In a football game both wildly entertaining yet wildly disappointing for the Colorado Buffaloes, the ultimate source of discouragement for CU fans wasn't the final score.
It's the idea that we may have seen the last of "The Rise" until 2018.
The 45-42 defeat suffered at the hands of Arizona Saturday night at Folsom Field wasn't just another digit going into the "L" column. Arizona manhandled the Buffs, despite the earnest efforts of the CU offense (specifically Phillip Lindsay) to keep the game close. The Wildcats basically laughed at much of those efforts by the Buffs' offense, countering CU's scoring drives with answering drives that hardly were drives at all, such as the 75-yard touchdown run by Arizona backup quarterback Khalil Tate (who may have Wally Pipped starter Brandon Dawkins) on the very first play after a Buffs score.
The final deficit was only three points. Yet the gap between last year's 10-win season and a second consecutive winning season is only getting wider.
If going bowling is the goal, the Buffs still are only three wins away from reaching that uninspiring 6-6 threshold. But other than next week's game at Oregon State — usually never an easy place to play, though the Beavers began the week at or near last place in both total offense and total defense in the Pac-12 — who can the Buffs be expected to defeat the rest of the way? In any preseason outline of how the season might fall into place (including mine), Arizona at home was one of the easiest choices to mark down a "W."
After next week's contest at Oregon State, Cal at home in three weeks counts as the next-best opportunity for a win. Assuming those are victories — no easy assumption given the sieve-like efforts of the Buffs' defense Saturday night — getting that third win for bowl eligibility will require winning a game as the underdog. Following OSU, the Buffs visit No. 11 Washington State. They then get Cal at home before traveling to Arizona State. The Sun Devils certainly are beatable, but the Buffs will have to overcome a sordid history against ASU that includes an 0-4 mark all-time in Tempe.
After that, it's No. 14 USC at home and the finale at No. 20 Utah. Maybe there are three wins in the remaining schedule, but it didn't look like it Saturday night. Moreover, last year's run to the Pac-12 Championship Game was supposed to set the bar of expectations higher. While no one figured the Buffs would again flirt with a top-10 ranking this year, barely squeaking into some third-rate bowl also wasn't part of the plan. In order to post a second consecutive winning season, the Buffs need four wins in their final six.
The Buffs have done nothing, Saturday night or previously, to warrant that sort of confidence. Halfway through the season, penalties remain a head-scratching problem, with another 12 flags for 110 yards against Arizona. Even if one wants to be generous and exclude a facemask call against the Buffs during Tate's 75-yard scoring romp in the fourth quarter (the penalty was assessed on the ensuing kickoff which was a touchback anyway, meaning no real yardage was lost for CU) that's still 11 penalties for 95 yards. That won't win many games. An offensive line that helped Lindsay to a career-best 281 rushing yards obviously is doing something right, but quarterback Steven Montez once again was under heavy duress as the Buffs used its fourth starting combination up front in six games. Arizona entered the game with six sacks all season. It had four at halftime.
If there was a curious coaching decision it was Mike MacIntyre's choice to not use an onside kick when the Buffs pulled to within a field goal with 5 minutes, 4 seconds remaining. Not only had the Wildcats scored on their previous five possessions, but they also had put up 10 points on their previous seven plays. The Buffs kicked the ball away and, predictably, never touched it again.
The next week might be the most critical so far in the tenure of MacIntyre, the national coach of the year in 2016 who survived an offseason of turmoil to receive a lucrative contract extension. This was a loss more akin to the pre-2016 Buffs, and the sort of defeat that can leave a permanent scar on a team's psyche.
The Buffs need to heal those wounds this week, or it will be a long second half of the season.