In the days leading up to Colorado's season-opener against Colorado State, Buffaloes coach Mike MacIntyre was asked if his special teams units would prove to be an improved, potentially game-breaking force in 2017.
It was a reasonable query, given that beyond Isaiah Oliver's clutch 68-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of last year's win against UCLA, any game-breaking plays on special teams witnessed during MacIntyre's tenure typically have turned games in the favor of CU's opponents.
After offering a brief thought his special teams would indeed be improved this year, MacIntyre veered on a tangent, hinting that the mere idea of criticizing special teams foibles was a lazy man's game.
"Special teams is a really easy area to pick on. Very easy to pick on," MacIntyre said. "It always has been. Everywhere I've coached for 28 years, they've always picked on the special teams as an assistant, and they've always picked on the offensive lines. That's the two easiest areas to pick on. That's just traditional. Anybody in the stands can do it.
"But I definitely think we'll make plays there. The opponent will make plays on our special teams too. They've got good guys. But hopefully we are able to make more plays on our special teams than our opponents do."
MacIntyre may have a point. I can't speak for his nearly three decades in the coaching biz. But it can be said his Colorado Buffaloes special teams consistently make it easy to invite criticism.
Once again a blocked punt changed the momentum in a game that was shaping up to be a CU victory, this time paving the way for an Arizona State fourth-quarter comeback and a 41-30 defeat for the Buffs. A blocked punt set the tone for a loss against Washington earlier this year in a rematch of last year's Pac-12 Conference title game. A pair of botched punts led to a pair of touchdowns for Michigan last year in what could have been a monumental victory in the Big House, and a blocked punt proved critical in a season-opening loss at Hawaii in 2015.
It could be described as a comedy of errors, if only Buffs fans were laughing instead of crying.
When Alex Kinney's punt was blocked early in the fourth quarter Saturday night the Buffs held a 27-20 lead. They were outscored 21-3 over the final 11 minutes, including a game-tying touchdown by the Sun Devils seven plays after the critical block.
Oddly, this latest punt team disaster occurred on what otherwise was an impressive night for the Buffs' special teams. Kinney averaged 51.2 yards per punt and launched a 67-yard beauty that pinned ASU inside its 1-yard line. James Stefanou continued to be one of the year's biggest pleasant surprises, going 3-for-3 on field goals with a season-long of 53 yards.
Certainly there was plenty of blame to share beyond the blocked punt. The Buffs' defense was gradually worn down by the ASU rushing attack and couldn't get a stop with the game on the line. Montez was sacked five times. And Shay Fields' drop of a sure touchdown in the first quarter robbed the Buffs of seven points that would have come in handy later. (Devin Ross' touchdown drop was equally egregious, but the Buffs still ended that particular drive in the end zone).
Still, the most easily correctable of those errors was simply getting a punt off while holding a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Buffs now have two games in which to pick up the elusive sixth win that would make them bowl-eligible, beginning next week in the home finale against No. 17 USC. Following a bye week, the Buffs travel to Utah for what is shaping up to be a win-or-go-home showdown for both teams.
Last year's punt team issues in a non-conference game at Michigan ultimately didn't alter the Buffs' Pac-12 fate. If the Buffs don't come up with a win the rest of the way, it's not merely easy criticism to say Saturday's blocked punt could be the play that keeps CU from practicing, and playing, in December.