Rooney: Effort from injury-riddled CU Buffs a promising sign for stretch run

Otto Greule Jr / Getty Images
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez escapes pressure on Saturday against No. 15 Washington in Seattle.

Colorado didn’t come home with a win, and any road to a second Pac-12 South Division title in three seasons just became appreciably more difficult.

Still, give coach Mike MacIntyre and the Buffaloes this much credit. One week after a discouragingly uncompetitive loss at USC, which featured arguably one of the worst coaching performances of MacIntyre’s CU tenure, MacIntyre and his staff rebounded with an effort that could’ve been counted among his best with the Buffs had the outcome not gone down as a 27-13 defeat.

A loss is a loss. Yet the manner in which an injury-depleted Buffs squad battled at No. 15 Washington was commendable, as was the way quarterback Steven Montez was able to hit the field spreading the ball around to previously undiscovered weapons with Laviska Shenault unable to suit up due to a toe injury.

It also begged the question: Where were players like freshman receiver Daniel Arias and tight end Brady Russell — the Buffs actually used their tight ends, for crying out loud! — last week against a much more beatable opponent in USC?

The Buffs’ choices on offense during the first half, perhaps also inspired by the midweek declaration by co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini that CU’s play-calling needed to be better, was like a who’s who of the Buffs’ recent recruiting classes. Dimitri Stanley. Brady Russell. Daniel Arias. There even was a tight end drag to Chris Bounds that netted 15 yards in the first quarter, a play as basic as it gets that nonetheless has been absent from CU’s repertoire.

More tight end sightings, please.

The sudden emergence of players like Arias and Stanley is a little more understandable and circumstantial. Despite sticking to the “day-to-day” summation throughout the week of Shenault’s status, the CU coaching staff likely knew they would be without their top playmaker in addition to senior receiver Jay MacIntyre, who suffered a concussion last week at USC. CU had all week to game plan for those absences, and at the very least Arias and Stanley showed the depth the Buffs often boast about at the skill positions indeed might be something to be reckoned with.

Why it took so long to utilize the tight ends in the passing game is another question altogether. In our weekly podcast this past week I noted that every time Montez drops back with a tight end in the formation, he’s scanning the field at a slight disadvantage because opposing defenses had zero reason to account for one of the eligible receivers. Though the contributions may have proved more valuable at USC, the surprising use of Bounds and Russell (four catches) will at least force upcoming opposing defenses to take heed of their potential.

Saturday’s effort in Seattle was the best showing the Buffs have put together against a big-time opponent, or in a high-stakes situation, since the third game of the 2016 season at Michigan. The effort was even more impressive given the injury situation — the Buffs also were without cornerback Delrick Abrams (whose absence was missed) and kicker James Stefanou (whose absence was not, as rookie Evan Price went 2-for-2 on the first two field goal attempts of his career).

Sure, it wasn’t enough. Continued struggles on the offensive line and UW’s stingy defense kept the Buffs off the scoreboard the entire second half. Yet if the Buffs continue to play like they did Saturday, and presuming the walking wounded get back into the rotation, there isn’t a game left on the schedule they can’t win. The twin setbacks the past two Saturdays at USC and UW were disappointing, particularly the dud at USC, but at 5-2 the Buffs remain ahead of the curve compared to the majority of preseason expectations. Though USC entered its Saturday night battle against Utah basically with a two-game lead over the Buffs in the division, the bet here is the Trojans haven’t suffered their last loss yet. Big opportunities remain in play for the Buffs.

The big lesson from Saturday’s setback should be the Buffs don’t need to lean on the Laviska Shenault show, or the over-utilized jet sweep, to make things happen. A completely unsolicited plea to Montez and Chiaverini: Keep spreading the ball to different targets down the field. This team is markedly more dangerous when it does.

Pat Rooney: or