Davis Price did his job and knocked down the points. But the decision to go for a field goal all but handed the victory to the USC Trojans.
The situation was one all coaching staffs dissect and analyze over and over as a matter of routine. With under five minutes remaining in what ended as a 21-17 loss for the Colorado Buffaloes Saturday at USC, the Buffs faced a fourth-and-nine at the USC 24-yard line while trailing 21-14.
CU head coach Mike MacIntyre opted to take the points, sending Price to the field for a 42-yard field goal. The true freshman did his job in a tight situation, pulling the Buffs within four points with 4 minutes, 49 seconds remaining.
However, that was the last time the Buffs’ offense touched the ball.
Certainly the decision wasn’t without merit. Fourth-and-nine hardly counts as encouraging odds. And quarterback Steven Montez was thrown for a two-yard loss on a sack the previous play. Having faith in a defense that forced four turnovers to get the ball back isn’t the most ridiculous notion, but further analysis of the situation says the Buffs should have rolled the dice and gone for the first down…and, ultimately, the touchdown.
The Buffs’ defense forced four turnovers — and clearly all were ball-hawking takeaways by CU — but that effort obscured the fact that USC moved the ball at will throughout the contest, with the Buffs ultimately allowing a season-high 539 yards. Yes, each of the Trojans’ first three possessions in the second half ended in turnovers after just three plays, but in two of those cases USC gained a first down before losing possession.
So, with only two timeouts remaining and time scarce, MacIntyre essentially was asking his defense to do something it hadn’t managed to do the entire game by turning in a traditional three-and-out. Two first downs by the Trojans within the first four plays of the ensuing possession all but ended CU’s chances of its first-ever win against USC.
On the other side of the ball, while the third-down sack of Montez didn’t inspire confidence, the Buffs still were riding the momentum of their two most complete drives of the game. This is a different conversation if Price’s field goal had pulled CU within at least three points, or if the Buffs had made any visits to the red zone prior the latter stages of the fourth quarter. But even if the Buffs had failed on that potential fourth-down attempt they basically would have been in the exact same situation — needing to get the ball back for a touchdown with USC backed up inside its own 30-yard line.
With momentum on the offense’s side, what are the greater odds: Gaining the nine yards to continue the drive? Or getting the ball back in time to make another march all the way down to the end zone? Neither are desirable, but Montez had the momentum and the field goal did nothing to alter what CU needed to get done over the final 4:49. Getting the first down would have changed the situation entirely.
The Buffs have been at their best when they are the aggressors. Settling for the field goal had the feel of crossing one’s fingers and hoping for the best.
The good news for CU is that missed chance and the shortcomings that led to it changes nothing in the big picture. The team once again went into a hostile environment and gave a traditional power a commendable fight. No one expected the upstart Buffs to run the table the rest of the way, and when they wake up Sunday morning no team in the Pac-12 South Division will have more conference wins than the two owned by the Buffs.
With four of the final six games at Folsom Field, CU’s fate still is very much in its own hands in the race for the division crown.