Mike MacIntyre invited a quarterback controversy into his program. How the leader of the Colorado football team handles the situation will dictate not only the fortunes of a 2017 season swiftly turning sideways, but perhaps the 2018 season as well.
Everything we've come to know about the bad-news Buffaloes came to a head in disastrous fashion on wet and windy Saturday night at Washington State. The foibles of an offensive line billed months ago as one of the most experienced units in the program's history. The missed opportunities on defense that the 2016 bunch generally turned into game-changing plays. The penalties — specifically another targeting ejection, this time on a senior co-captain, tackle Jeromy Irwin, who already missed two games due to a violation of team rules — that reaffirmed a lack of discipline in stark contrast to a 2016 team that won 10 games and reached the Alamo Bowl.
None of that, however, will be the central topic of conversation as the Buffs desperately attempt to right the ship this week ahead of a homecoming date against Cal. When MacIntyre pulled starting quarterback Steven Montez to start the second half of what became a miserable 28-0 loss, the debate about the most important position on the field officially took center stage, perhaps for the remainder of the season.
From this corner, I was all for the decision. Complacency and entitlement, playing with the idea that by simply showing up the Buffs' offense would put up big numbers, seemingly has been an issue with this club. Pulling a completely ineffective Montez could deliver a much-needed shake-up to the status quo. And personally for the big-armed sophomore quarterback, opening up the competition for the job with redshirt freshman Sam Noyer, which MacIntyre indicated afterward would be the case this week, might be the sort of kick in the pants Montez needs to regain his focus.
But make no mistake, it was a move MacIntyre didn't have to make.
Montez has been "the guy" since the end of last season, a 6-foot-5 all-around athlete who had the look of a player whose name could be inked into the starting lineup for years to come. If some of Montez's struggles could be dismissed as part of the learning curve for a quarterback who still was making just his 11th career start Saturday night, then allowing him to take some lumps and perhaps play his way out of a slump in a game the Buffs weren't expected to win anyway would have been reasonable. While he was ineffective, Montez was coming off a clutch fourth quarter against Oregon State and certainly wasn't playing like a turnover machine (in fact, since throwing a pick-6 against Washington, Montez has gone 108 consecutive passes without an interception).
Regardless who lines up under center Saturday against Cal, the play-calling needs to be tailored to help the Buffs' struggling QBs a little more capably. On Noyer's opening drive of the second half at WSU, the Buffs immediately gained 31 yards on two runs by Phillip Lindsay, despite the musical chairs situation on the offensive line necessitated by Irwin's ejection and an injury to center Jonathan Huckins. Lindsay didn't touch the ball again on the drive (though an 18-yard loss on a botched shotgun snap didn't help). And too often in the first half the Buffs tried to get Montez going in tough throwing conditions at the expense of a running back who has carried the offense through much of the season. In order to somehow come up with two wins over the final four games to perhaps squeak into a bowl, it is Lindsay, not either QB, who needs to feed.
MacIntyre himself can settle the storm a little by looking in the mirror. During Noyer's second drive, which was extended by a fumble recovery on a WSU punt return at the Cougars' 25-yard line, MacIntyre spent most of the time flailing his arms and barking at the officials. It's more than understandable for his simmering frustrations to have been turned up to 11 by that point, but throwing a temper tantrum while your team has an opportunity to get a score that could get you back in the game isn't typically the best way to instill confidence in a young QB thrown into a precarious situation.
The Buffs never expected to be in this place. How MacIntyre leads the way through adversity will be a critical component of what should be an interesting week in Boulder.