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Rooney: After opening fireworks, time for Steven Montez and CU Buffs to prove they’re for real

Colorado quarterback Steven Montez completed 22 of 26 passes and accounted for three touchdowns in Friday's win.
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez completed 22 of 26 passes and accounted for three touchdowns in Friday’s win.

It was a miscue that might have unnerved a younger Steven Montez. In turn, the Buffaloes’ offense would have faltered, eventually committing the sort of mistakes that cost teams games.

But so far, this is not the same Steven Montez.

Another masterful performance by CU’s signal-caller — he completed 22 of 26 passes and accounted for three touchdowns in the Buffs’ 38-16 win Friday night against UCLA — actually began with an ominous sign, a rare failure in execution so far this season that opened, however briefly, a window of opportunity for the underdog Bruins.

Yet once again Montez and the Buffs were at their best when it mattered most in the second half, moving to 4-0 for the first time since John Elway was playing his final season with the Broncos.

While the jury may still be out on just how high a ceiling is attainable for this group of Buffaloes that has grown fat off the woes of struggling opponents, the continued maturation of Montez is erasing whatever CU shortcomings might be exposed in a given game. If the fourth-year junior continues playing at this level the Buffs will have a chance to win every game, even as the schedule finally takes a more challenging turn.

On Friday, it began with a misfire.

On the Buffs’ opening offensive possession, Montez fired a quick throw to his left to Laviska Shenault. It was an enviable second-and-one situation on the first pass attempt of the night. Montez appeared as if he expected Shenault to run a hitch. Instead Shenault ran a slant, the ball sailing harmlessly into the Buffs’ bench. On the following play Beau Bisharat was stuffed in another unusual moment for CU in 2018 in which the play call was predictable. After all the hoopla surrounding the upstart Buffs getting their first Pac-12 Conference game at home, and the Buffs were forced to punt.

UCLA promptly marched down the field to take a 7-0 lead. If the Folsom faithful wasn’t completely silenced, the nerves nevertheless were palpable.

Yet rather than stewing in frustration, the Buffs quickly answered with a 57-yard Montez-to-Shenault strike and the offense was off and running. It wasn’t all on one side of the ball, of course. The Buffs’ defense recorded three consecutive three-and-outs and four consecutive punts after UCLA took its final lead at 16-14 early in the third quarter. Getting such stops after an uneven first half on a night when the takeaways weren’t there is a step in an encouraging direction. For the second time in three games, defensive coordinator DJ Eliot made successful second-half adjustments that turned the tide.

Yet it is Montez’s mastery of the offense — heck, he went 22-for-25 after that opening misfire — along with a receiver in Shenault who looks more impressive every week that will give the Buffs a chance in every game the rest of the way. That includes the upcoming road tests at USC and Washington.

First, though, comes the first true test of the season. After dispatching four opponents who entered the weekend with a combined 1-13 record, the Buffs welcome Arizona State to Folsom Field in their first opportunity to gain separation in the Pac-12 South Division.

Other than needing, and getting, a late score at Nebraska, Buffs haven’t been challenged. They’ve beaten up on those overmatched foes the way they’re supposed to, and 4-0 is 4-0. But at this rate all four of those opponents will be fortunate to have a crooked number in the win column at season’s end. That changes now. The next three opponents — ASU, USC, and UW — entered the weekend with a combined record of 7-5, and that’s with those squads getting battle-tested against the likes of Auburn, Texas, Stanford and Michigan State.

The Buffs haven’t played the most impressive schedule in the South. They have, however, played the most impressive brand of football so far. Next week Montez and company can prove all those early fireworks are for real.

Pat Rooney: or

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