Rooney: Turnovers need to be norm, not nonconference aberration, for CU Buffs defense

Defense bends but gets takeaways for new coordinator Tyson Summers

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
University of Colorado’s Mikial Onu makes an interception on Colorado State University’s Warren Jackson during the Rocky Mountain Showdown at Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver.
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Tyson Summers probably had a good idea there weren’t too many shutouts in his near future.

The new defensive coordinator of the Colorado Buffaloes inherited a unit long on potential and short on…well, just about everything else.

How does a defense likely to give up too many yards and probably too many points tip the scales? With takeaways. Those have been in short supply for the Buffs since ex-defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt bolted for Oregon after CU won the 2016 Pac-12 Conference South Division crown. Yet as his first preseason in Boulder began unfolding weeks ago, Summers nonetheless expressed optimism his first bunch of Buffs could find ways to change games, even with a few unsightly totals on the stat line.

“Those are the teams that wind up winning more games,” Summers said. “Takeaways are a huge piece of that as we get moving.”

The Buffs made certain to have the last laugh in the Denver finale of the Rocky Mountain Showdown late Friday night at Broncos Stadium at Mile High, pulling away from Colorado State to christen the Mel Tucker era with a 52-31 win. CU’s defensive takeaways were why a Rams upset bid turned into a comfortable Buffs win.

Otherwise, the script pretty much unfolded as expected for the defense.  CSU outgained the Buffs 505-475 and basically traded scores with CU until the turnovers mounted after halftime. The Rams exploited the perimeter of CU’s defense throughout the first half, though Summers deserves credit for plugging those gaps after halftime. CSU quarterback Collin Hill rarely was harassed on his 47 pass attempts and carved up the Buffs accordingly with three notable exceptions — the two excellent safety plays that resulted in interceptions by SMU transfer Mikial Onu, and the late Jonathan Van Diest blindside sack that ended with a nine-yard fumble return touchdown for Mustafa Johnson.

Turning one good night into a regular habit could turn the fortunes of the 2019 Buffs, yet recent history says the Buffs will be challenged to maintain the pace. CU managed just 15 takeaways in 2018 and 14 in 2017 and even that damage, such as it was, occurred disproportionately during nonconference play (seven in three games each season).

Of course, the most impactful turnover Friday came on the first play of the second half, when Aaron Maddox’s strip of falling CSU running back Marvin Kinsey completely turned the momentum and, later, drew the postgame ire of CSU coach Mike Bobo (Bobo’s squad also was victimized by several questionable offensive pass interference calls in 2017, a game also officiated by a Pac-12 crew). CU can’t count on forcing four turnovers a game in order to make a run at a bowl berth. But if the Tucker mindset of tough, physical football leads to more moments like that first play of the second half, it will be a step in the right direction for the Buffs.

“Starting the second half we had a couple in a row there that were real big,” Summers said. “And any time you score a touchdown (defensively) your opportunity to win football games skyrockets. It’s the number one teller of all statistics to win football games is when you score touchdowns on defense. It’s something we’ve placed great importance on.”

All in all it was a solid, yet far from flawless, opening statement by Tucker’s Buffs. Quarterback Steven Montez got away with a couple of dangerous throws in the first half but otherwise was in command, making the most of his 13 completions to compile 232 yards and two touchdowns. Alex Fontenot looked more than capable of handling the load at running back, and the resurrection of the tight end spot in CU’s attack should continue to add a welcome dynamic, particularly in the red zone.

Speaking of red, Nebraska’s offense didn’t exactly make a resounding statement Saturday in its season-opening win at home against South Alabama, with the Cornhuskers needing three second-half touchdowns on defense and special teams to pull away. Given last year’s hot start-turned-freefall, salivating over a possible 2-0 start for CU remains premature. However, the Buffs were opportunistic in their Tucker debut. If they do so again in Tucker’s Folsom Field debut, they might be able to create some bigger opportunities this fall after all.