The loss stings, but Saturday's showdown at the Big House in Michigan confirmed several truths about this year's Colorado Buffaloes.
Indeed, CU is vastly improved and ready to take on the best the Pac-12 Conference has to offer. Yet the Buffs aren't quite there yet and remain far from flawless team. And for some reason special teams, regarded by most coaches as a full one-third of the three phases of the game, remains an afterthought for coach Mike MacIntyre and his staff.
The Buffs displayed poise and confidence before the biggest crowd ever to watch a CU football game, quickly silencing the 110,042 in attendance by delivering the game's opening salvo in the form of a 37-yard Sefo Liufau-to-Devin Ross touchdown. At the end of the first quarter it was 21-7 Buffs, and collecting the first win against a top-10 team in a true road game since 1995 felt well within reach. (The Buffs did win in Texas against a third-ranked Longhorns team in the 2001 Big 12 Conference title game in what officially was a neutral-field game.)
Through the first two opening routs put together by the Buffs there was little sign of the mistake-prone group that stumbled to a 4-9 mark last season. Then the special teams — specifically the punting unit — left an indelible smudge on the proceedings while reminding Buffs fans they were fortunate the team had to punt only six times in the first two games.
A blocked punt on the team's first attempt of the 2015 season at Hawaii set an ominous tone for the season, and the shortcoming that led to a glut of blocked kicks last year reared its ugly head once again on the Buffs' first attempt Saturday. No. 4-ranked Michigan turned a block into a touchdown that trimmed CU's lead to 14-7. Later, when punter Alex Kinney couldn't boot the ball over his own blockers, the Wolverines needed only two plays to go 38 yards and again cut a two-TD CU lead down to seven points.
While the side-winding, rugby-style punting is a popular fad in college football, the Buffs simply don't execute it. Any formation with line gaps as wide as cars that allow rushers an unimpeded head start at the punter's protectors is fundamentally flawed. The special teams misfortunes last year led to the dismissal of former special teams coach Toby Neinas, with MacIntyre opting to go with a special teams-by-committee approach this fall.
That committee needs to get back into session ASAP upon returning to Boulder, or a promising season may go by the wayside in a flurry of poor execution and game-breaking returns. Granted kicking out of bounds might be a difficult directive when simply getting a punt off is a challenge, but if it wasn't part of the game plan all week it should have been the moment Michigan's Jabrill Peppers first gave fits to CU's punt coverage.
For some reason Kinney kept firing easy-to-handle line drives at Peppers, widely regarded as one of the most dangerous and dynamic players in the nation. Peppers averaged an impressive 15 yards on three punt returns before the inevitable occurred in the form of a 54-yard touchdown. Moreover, Peppers was handed a chance on a kickoff return following a 70-yard Liufau-to-Shay Fields touchdown that briefly regained the lead for CU at the outset of the third quarter. Not only did Michigan recapture the lead for good two plays after a 55-yard return by Peppers, but kicker Diego Gonzalez suffered what was first reported as a season-ending torn Achilles while chasing him down.
Many will cite the loss of Liufau to an ankle injury — and yes, his one-footed 70-yard TD to Fields was the stuff of legend — as the beginning of the Buffs' death knell. But the Wolverines' touchdown after Peppers' kickoff return gave Michigan 90 yards and two touchdowns in just three plays going back to the end of the first half.
That's not a condemnation on a defense that covered admirably in the secondary and left a bruising imprint on Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight. Michigan is ranked No. 4 for a reason and the Buffs' weren't going to pitch a shutout. If anything it further illustrates how three touchdowns set up by botched punts and a long kickoff return, never mind a missed Gonzalez field goal from 36-yards out from the same left hash so problematic in 2015, made the Buffs' hard-hitting defense work tremendously harder than necessary. Even with the Buffs still down just three points, the punt unit had a prime opportunity to down a kick inside the 10, or even the five, midway through the third. Instead the ball rolled into the end zone for a touchback, and soon Michigan extended its lead to 10.
Liufau's uncertain injury status notwithstanding, the Buffs were the aggressors in the toughest environment they will face this fall. That includes next week's date at Oregon in the Pac-12 opener. If the Buffs can stun Michigan with a punch to the jaw, they can do so to any team in the league.
Continuing to show improvement in only two of the game's three phases, however, will only take the Buffs so far.