It's not the loss itself that should be alarming.
Suffering a defeat at USC was a probability any reasonable Colorado Buffaloes fan was OK with when glancing over the schedule at the season's outset. A 5-0 start while playing a crisp and largely error-free brand of football, combined with the Trojans' underwhelming start, might have closed the gap for those expectations, but still ... 5-1 at this stage of the season? Find me a fan that wouldn't take that.
But Saturday's crashing-back-to-reality 31-20 defeat in Los Angeles wasn't just a loss. In the program's biggest game since the back-to-back drubbings in the Pac-12 title game and Alamo Bowl that ended "The Rise" in 2016, the Buffs were outhustled, outhit, out-executed and, above all else, outcoached by the Trojans. And with the Buffs returning to Boulder physically battered and a visit to No. 15 Washington looming, head coach Mike MacIntyre has his work cut out for him if the Buffs still wish to turn their early promise into a season to remember.
It seems the loudest of the Buffs' transgressions in the post-mortem was MacIntyre's decision to go for two points while trailing by 11 late in the fourth quarter. Yet given the confusion at work in that moment — the officials signaled a touchdown inexcusably late, the scoreboard didn't change, and even in the pressbox they announced it was first-and-goal — the curious decision can be explained, if not excused. Moreover, it was the poor decisions and even worse execution prior to that situation that made the result of the two-point conversion largely irrelevant.
The Buffs and their coaching staff performed as if play-calling and time management were new concepts. The sequence at the end of the first half, when MacIntyre opted to sit on his timeouts, was the act of a team trying not to lose, not one trying to validate its Pac-12 championship credentials. With the Buffs already trailing 21-7, Travon McMillian caught a six-yard pass at the CU 40-yard line. Had the Buffs taken the first of their timeouts immediately, they would have faced a second-and-four with about 35 seconds left.
Instead the Buffs snapped their next play with about 19 seconds left. MacIntyre's explanation for the passive approach doesn't pass the smell test, as he told reporters afterward:
"They had just scored and we were kind of on our heels. If you remember last year, we threw a pick-6 right at the end of the half. I said let's see what happens here. We got a penalty and then we got a first down. We got in an area where we thought we could throw a Hail Mary, so we threw a Hail Mary. We were a little cautious at the first of the drive because I didn't want to all of a sudden have another turnover. That was a little bit of cautious for us. We still had a chance at a Hail Mary. I thought it was too long of a field goal to take."
That's the excuse you make when your quarterback is USC's JT Daniels, a teenager who gave the Buffs all the opportunity in the world to blow open the game early with a pair of interceptions. It's not the approach you take when Steven Montez is making his 21st career start, and when he and receiver Laviska Shenault are situated among the nation's statistical leaders. Besides, taking a timeout doesn't automatically preclude a team from playing conservatively while still finding a way to possibly score points. Letting the clock drain away does.
That was playing scared, not playing to win championships.
It didn't get any better in the second half. When the Buffs finally put together the drive that got them within 14 points, it was at the end of a deliberate 16-play march balanced by runs and passes that burned nearly seven minutes off the fourth quarter clock. It was a fantastic opening drive to a game. For a team down three touchdowns in the fourth quarter it was too little, too late, a fact MacIntyre all but confirmed by attempting an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff.
When the Buffs' new-look offense torched Colorado State in the opener for 338 passing yards while barely throwing the ball past the line of scrimmage, it was an innovative, fast-paced revelation. When USC's defense can stack the box and successfully take away the Buffs' ability to run AND throw, MacIntyre and co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini need to uncover far more wrinkles than the one that led to Shenault's early 49-yard touchdown run — a play that accounted for almost 20 percent of the Buffs' entire offensive output.
The Buffs head to Seattle later this week with a receiving corps that, depending on the injury fallout in the coming days, could be missing Shenault, Jay MacIntyre and Juwann Winfree. McMillian limped out of Los Angeles Coliseum, too. If some serious adjustments aren't made in an attack, and approach, that has gone from exciting-and-aggressive to predictable-and-passive in a few short weeks, the once-unbeaten Buffs will end up limping to the finish line.