Rooney: After passing first big Pac-12 test, South Division in sight for CU Buffs

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado running back Travon McMillian, left, runs past Arizona State's Jalen Harvey on Saturday.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado co-offensive coordinator Klayton Adams, left, and head coach Mike MacIntyre talk during the Buffs' win over Arizona State on Saturday.



Not long after the final seconds ticked away in Colorado’s 28-21 victory Saturday against Arizona State, Buffaloes receiver Laviska Shenault was summoned by Pac-12 Network cameras near the back of the south end zone at Folsom Field.

Within earshot of the Buffs faithful in the nearby stands, Shenault likely was hard-pressed to ignore the small but spirited chants directed his way.

“Heis-man! Heis-man!”

College football’s most prestigious individual honor probably remains somewhat of a longshot for Shenault, though after scoring four touchdowns and posting his fourth game with at least 125 receiving yards in five outings, Shenault no doubt is quickly and emphatically inserting himself into that Heisman conversation.

Yet while Shenault’s eye-popping performances are becoming must-watch TV for CU Buffs, the more encouraging aspect of a victory that moved CU to 5-0 for the first time in 20 years was the manner in which the Buffs iced the win. Not only did CU take down its most challenging opponent of the season, but the Buffs did so by imposing their will down the stretch on both sides of the ball.

Defensively, the Buffs lost a key play-maker and weathered a tangible deflation of enthusiasm when inside linebacker Nate Landman was ejected due to a targeting penalty midway through the second quarter. ASU scored on that drive to take a 14-7 lead, but playing without the team’s leading tackler and a man who had a hand in three of the seven takeaways produced by the CU defense through the first four games didn’t prove problematic. ASU dented the scoreboard only one more time over the final 35-plus minutes, and even without Landman the Buffs were able to stop ASU at the goal line early in the fourth quarter.

Offensively, the Buffs took possession for what proved to be the game’s final drive with 7 minutes, 10 seconds remaining looking to salt away the seven-point win. Travon McMillian and an improving offense line took over, churning out four first downs to keep the Sun Devils’ offense from getting back on the field.

The Buffs entered the national rankings this past week at No. 21 but still faced a number of question marks about the viability of their 4-0 start, given those four opponents had combined for a 1-16 mark entering this weekend. Arizona State marked a step up in competition, a trend that will continue in the coming weeks, and the Buffs passed the test in impressive fashion.

Obviously it’s far too early to crown any champions, or for fans to start making travel plans for the Pac-12 title game. However, Saturday’s victory put the Buffs in the driver’s seat in the South Division, and a victory next week at USC in a game that feels far more winnable than it did just a month ago would put the Buffs firmly in control of their own postseason fate, even with a date at Washington looming after the battle at USC.

By the time CU returns to Folsom Field the Buffs may no longer be unbeaten in the league. Yet they will play three of their final five games at home, beginning with what should be a ceremonial waxing of Oregon State on Oct. 27. The Buffs have done a commendable job of focusing on the next opponent and not looking too far into the future, so I’ll do it for them — barring a catastrophic injury or some other unforeseen disaster, a win next week at USC will push the Buffs toward their second Pac-12 title game berth in three seasons.

Despite winning late on the road against a Nebraska team that has since endured a slow disintegration on and off the field, Saturday’s victory showed the Buffs won’t wither against the best an underwhelming Pac-12 South has to offer. If they continue to play with the same spine and gumption on display during the second half Saturday, the best of the Buffs is still to come.

Pat Rooney: or