Rooney: Making plays at crunch-time glosses over near-disaster for CU Buffs

Sean Meagher / The Oregonian
Oregon State running back Ryan Nall, center, finds room to run against the Colorado defense on Saturday in Corvallis, Ore.

First, credit where credit is due.

Phillip Lindsay is a warrior. Bryce Bobo can probably be lumped into that category as well. And with a season that easily could have spiraled out of control with a loss against a lowly Oregon State, quarterback Steven Montez and a battered Colorado Buffaloes defense made the winning plays when it mattered most to pull out a 36-33 win on the road Saturday.

It was winning ugly once again for the Buffs, and this time they gladly will take it. CU no longer is winless in the Pac-12 Conference and, in a game that had been following a similar back-and-forth pattern score-wise to last week’s demoralizing loss against Arizona, the Buffs were able to flip the script at crunch time.

Now, the reality check.

Right now, the 4-3 overall record aside, CU doesn’t have the look of a winning football team. It doesn’t even have the look of a 6-6 squad that can squeak into a third-rate bowl game.

Sure, strides were made. The Buffs won the turnover battle, finishing without a giveaway and turning a critical interception by Evan Worthington (with an assist on a hit by Drew Lewis) early in the third quarter into a touchdown. And it was good to see the Buffs clean up the penalty woes that were downright dreadful against Arizona, finishing with just three flags accounting for a scant 14 yards. A huge false start on fourth-and-inches that cost the Buffs a shot at points in the first quarter notwithstanding, this was a commendable improvement.

However, too much remains amiss with this team, issues that were exposed against the worst team in the league — and one that parted ways with its head coach just five days earlier.

Too often Montez was under fire in the pocket, particularly in the first half. The run defense that was shredded by Arizona wasn’t much better against Oregon State, which entered the game averaging 321.2 yards of total offense per game. The Beavers amassed 569 against CU. It is probably unfair to measure OSU running back Ryan Nall by his per-game numbers, given how his team has played from behind for the bulk of the season. Still, a player who entered the game averaging 5.5 yards per carry managed 7.2 yards per attempt against the Buffs. These were shortcomings too glaring to dismiss as a result of the always-demanding trip to Corvallis, or the emotional charge OSU might have benefitted from with this week’s coaching change.

Despite those issues, Montez directed two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, capping both with TD passes to Bobo. Not to be overlooked is the grab Bobo made as he was being crushed on a two-point conversion (and a first-half TD pass to Montez to boot). Defensively, CU did just enough on OSU’s final drive to keep the Beavers off the scoreboard. That late sequence arguably was the first time the 2017 Buffs truly resembled the 2016 South Division champs.

Going forward, the schedule does CU no favors. The Friday night 37-3 thrashing Cal delivered against Washington State hurts the Buffs on two fronts. While WSU clearly was overrated at No. 8 in the nation, the guess here is the Buffs will run into an embarrassed and motivated Cougars squad next week in Pullman. And suddenly the Oct. 28 homecoming date against Cal doesn’t feel nearly as winnable as it did just a few days ago.

Maybe Saturday’s result relaxes the Buffs enough for a more inspired sprint to the finish. Maybe getting into the win column within the Pac-12 eases some pressure, and coming through late in the fourth quarter refreshes the team’s confidence. Maybe they can ride Lindsay to the finish line, though that warrior status will be sorely tested if he continues to shoulder a workload that has resulted in 69 carries over the past two games.

Maybe those factors all fall into place. But the Buffs still have a long way to go to make that a reality.

Pat Rooney: or