The Buffaloes could have lived to compete on another series. They could have handed off the ball, headed to the locker room to regroup, and hit the ground running in the second half trailing by just two touchdowns.
Instead the Colorado coaching staff entrusted sophomore quarterback Steven Montez to put together a clutch, situational drive at the end of an opening half during which the passing attack hardly could be described as sharp.
After dodging a few disasters on similar routes earlier in the half, Montez let an out route hang in the air far too long. USC cornerback Ajene Harris stepped in front, returned the interception all the way, and ended the Buffs' upset hopes even before the halftime festivities.
In the immediate aftermath of CU's 38-24 loss in the home finale at Folsom Field, all is not lost for the Buffs. This wasn't a game the Buffs were expected to win anyway, and CU still has a chance to secure a second consecutive bowl berth in what will be a win-or-go-home scenario for the Buffs — and likely for both teams — in two weeks at Utah.
Montez's pick-six at the end of the first half certainly wasn't the only issue on Saturday. No football team falls behind 27-0 without it being a collective effort. Yet for the first time this season it feels reasonable to wonder if Montez's growth as CU's starter has become stunted ... and if the coaching staff is putting the big-armed quarterback in the best positions to succeed.
The back-breaking interception occurred with the Buffs taking possession at their own 10-yard line trailing 14-0. Yes, CU still had three timeouts to work with. And no question an aggressive offense has been a signature of head coach Mike MacIntyre's successful turnaround project with the program. Yet there is a time and place for such aggression, and other ways of achieving it. Instead of taking a shot down the middle of the field and perhaps improving the team's position, the Buffs instead attempted a dink-and-dunk approach to those final 51 seconds. On third-and-four, Harris nabbed the interception Montez barely avoided on several earlier throws. When CU got the ball to open the second half, the hole was much deeper.
It was eerily similar to Montez's previous pick-six at the end of the third quarter against Washington on Sept. 23, which turned a manageable seven-point UW lead into a far more daunting two-touchdown deficit. Moreover, it is somewhat alarming Montez's biggest struggles have occurred against the three toughest opponents on CU's schedule — Washington, Washington State, and USC. This is not to heap blame on Montez. The approach during that late first half sequence was as poor as the execution. The thought in this corner remains that Montez will be an exceptional quarterback for this program for years to come. It is troubling, however, to watch him make the same critical mistake he made two months ago.
Credit to the Buffs, Montez included, for battling back despite facing a four-touchdown deficit. For a group of seniors who helped revive CU's program with last year's run to the Pac-12 Conference title game, it would have been shameful to roll over in their final appearance at Folsom. They didn't. Yet throughout a comeback that proved too little, too late, one couldn't help but wonder each time the Buffs battled to within two touchdowns just how beneficial it would've been to have those six points back. Add the six points lost on two blocked field goals, and that pretty much was the difference on the scoreboard.
Though unsuccessful, the rally against the most talented team in the league gives the Buffs at least a little momentum heading into their bye week. And despite Saturday's up-and-down odyssey, CU still has a significant achievement to play for.
Montez at least shook off his mistake to finish strong in this one. And the last time he had a poor outing, at Washington State three weeks ago, he bounced back with one of his best all-around performances in a CU uniform. If he makes a similar rebound once again, the Buffs can plan on a second consecutive bowl game for the first time in more than a decade.