact, Montez is ranks in the top four among PAC-12 quarterbacks in pass completions, completion percentage and total yards. Unfortunately for Montez, he’s also the most sacked quarterback in the conference, going down 24 times this season, a number that is sure to increase after this weekend’s matchup in Boulder.
On the ground, senior graduate transfer Tavon McMillian has been a major addition the Colorado’s 2018 squad, putting up 910 yards on 167 carries while finding the end zone six times. Similar to Utah’s own Zack Moss, McMillian is a powerful, speedy runner who is hard to bring down on first contact. As one of the top running backs in the conference, Utah’s traditionally stout rush defense will need to play up to their level, otherwise an ASU-like meltdown would likely eliminate the Utes from PAC-12 South contention.
Though they no longer control their own destiny, Utah has a chance to clinch the South division this weekend. Despite Colorado’s mid-season collapse, there is plenty of talent and desperation surrounding the program that the Buffaloes could, once again, derail Utah’s hopes of conference glory.