Back in August, a couple weeks before the start of Colorado’s football season, I met with first-year Buffaloes head coach Mel Tucker in his office.
Tucker and I spent a half hour or so chatting about the upcoming season for Buffzone.com’s preview section. When we were done, I got up from my chair, thanked him for the time said, “This should be an interesting season.”
Tucker smiled and responded, “I can guarantee you this: There will never be a dull moment.”
Two games into his tenure, Tucker could not have been more accurate with that comment.
It’s been a wildly entertaining first two weeks for the Buffs (2-0), who won a 52-31 shootout with Colorado State and then rallied from 17 down to stun No. 25 Nebraska, 34-31, in overtime on Saturday.
What this start does for the rest of the season, we’ll find out, but the win against Nebraska is one CU fans won’t soon forget, and it created a whole lot of good moments.
In this week’s edition of the Monday Rewind, I will look back at some of those moments, including:
- Steven Montez’s ability to brush off adversity
- Nu’umotu Falo’s long-awaited big game
- Soup excited for Buffs
- Big time sequence in OT
- Buffs of the week
- Thoughts on the weekend
- Stats and quotes of the week
- My Pac-12 rankings and AP ballot
LEADING OFF: One snap and clear
We have now seen Steven Montez start 29 games at quarterback during the course of his career at Colorado. There have been ups and downs. By no means is Montez a perfect QB, but he is an exceptional player who will probably leave Boulder with all the Buffaloes’ major passing records – and I’d bet he’s the first CU quarterback taken in the NFL Draft since Koy Detmer in 1997.
As the QB, Montez has been under the microscope more than any CU player – and there’s not even a close second – since the start of the 2017 season when he became the starter. He’s been great at times, and there are CU fans that love his style of play. There are also those who think he’s overhyped, not very good and deserving of a seat on the bench while Tyler Lytle or Blake Stenstrom do their thing.
During the first half of Saturday’s game against the Corn, the “bench Montez” crowd was chirping again. He was an accurate 13-for-18 on his throws in the first half, but only for 84 yards, and he was intercepted once on a bad throw. Aside from that, Montez was sacked three times and seemed to flinch a bit early when pressure was around him.
On one third down play, with CU trailing 7-0, the rush surrounded him from the back and he stepped up into the pocket. Rather than keeping his eyes downfield, he braced for contact and took a sack. Had he kept his eyes downfield, he would have seen Laviska Shenault streaking in front of him on a crossing route that would have gained not only a first down, but likely a lot more.
With Montez struggling (and it wasn’t just him), the Buffs went into halftime trailing 17-0. After the game, I told Montez I thought he looked tentative in the first two quarters.
“I was just playing tight, just plain and simple,” he said. “Thirteen for 18 is not bad in completions, but we weren’t getting the completions we had wanted. They weren’t really deep, down the field completions. They were more short, underneath stuff and we weren’t picking up a ton of yardage on it.”
What I’ve always admired about Montez’s game, however, is that he plays with great confidence and resiliency. He hasn’t always pulled out of in-game funks (such as in 2017 at Washington State), but he often does. It’s rare that you see him hang his head after throwing an interception, or having a bad series.
Last year, in the season finale at California, he had a dreadful start, throwing two pick-6s in the first six plays of the game to put CU in a 14-0 hole. We wound up playing fairly well the rest of the way, throwing two TD passes and getting the Buffs back into a game they eventually lost.
On Saturday, Montez was at it again. Slow start, but stellar finish. After halftime, he was 15-for-23 for 291 yards and two touchdowns in leading the Buffs to the overtime win.
“He looked like a veteran quarterback,” Tucker said after the game. “Football is one of those games where it doesn’t always go your way. The ball bounces funny and crazy things happen out there at times. Steven showed poise, he showed patience, trust in his teammates, trust in his plan, trust in the coaches.
“I was really proud of him because he led us. He hung in there and he led us. I saw him throw the ball away, I saw him be patient, I saw him do things that good players do. That’s what good quarterbacks do. They hang in there. Your quarterback has to be your No.1 competitor and he competed at a very, very high level all the way to the very end. My hat goes off to Steven. I believe in him as a person and I believe in him as our quarterback.”
