Rooney: Overcoming mistakes in Lincoln opens opportunities for CU Buffs

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Nebraska defensive back Antonio Reed is called for unnecessary roughness for his hit on Colorado receiver Jay MacIntyre on Saturday in Lincoln, Neb.

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The stakes may not have carried the same national implications as the glorious Colorado-Nebraska showdowns from three decades ago. And certainly enough weaknesses were exposed to keep Buffaloes head coach Mike MacIntyre busy in the three weeks before the start of Pac-12 Conference play.

Still, any win in Nebraska is a sweet one, and given the myriad mistakes the Buffaloes overcame to produce Saturday’s thrilling 33-28 win in Lincoln easily may be a catalyst for bigger things to come this fall.

Despite winning a game that came down to which team made the last big mistake (it was Nebraska safety Antonio Reed), Colorado will bring a 2-0 record into its home opener against New Hampshire next week. After that, it’s a Pac-12 opener at home against a UCLA team that has looked underwhelming through two weeks and a remaining schedule that includes home dates against Washington State and Utah, as well as a game at Arizona that already looks considerably less challenging than it did all of nine days ago.

Too soon to look that far ahead? Probably. The point is the Buffs’ road to six wins and bowl eligibility just got a heck of a lot easier with Saturday’s win in Lincoln.

In the meantime, there is plenty for the Buffs to address. The confidence of what has been a dependable kicker in James Stefanou may have to be massaged as his two fourth quarter field attempts — arguably the biggest pressure kicks of his career, either of which would have given the Buffs the lead — sailed wide. Familiar shortcomings from 2017 reared their ugly heads once again, as the Buffs’ run defense was gashed by the Nebraska ground game while the offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Steven Montez.

It’s a good thing Montez remained upright through all those assaults. Though Nebraska true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez showed he is more than talented enough to take this mantle for the rematch next year in Boulder, the biggest difference between Nebraska and the Buffs on Saturday was that Montez was the best player on the field.

It was stated in this corner during the preseason that Montez has the sort of gaudy physical talent to lift his team past any number of mistakes, and that ability was on full display in Lincoln. The Buffs’ run game basically was nonexistent. Montez was sacked seven times. The defense still should be improved overall — defensive end Mustafa Johnson and linebacker Nate Landman look like bona fide play-makers through the season’s first eight quarters — but Nebraska’s 329 rushing yards on 6.1 yards per attempt were painfully reminiscent of last year’s defensive struggles. And allowing the Cornhuskers to gain two first downs on defensive penalties when the Buffs needed the ball back following Stefanou’s second miss easily could have been rally-killers had Martinez not gotten injured one play later.

Montez, however, never made a critical mistake, and his 40-yard strike to Laviska Shenault for the winning touchdown with 66 seconds remaining was the sort of throw only the most skilled of passers can execute.

If the Buffs reach a bowl game they can send a Christmas card to Nebraska’s Reed, whose late hit on Jay MacIntyre during the winning drive kept the Buffs out of a likely end-of-the-line 4th-and-24 situation and set up Shenault’s score. That penalty, followed by the Montez-to-Shenault throw, made that road to bowl eligibility a lot more manageable. Sure, there remains plenty of issues to address, but CU has started 2-0 by thumping the rivals from Colorado State and going into Lincoln and silencing the Big Red faithful.

For Buffs fans, that will work just fine for now.

Pat Rooney: or