BOULDER, Colo. (AP) – In seasons gone by, the Colorado Buffaloes would be playing for nothing more than a little pride at this stage of the year.
How those times have dramatically changed for the once downtrodden program. The rise of the No. 21 Buffaloes (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12, No. 15 CFP ) has been one of the more intriguing story lines in college football this season. They were considered a fringe bowl team at best heading into the year and their coach, Mike MacIntyre, on the hot seat.
Just look at the Buffaloes now: In control of the Pac-12 South race as they face UCLA (3-5, 1-4) on Thursday night.
“When I first got here I knew that Colorado was on the up and this year we’ve proven that we’re on the rise,” senior defensive lineman Jordan Carrell said. “We do control our own destiny. We just have to stick to that one-game mindset.”
No time for slip-ups. Not with so much at stake. First, a Bruins team the Buffaloes haven’t beaten since joining the conference in 2011. Then, at Arizona, followed by two home games against No. 25 Washington State and No. 16 Utah. After that, a possible trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
But that’s too far down the road to even entertain. UCLA has Colorado’s undivided attention.
“I think being ranked is also going to give extra incentive for teams to come out there and give us their best shot,” senior quarterback Sefo Liufau said. “So each game is critically important. Each game is like a championship game because destiny is in our hands.”
On offense, the Buffaloes have fared well against UCLA the last two seasons, rolling up 1,054 total yards. It netted them exactly this: A 40-37 double-overtime loss in 2014 and a 35-31 defeat last season in Pasadena.
“I remember those games vividly,” Liufau said. “I don’t use them as extra motivation.”
With UCLA standout quarterback Josh Rosen likely sidelined with a shoulder injury, the Colorado defense is bracing for Mike Fafaul, who threw the ball 70 times for 464 yards and five TDs in a 52-45 loss to Utah on Oct. 22.
A formidable challenge for a Buffs defense that’s ranked 30th in the country against the pass.
“They will stretch us for sure, so we’re going to have to play really good coverage,” MacIntyre said.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are trying to finish up strong after dropping three straight.
“To get a four-game win streak (to close out the season), we’ve got to go 1-0,” Bruins tight end Austin Roberts said. “We’ve got to get it started this week. Who better than against a great team like Colorado?”
Things to know in a series the Bruins lead by a 9-2 margin:
CLOSING TIME: All five of UCLA’s losses this season have been by nine points or less. The Bruins had the ball on the final possession with a chance to tie or take the lead in each of them, including the game against Stanford when Rosen’s fumble was returned for a TD on the final play. “We’ve got to be more consistent on offense,” Roberts said. “We can’t start off the game hot with two touchdowns, then go three possessions in a row with three-and-outs and have our defense out there getting tired and gassed.”
RUNNING ROOM: The Bruins are trying to get the running game on track. They’re averaging 85.5 yards per game. “If you look at our numbers, or our record, it doesn’t define who we are,” tailback Bolu Olorunfunmi said. “Just keep working.”
KICKING WOES: Colorado kicker Davis Price took over for Diego Gonzalez after Gonzalez tore his Achilles tendon earlier in the season. But Price is still dealing with mono and may not play Thursday. That leaves Chris Graham as option No. 1, followed by punter Alex Kinney. “We definitely would like to score more touchdowns than kick field goals,” MacIntyre said.
ANOTHER RECORD: Liufau will tie the school record for most starts by a Colorado quarterback on Thursday. He’s already set or tied 81 school records. “It’s a blessing to be able to play so long in college football,” Liufau said. “But sadly that also means that it’s almost over.”
LINDSAY UPDATE: Phillip Lindsay, the tailback with the wild hair and fitting nickname of “Tasmanian Devil,” is steadily recovering from a tweaked ankle. He leads the Buffaloes in yards rushing (745) and all-purpose yards (998). “He’s 100 percent healthy. His hair looks good, too,” MacIntyre said. “I told him don’t cut it.”
– By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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