Montez epitomizes Tucker’s desire to have his team wipe the slate clean after each and play and focus on the next one. Nobody does that better than Montez.
“If you’re going to play this position at this level, you have to have a one snap and clear mentality because you can’t control the ebbs and flows of this game,” he told me Saturday. “Things are going to happen that aren’t going to go your way, things are going to happen that go all the way you’re way. (Former CU quarterbacks coach Kurt) Roper said it best: you can’t get too high, you can’t get too low; you have to stay real even. That’s what I try to do when I get back to the side and get the phone; I talk to (offensive coordinator Jay) Johnson and I just try to even back out. Every drive is a new drive.”
No question it’s an important quality for a quarterback, but not all quarterbacks have that. So, where did he learn it?
“I think it’s just me being through adversity my whole life,” he said. “I moved around a lot as a kid, my parents were divorced; I’ve seen a lot of adversity in my life. I’m accustomed to it, I’m used to it and I welcome it with open arms and I’m here for it. I just want to play the best football that I can play. If it means throwing a pick and then coming back and forgetting about it, then that’s what I have to do.”
That’s what he did on Saturday, and it led to Montez and the Buffs getting one of the biggest wins at Folsom Field over the past decade.
“It feels real good just to see the offense thrive like that in the second half and get going and get some deep completions and run the ball as well as we did and get those guys so tired on defense,” he said. “They were gassed.
“It’s fulfilling, but it’s only one game.”
One snap and clear.
LONG TIME COMING: Falo’s big day
Senior outside linebacker Nu’umotu Falo was not the best player on defense Saturday for the Buffaloes, but it was satisfying to see him come up with a pair of huge plays.
Falo’s career with the Buffaloes was nearly toast two years ago. Expected to compete for a starting job that season, he was dismissed from the team just a couple weeks before fall camp because of a violation of team rules. He later told Buffzone that he was dismissed for failing a drug test.
It was the second time that then-head coach Mike MacIntyre disciplined Falo. He and former running back Dino Gordon were suspended in the spring of 2016 after they were arrested and accused of stealing items from a dorm room.
To MacIntyre’s credit, he often gave players a path back to the program, if they could meet certain guidelines. Falo did and in January of 2018, he was back in school and on the team.
Inspired by MacIntyre’s belief in him, Falo told me in December of 2017, “I’m for sure not going to let (MacIntyre) down. I gave him my word that when I come back, I’ll do everything I can to bring this team back.”
Although MacIntyre is no longer with the program after being fired last November, Falo has kept his word. He hasn’t been the dominant player he had hoped to be when he returned, but he’s been a team player ready when his name is called.
A year ago, he played just 41 snaps on defense, but he’s worked his way into the rotation this year. He played 39 snaps in the opener against Colorado State and then played a major role in the win against Nebraska. Falo recovered two Huskers fumbles – the second of which led to a game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter.
“I think it’s pretty special for me,” Falo said after the game. “But, I try not to look at myself as an individual. I do everything for the team. Everything is for the team. Football is a team sport, so whatever I do, doesn’t really contribute to my stats. I see it as a team stat. What I did out there was really just help the team win.”
In his final season with the Buffaloes, Falo is finally playing a key role in helping his team win.
SOUP IN THE HOUSE: Jeff Campbell impressed with Buffs
Former CU receiver Jeff “Soup” Campbell was on hand Saturday, filling in on the KOA radio broadcast for Gary Barnett, who was ill.
Campbell, who played at CU from 1986-89, knows all about the joy of beating Nebraska, as his teams were 2-2 against the Huskers.
“There’s nothing better than watching Nebraska fans go home disappointed,” Campbell said. “Not because I don’t love them, but because that was our rivalry, and as much as they didn’t want it to be a rivalry, it was, and now it’s turned into one heck of a rivalry. So, I hope they keep the series going.”
Campbell was particularly impressed by the Buffs’ resiliency in rallying from 17 points down.
