Rooney: Cooler heads must prevail for CU Buffs to reach division-title goals

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
CU’s Jimmie Gilbert was called for targeting UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul on this play in the first half of Thursday’s game at Folsom Field.

Mike MacIntyre has worked his way into consideration for the Pac-12 Conference and even national coach of the year honors. And deservedly so, given his Colorado Buffaloes’ dramatic turnaround this fall.

In order to stay in that conversation, however, MacIntyre and his staff will have to put together their best coaching effort of the season over the next nine days.

In an ugly affair at a raucous Folsom Field Thursday night, the good news for the No. 21-ranked Buffaloes is they escaped with a 20-10 victory against UCLA, a result that looks attractive enough in the win column and keeps the Buffs on pace for a possible South Division title game against Utah in the regular season finale Nov. 26.

The bad news? More than a few CU players are bound to get an earful when the coaches dissect the penalty-filled, turnover-plagued victory during video sessions.

The Buffs entered Thursday’s prime-time tilt as the least penalized team in the Pac-12 while also ranking second in the league in turnover margin. The Buffs were woeful on both fronts against the Bruins, and it all began with the targeting ejection of Jimmie Gilbert early in the first quarter.

If good sense prevails — always a long shot in a collegiate world in which the Big Ten fields 14 teams and the Big 12 has 10 — the NCAA eventually will take another look at this well-meant but poorly executed rule. Certainly, Gilbert’s shot to the head against scrambling, and then sliding, UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul was worthy of a personal foul. But as is often the case with the subjective targeting rule, the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime.

With his teammates perhaps feeling unfairly slighted, the parade of flags quickly ensued. A personal foul on the kickoff following the Buffs’ first touchdown tacked 15 yards on to 47-yard return, setting UCLA up to quickly tie the score. By halftime the Buffs had four turnovers and 78 yards in penalties, four of which were of the 15-yard variety.

This from a team that entered the game with a league-low 40 penalties accounting for just 40.8 yards per game.

The Buffs were able to correct the turnover issues in the second half, yet the team’s inability to take the high road in a chippy, hard-hitting contest was alarming. From Ryan Moeller’s inexcusable taunting penalty after a big hit along the sideline to Bryce Bobo’s personal foul that turned a first-and-goal a the one to a first-and-goal at the 16, the Buffs’ lack of poise was completely out of character compared to the team that played such a crisp brand of football through the first eight games.

In all, CU finished with 12 penalties — a whopping 30 percent of the Buffs’ total through eight games — for 128 yards. It certainly didn’t hurt that UCLA played as if the win would be rewarded to the team that drew the most flags, as the Bruins finished with 13 penalties for 96 yards. That included three personal fouls on UCLA during a CU drive that ended with a 37-yard Chris Graham field goal early in the fourth quarter that gave the Buffs the lead for good.

The thought here was this ugliness will be an anomaly, a night when heated emotions got the best of CU’s players in an emotional game. Yet with only two games remaining before the potential winner-take-all showdown against Utah, MacIntyre will need to make certain that cooler heads begin to prevail.

Pat Rooney: or