With most of its best offensive players back, Colorado shouldn’t exactly be a pushover in Pac-12 opener for Huskies.
It has produced seven scoreless quarters and seven turnovers.
It has produced can’t-breathe coverage and coal-to-diamond pressure.
It has produced hell for all three opponents that have dared to move the ball.
But Saturday night in Boulder, it will finally produce something else: answers.
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The Huskies’ defense has been the heart of the program since Chris Petersen took over as coach four years ago. Prolific as their offense can be, stat-tacular as Jake Browning has been, the unit preventing points is the A-side of this cassette.
But with all the turnover from last season — particularly with the star-studded secondary — this defense is still untested against a truly capable offense. Want proof they still have it? Saturday’s game vs. Colorado will serve as exhibit A.
“I’m very curious,” said linebacker Keishawn Bierria when asked about seeing what the defense can do. “It’s our first Pac-12 game. They’re going to have some things drawn up for us.”
Bierria added that, despite all of UW’s practices being intense, there was an extra jolt of adrenaline on Monday. Hard to prevent that from happening when your first conference game is four days away.
And though the Buffaloes were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South before the season began, it’s hard to ignore that they’re the defending South champions with just about all of their offense coming back.
Quarterback Sefo Liufau may have graduated, but current starter Steven Montez proved plenty effective in the 10 games he played behind center last year. Sure, he threw 131 passes to Liufau’s 290, but he had higher yards-per-attempt and touchdown rates than the man he backed up.
CU (3-0) also returned running back Phillip Lindsay, receivers Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross, along with most of their offensive linemen.
In other words, the 10 points UW held Colorado to last year is virtually irrelevant.
“We feel like we’re facing a really experienced offense — everybody’s back,” said Huskies secondary coach Jimmy Lake. “This is going to be a heck of a challenge.”
It might be particularly challenging for the group Lake oversees.
The past three games have muted some of the concerns over the Huskies’ back end, but that doesn’t mean they disappeared. When cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Kevin King join safety Budda Baker as second-rounds picks in the NFL draft, it’s naive not to expect some kind of drop-off.
Yes, cornerbacks Myles Bryant and Byron Murphy — a sophomore and freshman, respectively — have had coaches salivating up to this point. Taylor Rapp might have the sharpest instincts on the team, while fellow safety JoJo McIntosh might be its hardest hitter.
But as a group, these guys haven’t had to go up against Pac-12 firepower.
I’m not trying to say that facing the Buffaloes is on par with staring down Sam Darnold and USC. Colorado finished sixth in the Pac-12 in total offense last year and let its defense carry most of the load toward the Pac-12 title game. But it still has a mobile quarterback with gunslinging power and three of the better receivers in the conference. And with Lindsay, it also has a running back who’s averaged more than 5 yards a carry over his past 17 games.
Maybe that’s why defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski didn’t have to think too hard when asked what areas of CU’s offense most concern him.
“All of them,” he said.
Nobody will dispute some of the talent that lurks within the Huskies’ defense. With players such as Bierria, Vita Vea and Azeem Victor, we’re talking about one of the best front sevens in the country. We’re also talking about a secondary teeming with potential that, given a few fine performances, might get the rest of the nation talking.
But if we’re talking about all these guys as a whole — we’re still not what sure what they’re capable of.
Saturday, the Huskies will play more than a mile above sea level. Is that as high as their defense’s ceiling? We may soon find out.