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Utah running back Zack Moss breaks away from the CU defense on Saturday
Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune
Utah running back Zack Moss breaks away from the CU defense on Saturday

It was reasonable to expect a step backward for the Colorado football program after its ahead-of-schedule ascension in 2016.

Yet such a precipitous decline was wholly unexpected. Worst to first and back again in the Pac-12 South. If “The Rise” was real, so too was the fall.

The 2017 season that began with so promisingly following the Buffaloes’ first appearance in the Pac-12 Conference championship game ended with an opponent taking pity on CU, as Utah on Saturday night opted to take a knee and start making bowl preparations in the waning seconds rather than punch in yet another easy touchdown against a team that appeared ready to limp back to Boulder and call it a season as early as the first quarter.

A step backward — particularly after losing the bulk of your defensive starters, three prominent defensive assistants, and a veteran quarterback — is one thing. Coming out of the gates in a win-or-go-home finale as listlessly as the Buffs did on Saturday night is downright troubling. And after capping a tumultuous offseason with a lucrative contract extension, head coach Mike MacIntyre should be on notice that this sort of effort cannot be tolerated if the Buffs expect to make their magical 2016 run the norm instead of a one-year aberration.

Despite the luxury of a bye week to prepare for a game that could make the Buffs bowl-eligible for a second consecutive season for the first time in a decade, MacIntyre and his staff completely dropped the ball. On CU’s opening three-and-out offensive possession their best player, senior running back Phillip Lindsay (who deserved a far more memorable farewell) didn’t touch the ball. The sketchy tackling displayed by CU’s defense for much of season reached an unsightly climax, with Utah running back Zack Moss and his Utes teammates becoming only the latest mediocre running game to plow through CU defenders with almost comical ease. Never mind that with a bowl berth on the line, the Buffs committed 70 yards worth of penalties before halftime.

Perhaps this tumble should have been predicted. It certainly wasn’t in this corner, as a preseason 7-5 prediction was based largely on the belief the likely backslide by a revamped defense would be offset by an offense that could outscore opponents like UCLA and Utah. That didn’t happen. Much like the 2016-17 men’s basketball team, experience didn’t mean much up front, as the Buffs’ commendable prowess in the run game was countered by a season-long inability to protect quarterback Steven Montez. The same goes for the group of senior receivers that turned in as many critical drops as big plays, and those two experienced position groups were responsible for a large portion of the increase in penalty yards this season.

Such deficiencies can be traced to a lack of focus, and it is fair to wonder if that started at the top. MacIntyre can compartmentalize with the best of them, and no doubt he would never admit this publicly, but a fall from grace for the 2016 consensus national coach of the year that began with giving former assistant and alleged domestic abuser Joe Tumpkin a de facto promotion to defensive coordinator for last year’s Alamo Bowl (still the most puzzling and easily-avoidable misstep in the entire saga) through the still-pending criminal case and civil suit (in which MacIntyre is a defendant) are more than enough to weigh upon even the most focused of coaches. Any insinuation these hovering issues didn’t cross MacIntyre’s mind throughout the season is ludicrous.

Don’t take my word for it. When your top NFL prospect, cornerback Isaiah Oliver, says after a lackadaisical performance in a game that could have sent the team to a bowl game, “It kind of seemed like we didn’t really know what to do offensively and defensively,” it’s an eye-opener, particularly with two weeks to prepare.

MacIntyre has restored pride to what had been a moribund CU program. Attendance is up, as is the Buffs’ profile on the recruiting trail. However, he didn’t get a contract extension worth a base/supplemental salary of $14.85 million (not including incentives) through 2021 to go 5-7, with two wins coming against FCS-level Northern Colorado and a lowly Texas State team that finished 2-10.

This easily will be the most critical offseason of MacIntyre’s tenure. As the cliché goes, the climb to the top often isn’t as difficult as staying there. Whether through recruiting or in the weight room, the Buffs need to get tougher up front on both sides of the ball. The new-look defense in 2017 will be countered by a new-look offense in 2018, when Montez will be tasked with shouldering a bigger load with new receivers, a new line, and no Lindsay. The pressure is on both Montez and co-offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren (assuming he returns) to make certain the talented, third-year sophomore signal-caller gets better.

Too often the 2017 Buffs played as if they believed their 2016 success would repeat automatically. Regaining the focus to play with passion and hunger instead of complacency needs to start at the top.

Pat Rooney: or

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