The Colorado Buffaloes weren`t perfect Saturday afternoon -- far from it, in fact -- and they still dominated rival Colorado State.
That`s a welcome bit of news for fans of a team that won just three games last year and has been picked to finish dead last this year in the Big 12 North.
The Buffs played well, and still have plenty of room for improvement. That`s a major difference from a year ago, when they finished far too many games lamenting the missed assignments and blown plays that added up to another loss.
"We got the win, which is great -- but we want to score 40 points a game," Buff quarterback Tyler Hansen said. "It`s nice to get a win, but we can get a lot better. I think you saw some glimpses of what we can do, and I think we just scratched the surface."
One thing is certain: these are not your 2009 Buffaloes. There is legitimate team speed in this bunch, from receivers Travon Patterson, Toney Clemons and Paul Richardson to running back Rodney Stewart. Senior receiver Scotty McKnight is still one of the most reliable and consistent players on the field, and the Buffs` offensive line has improved with age.
And, while it`s difficult to gauge too much given the youth of CSU`s offense, the Buffs` defense also looks vastly improved. The Rams` longest gain of the day was a 20-yard run late in the game, and no pass went farther than 18 yards.
Last year, the Buffs gave up 53 plays of 20 yards or longer -- most of them coming when it mattered.
"I think they have a glimpse of how good they can be if we clean some things up," head coach Dan Hawkins said. "We`re going to continue to get better."
First on that cleaning list would be yellow flags. The Buffs finished the game with10 penalties for 104 yards, a number that won`t be acceptable against a better opponent. At least three promising drives were cut short by penalties, with three different CU offensive linemen called for false starts.
But on this day, at least, the good outweighed the bad. Hansen was efficient and effective, throwing for 192 yards and two touchdowns. The running game produced 115 yards, with Rodney Stewart picking up 67 on just 16 carries. Patterson showed what can happen when he gets the ball in space when he took a short pass over the middle and converted it into an 18-yard untouched burn into the end zone, and McKnight was simply McKnight -- six catches, 78 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, CU`s run defense was stellar when it mattered. The Rams totaled just 77 yards on the ground, and 57 of those came in the fourth quarter, when the outcome was no longer in doubt. Meanwhile, CU`s secondary picked off three CSU passes and the Buffs allowed CSU to convert just one of 12 third-down tries.
It all added up to a much-needed boost of confidence.
"We`ve been telling ourselves that we can be a good team," cornerback Jalil Brown said. "We`ve been having good practices, everybody has been doing their jobs -- but we still had to come out and show it. We needed this today."
The Buffs will need that confidence next week. Immediately on the horizon is a game at Cal, where they`ll attempt to end a lengthy -- and painful -- road losing streak.
But now the Cal game has positive implications. It`s a big game for the Buffs, one they can look forward to with eager anticipation rather than a feeling of dread.
"We`ve got to get better," Hansen said. "We know that. But at least we`re talking about getting better after we beat someone 24-3. That`s actually pretty good news."
It`s definitely a start.