Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Welcome to big-time college football, Laviska Shenault.
There were plenty of takeaways from Colorado’s season-opening drubbing of Colorado State, though the Rams are a squad limping out of the gate so profusely it’s difficult to dissect the Buffaloes’ dominance against a CSU squad that very well may not stop anyone in 2018.
Among the most encouraging signs for the Buffs, though, wasn’t necessarily the lofty point total, gaudy statistics, or even a defense that displayed a consistent pass rush largely absent a year ago. What stood out amid an offensive explosion that ended with 45 points and 596 total yards was co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini, in his debut as CU’s primary play-caller, putting his wide array of talented athletes in the best position to succeed throughout the contest.
Quarterback Steven Montez finished 22-for-25 with 338 yards and four touchdowns. And almost all of that damage was done via passes that rarely strayed beyond the line of scrimmage.
“I think people found out who No. 2 is today,” Chiaverini said. “He’s a special player.”
That No. 2 would be Shenault, the primary beneficiary of Chiaverini’s game plan against the Rams. Shenault finished with 11 receptions for 211 yards, posting the fourth-highest single-game receiving yards total in CU history on a night when the most inconsequential of those 11 catches — a 43-yard play late in the third quarter with the Buffs up by 32 points — was the only one Shenault caught more than 10 yards downfield. His 89-yard touchdown play, for instance, was little more than a six-yard hitch the Rams opted not to defend before Shenault outraced everyone to the end zone.
Among the biggest knocks against the mega-talented Montez are that he holds the ball too long and can be prone to poor decision-making, a problem that briefly reared its head when the junior quarterback stared down Jay MacIntyre far too long before his only poor pass of the night ended with an interception.
On Friday, the short passing game allowed Montez to make quick reads while getting the ball out of his hands with little duress. By my count, only three of Montez’s 25 attempts featured a ball in the air further than 10 yards downfield — the interception, a beautiful 46-yard touchdown to KD Nixon on the Buffs’ second possession, and the aforementioned late play to Shenault. Other than that, Montez amassed the rest of his 249 passing yards on quick throws to the flat and the jet sweeps that fill the role of an outside running game but officially count as forward passes.
An offensive line charged with protecting Montez better than a year ago also was able to settle into the 2018 slate without the pressure of having to protect Montez for longer-developing throws downfield. Protecting the quarterback is easy when the ball is gone almost instantaneously.
“It helps the offensive line. It takes pressure off them when the quarterback gets the ball out of his hands quicker,” Chiaverini said. “There’s going to be times when we take shots. It’s just tonight we were running the ball real well, and the quick passing game and the screen game was helping us. When you can do that effectively, you’re moving the chains and the defense gets tired and they can’t rush us as hard.”
Ultimately the CSU trouncing should be viewed as a dress rehearsal for the Buffs, given the lack of resistance from a Rams defense that already has allowed over 1,200 yards in two games. Pac-12 teams, or even Nebraska next week, won’t be so accommodating. Yet for a revamped offensive cast performing their new duties for the first time, from the play-caller down to the pass-catchers, it was an encouraging exercise.
“You’re trying to put skillful players in space,” Chiaverini said. “If you can do that consistently, and with our skill, they’re going to get positive yardage. We were able to do that tonight.”