Rooney: Though an enviable problem, QB dilemma must be resolved for CU Buffs

Colorado quarterback Steven Montez, right, throws a pass over Oregon State's Caleb Saulo on Saturday at Folsom Field.
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez, right, throws a pass over Oregon State’s Caleb Saulo on Saturday at Folsom Field.

It is a welcome problem to have, and one that almost is an embarrassment of riches for a Colorado Buffaloes football team on the cusp of breaking a streak of 10 consecutive losing seasons.

Yet it is a question that must be considered by the CU coaching staff, maybe as soon as this week if senior Sefo Liufau is declared fully recovered from the ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago at Michigan.

Return the starting quarterback job to Liufau? Or hand the keys to the offense to the red-hot hands of Steven Montez?

It is a decision that may not necessarily have a wrong answer, given the elite level both signal-callers are playing at. Yet with the schedule’s degree of difficulty about to increase, it nonetheless is a decision that will impact CU’s quest to land a spot in the Pac-12 Conference title game — a destination that seemed like a pipe dream just a few short weeks ago yet feels more reasonable every time the upstart Buffs hit the field.

The case can easily be made for either quarterback. Liufau was torching the best defense the Buffs have seen so far at No. 4 Michigan two weeks ago when he went down with his injury, derailing the Buffs’ upset bid and thrusting Montez into a role he didn’t appear ready for in the waning minutes in the Big House.

Up until that point, Liufau was unquestionably the man. In roughly two and a half games, he threw for 768 yards and six touchdowns without an interception in 76 attempts. He added another 124 rushing yards on 20 attempts. Liufau had his way against two outmatched defenses to start the season, but he also dropped 246 yards and three touchdowns in less than a full game at Michigan.

Montez experienced his deer-in-headlights moment after relieving Liufau against the Wolverines, going 0-for-7 as the Buffs’ upset bid fizzled. But the redshirt freshman has been lights-out in his two starts since, going 42-for-59 for 626 yards and six touchdowns. While he did throw two interceptions at Oregon last week that cost CU points, he also rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown. Since those picks Montez’s poise has shined through, from his fourth-quarter performance at Oregon to Saturday’s effort that started with an 0-for-3 showing on CU’s opening drive before an 11-for-11, 232-yard onslaught that propelled the Buffs toward a 47-6 thrashing of Oregon State.

The experienced veteran or the hot-handed upstart? It sounds like a comment on the Presidential race. Instead it’s a decision that could be far more gut-wrenching for Buffs fans between now and Election Day.

“That’s always a good problem to have with two guys who are very capable,” said Brian Lindgren, CU’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “That’s something we’ll have to discuss as a staff. Whoever we feel gives us the best chance to win the game week-to-week, I think that’s the decision we’ll go with.”

The vote here is to stick with Sefo. Dissecting the numbers is a fruitless endeavor, as the gaudy statistics can state the case for either player. At the end of the day, however, Liufau is a leader in the locker room and the huddle, a player whose warrior spirit fires up his teammates to go to battle alongside him. Those intangibles will become more crucial as CU continues to rack up wins and the games grow more pressurized.

It was only a little more than a week ago when fans and media alike — including this guy and partner Brian Howell on our weekly podcast — figured the Buffs’ offense would take a step back with Montez under center. The fact Montez has completely rewritten that script in the week-plus since doesn’t change the fact it’s Liufau’s team.

Montez’s emergence gives head coach Mike MacIntyre the luxury of utilizing his entire playbook, particularly the read-option that routinely leaves Liufau exposed to the sort of hit that sidelined him at Michigan. If Liufau is healthy and gets the nod next week at USC, MacIntyre should have no fear of restraint with Montez waiting in the wings.

While it’s a good problem to have, it’s also one that must be resolved for the CU offense to continue to flourish.

Pat Rooney: or