Trusting coach Mel Tucker lifted CU Buffs past Nebraska

Colorado players have bought into first-year coach since he was hired in December

Saturday was shaping up as a disaster for the Colorado football program.

Despite the best efforts of the athletic department, CU couldn’t stop the wave of red from entering the stadium. Yeah, it was a sellout, but more than half of the 52,829 fans in attendance at Folsom Field chanting, “Go Huskers!” was an embarrassment on national TV.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado head coach Mel Tucker hugs running back Jaren Mangham after a touchdown Saturday at Folsom Field against Nebraska.

CU’s lackluster play and 17-0 deficit at the half made the situation even worse. Naturally, panic set in among some Buffs fans – at least among those on social media.

Panic never entered the Colorado locker room at halftime, but head coach Mel Tucker did, and he brought with him a message that changed the game and the outlook of the season for the Buffaloes (2-0), who upset the 25th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers, 34-31 in overtime.

“Coach Tucker is a players’ coach,” receiver KD Nixon said. “That’s something we all love about him. He really just came in and said, ‘Hey, you’re all doing the right things; just keep being y’all.’ That’s what we like as a coach. You don’t want to come in to halftime and just be told, ‘Y’all are messing up, y’all are doing the wrong things or y’all are not connecting.’ He came in positive.”

Tucker, in his first year with the Buffs and in his first game at Folsom, told his team that the first half was the best Nebraska can play, and added, “We haven’t even scratched the surface in what we could do on either side of the ball. Believe in each other and play harder.

“When we went out into the tunnel, coming out for the second half and those guys were energized and they were ready to play ball.”

After intermission, the Buffs outscored the Cornhuskers 34-14 and proved to be in better shape.

Halftime adjustments certainly played a role in this win, but the victory made it clear that CU’s players have bought into Tucker and his staff.

“They believe in what we’re telling them,” Tucker said. “I’m really proud of this group. From Day 1, they’ve embraced our new staff and our new culture and what we’re building here. They want to be relevant, they want to be significant. We took another step today.”

This was a game, Nixon said, that was won in the offseason.

“We had the hardest summer workouts I’ve had in my life,” Nixon said. “So, credit to the strength staff, credit to coach Tucker for telling them to do that.”

Tucker’s message from the day he was hired in December was that the Buffs would be the best conditioned team on the field each Saturday. To do that, it required intense, relentless work in the offseason. During the second half on Saturday, they looked like the fresher team.

“We knew if we continued to play, and just continued to play the next play, keep fighting, keep scratching, keep clawing that we would get back in it and eventually we would wear them down and break them at the end, and that’s what happened,” Tucker said.

The offseason work paid off, but the Buffs also benefitted from Tucker’s demeanor. His positive message at halftime was significant. So was the fact that he would clap and encourage the team and his players after a penalty or a miscue.

“These are long games. You have to stay with it,” Tucker said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. There’s no such thing as a safe lead in college football. We just continued to play.

“There’s no need to get nervous, you just play the next play.”

Now, the Buffs turn their focus to the next game – a Saturday date with Air Force at Folsom Field.

“This is a great win, but this is win No. 2, and that’s exactly how we’re going to take it,” quarterback Steven Montez said. “We’re going to get 24 hours to enjoy it and then Sunday comes and we’re going to watch the film, correct our mistakes and then on Monday we’re back at it ready for Air Force to come in here.”

Trusting the process with Tucker and his staff has helped the Buffs have a good offseason, and now a 2-0 start. But, it’s just a start.

“There’s lot of things that we can clean up,” Tucker said, “so I think our best football is still yet ahead of us.”

CU opponent glance

Opponent: Air Force Falcons

Game time: Saturday, 11 a.m., at Folsom Field in Boulder

TV: Pac-12 Network

Coach: Troy Calhoun, 13th season (88-67)

Record: 1-0

Last week: Bye; defeated Colgate, 48-7, on Aug. 31 at home

Notable: This is the first meeting between the Falcons and Buffs since Oct. 5, 1974. … CU leads the series 12-4. … Like CU, Air Force is coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons. … Calhoun took the Falcons to bowl games in nine of his first 10 seasons. … AFA rushed for 423 yards in its opener, led by Taven Birdow’s 80 yards. Four Falcons scored touchdowns, including QB Donald Hammond III with three TDs and tailback Kadin Remsberg with two. … Since beating Georgia Tech in the 2010 Independence Bowl, Air Force is 0-6 against Power 5 conference teams (or Notre Dame). … The Falcons return seven starters on each side of the ball.