Jon Embree says he believes in his plan for rebuilding Colorado football. He says he believes in his players and he trusts his assistant coaches. He has spent a week defending all three.
The Buffs are in Pullman, Wash., Saturday to try to take a positive step toward validating their head coach's faith in them against Washington State after embarrassing him and themselves with a 69-14 loss at Fresno State last week.
In the rosy optimism of preseason when the Buffs were still kidding themselves with talk of a bowl game, they also spoke of this Saturday as an opportunity for redemption. They gave away a win in last season's game against the Cougars in Boulder by surrendering a 10-point lead in the final 5 minutes and they've been looking forward to a chance at a different result.
In the immediate aftermath of what might have been the most devastating loss of Embree's first season as coach, he asked his team a simple question with a powerful voice. While last season's 28 seniors are gone and the current depth chart is filled with underclassmen, Embree's year-old question remains unanswered by the Buffs and as integral to the future of the program as ever.
"When is it going to be enough? When is enough, enough?" Embree asked that day. "You put in all of this work, you do all of this stuff that you have done from spring ball to training camp for this? This is what we did the work for? So when is it enough?"
While the Buffs have had a few victories and some positive moments in the days since, last week's meltdown proved they still hadn't reached the point where enough is enough. Maybe losing by 55 points to a Mountain West Conference team will be the turning point. Only time will tell.
For now, the Buffs are 0-3, coming off two of the worst losses in school history and being made fun of by pretty much the rest of the college football nation. They went searching for something positive to hold on to this week and found it in a place few would suspect -- the arrival of Pac-12 Conference play.
While everyone else views the start of conference action with the reality that it's more difficult than the nonconference schedule which creates the possibility that CU won't win a game this season, Embree and his players are spinning it differently.
"I haven't said anything about it, but a lot of guys have said that in their meetings," Embree said this week when asked if putting nonconference disasters aside and focusing on the start of Pac-12 play can be a positive. "They talked about it is a fresh season. It is a fresh opportunity. That is good that it's coming from them."
The Buffs are 20-point underdogs and after last week some might not think that spread is wide enough.
A Colorado defense still missing two of its best players in linebacker Doug Rippy and safety Ray Polk and coming off a game in which it allowed 665 total yards of offense, must find a way to slow down the passing game designed by first-year Washington State coach Mike Leach.
The Cougars have used two quarterbacks this season and likely will again, but it hasn't been a big problem as they make the transition to Leach's system, which often means 50-60 pass attempts per game. WSU is averaging 284 yards passing so far in 2012.
Meanwhile, CU hasn't been able to find anything resembling consistency on offense, including the quarterback position. Coaches used three quarterbacks last week in the epic loss.
Junior Jordan Webb is likely to start his fourth consecutive game after completing five of 13 passes for 85 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions last week bringing his career record to 4-22. Webb's stats have been underwhelming in the first three games, but backup Connor Wood also had a dismal outing in his first sustained college action last week, completing five of 15 passes with two interceptions.
Both Webb and Wood threw interceptions returned for touchdowns, forcing CU coaches to give sophomore Nick Hirschman a look. Wood is also expected to play again Saturday, meaning both teams are likely to play at least two quarterbacks.
But regardless of who is on the field under center for the Buffs, that player has been asked to produce this season despite these challenges:
The running game has been non-existent in two of the first three games.
The offensive line has been unable to offer much in the way of pass protection.
The tight end position is manned by players with little experience, including senior Nick Kasa, a converted defensive lineman.
There is a glaring lack of speed at wide receiver, which means throws to wideouts are often tightly contested by defenders.
If Embree hopes to finally get a definitive answer to his question from last year, he and his coaches must first find answers for those issues. More persistence in the running game, shorter more creative pass routes and a defense that puts up more of a fight are good places to start.