Q&A: Behind enemy lines

With Saturday’s USC vs. Colorado game quickly approaching, the Daily Trojan and CU Independent collaborated to obtain inside information through a conversation with sports editor Justin Guerriero.

Daily Trojan: Colorado is undefeated so far with a fairly easy schedule. How are the Buffs approaching this game compared to the others?

Justin Guerriero: Colorado has taken some significant heat on the national level from the media and fans alike for the combined 1-16 record of its opponents before last week’s matchup with Arizona State. I suppose that’s fair. But overall, the Buffaloes are prepping for USC as they would any other team. It’s business as usual. That said, I think coaches and players alike understand the toughness of playing at the Coliseum and are cognizant of Colorado having never beaten USC in program history. That very well may change come Saturday. Say what you will about the Buffaloes’ weak schedule thus far, but this Colorado team coming to L.A. on Saturday is one coming off a well-earned win over ASU last week and is ready to compete for a similar result against the Trojans. The Buffs have a lot of weapons on offense while Colorado’s defense has looked solid thus far, as well.

DT: Junior quarterback Steven Montez is ranked second in completion percentage behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. What is it about him that makes the offense so productive?

JG: Steven Montez is very much a guy who was thrown into the fire as a young quarterback. In 2016, when the Buffaloes had a magical year of resurgence, finishing the year at 10-4 and making a bowl for the first time since 2005, Montez was backup to the tenured and now-graduated Sefo Liufau. In Week 3 at Michigan, Montez was called upon in the second half to lead the Buffs against the then-ranked No. 4 Wolverines after Liufau left the game with an ankle injury. Montez was far from spectacular, but in that game I think he got some jitters out of the way which allowed him, upon being named starter for the team’s Pac-12 Conference opener at Oregon the following week, to go in with confidence and lead Colorado to a major upset in Eugene.

Last year, the Buffs tailed off following the loss of nine out of 11 starters on defense and finished the season with a 5-7 record. Montez was good, but signs of growing pains were there. At times, he seemed uncomfortable in the pocket, tossed far too many balls into tight coverage and had a knack for refusing to throw the ball away in hopeless situations, resulting in major sacks and lossage of yards. That said, this season, he is displaying signs of extreme maturity. Colorado added Kurt Roper as quarterbacks coach for the season and his skills and influence on Montez are becoming increasingly apparent.

Roper told me over the summer that Montez’s work ethic and desire to get to know his receivers reminded him of how Peyton Manning operated when he was at Tennessee in the late ’90s (Roper was a graduate assistant for the Volunteers for Manning’s junior and senior seasons). Montez has gone above and beyond to establish a rapport with his wideouts. He once told me that he spent hours running routes in his apartment parking lot with Colorado senior wideout Juwann Winfree. He’s got a great arm and, with Roper’s help, is developing an ever increasing football IQ that’s allowing him to be cool in the pocket under pressure and exploit opposing teams’ defenses. Overall, his completion percentage is up 15 percent from what it was in 2017.

DT: Is Colorado’s defense going to be able to stop USC’s run game in senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware?

JG: Honestly, he very well could rush for 100 yards. Last week against the Sun Devils, Colorado’s defense struggled at times with ASU tailback Eno Benjamin, who rushed for 123 yards and found the endzone twice. But the Buffs held him to a 4.3 yards per carry average. Colorado’s defense buckled down in the second half, limiting Benjamin to 24 rushing yards in the final two quarters. The Buffaloes’ defense has solid linebackers in seniors Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis plus sophomore standout Nate Landman, who leads the team with two interceptions and 48 tackles. Defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson has been great in 2018. His 4.5 sacks are a team-high and he’s proved adept at plugging holes and frustrating enemy running backs. I’d describe CU’s run defense as good, not great, but good enough to keep opposing tailbacks from delivering knockout blows to the team on the whole.

DT: Who are USC’s key offensive players that the Buffaloes are worried about?

JG: Freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown is probably first and foremost on the list. I think he’ll be a good test for Colorado’s secondary. He strikes me as the type of guy that’s capable of elevating the game of the Trojans’ true freshman quarterback, JT Daniels, whom I respect but think could be prone to mishaps. The Buffs will certainly need to keep a tab on Ware, but also perhaps to a similar extent sophomore running back Stephen Carr. His 5.9 yards per carry average is impressive and speaks for itself. The Trojans’ running and passing plays are equal in 2018 at 169. I asked Mustafa Johnson this week about preparing for a balanced offense like USC’s and he essentially told me that he and the defense will look to shut down one element of the Trojans’ offense in the hopes of making them one dimensional.

DT: What’s your score prediction?

JG: 30-21, Colorado. I think Colorado will earn its first victory over USC on Saturday. I anticipate Colorado’s offense to outperform the Trojans on defense, and while I think the game will be close and hard fought, I believe the Buffaloes’ defense will perform well enough to limit the damage and allow Montez and Co. to hammer enough nails in USC’s coffin to ensure a win on the road.