“To watch these kids win and to see the character they showed in the second half; to be able to come off a really frustrating first half , make some adjustments, change the formations a little bit and to see them fight and to see them finish – more than anything, because winning is about finishing – was awesome,” he said.
Campbell added that he’s a fan of Tucker as head coach.
“He’s the real deal,” he said. “I’m happy he’s here.”
GAME CHANGER: Buffs stuff the run
There were a lot of momentum-shifting moments in Saturday’s game, and plenty to focus on as game-changing events. In the end, however, the Buffs sealed the game with an impressive defensive stand in overtime.
The drive began with the Buffs’ run defense stepping up. Nebraska head coach Scott Frost was questioned after the game about his decision to run the ball with running back Maurice Washington on the first two plays overtime, after CU kicked a field goal to go ahead 34-31.
“We were talking for 5 minutes before overtime started about what our best runs were,” he said. “If they got a field goal, I didn’t want to risk throwing an interception or losing the ball. We picked two of the runs that we thought were the best. I knew before the series started that we didn’t have our (starting) kicker, so I was trying to run the plays that would hopefully most likely get us 3-4 (yards).”
On first down, Buffs defensive end Terrance Lang went virtually unblocked and corralled Washington for no gain.
On second down, the Huskers ran Washington wide to the left and had just about everybody blocked. CU inside linebacker Jonathan Van Diest, however, read the play perfectly, found a seam and forced Washington to go even wider, towards the sidelines. From there, safety Aaron Maddox shed a block and delivered the hit to knock Washington out of bounds for a 1-yard gain.
Those two plays set up Nebraska in 3rd-and-long and the play never really had a chance. QB Adrian Martinez got a low snap, CU had everybody covered and Mustafa Johnson was quickly in the backfield with a sack.
Nebraska wound up rushing for 179 yards, but CU did a nice job most of the game against the run. The Huskers averaged only 3.9 yards per carry and 40 of their yards came on one Washington run in the fourth quarter. For the game, 10 of Washington’s 15 carries went for 3 yards or less.
BEST OF THE BUFFS: This week’s top CU players
A few Buffs that stood out in the win against Nebraska
- DE Mustafa Johnson: The Buffs’ defensive lineman was a beast, like he was most of last year. He racked up three sacks, all in the second half. His sack in overtime was massive.
- P Alex Kinney: Off to a great start to the season, Kinney was a weapon for the Buffs on Saturday. He averaged 45.2 yards per punt and landed five of his six punts inside the 20-yard line. Four times he pinned Nebraska within 15 yards of its goal line and twice within 5 yards.
ILB Nate Landman: As always, he was around the ball all day, finishing with 14 tackles.
- S Aaron Maddox: His tackle in overtime was one of several big plays for Maddox, who finished with nine tackles.
- RB Jaren Mangham: Finished with just 44 yards on 11 carries, but he ran with power when needed and got in the end zone twice.
- QB Steven Montez: Brushed off a tough start to put together a great game, with 375 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
- WR KD Nixon: One of the biggest games of CU career, he caught six passes for 148 yards and a touchdown – a 96-yard pass from Montez on a flea-flicker.
- PK James Stefanou: Second week in a row he makes this list. He’s even more deserving this week after drilling the game-winning field goal in overtime, going 2-for-2 overall on field goals, 4-for-4 on extra points and putting all six kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
- Star Davion Taylor: Maybe the MVP of the day for CU, he was fantastic on defense. He was credited with eight tackles and two pass breakups. Seemingly all of his tackles were impactful.
THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND
1. One of the most impressive aspects of CU’s win is that the Buffs were able to rally against a team that desperately wanted this victory. Of course, every opponent wants to come in and win, but this one meant a lot to Nebraska. “We let our fans down and we let coach Frost down and I wanted this game,” Huskers quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “We wanted this game. We had that mindset coming in and we lost, plain and simple. Obviously I feel terrible. We wanted to win this game.”
2. Colorado is solid on the offensive line and they were very good in the second half. Like everybody, the line had a tough first half, allowing three sacks while the run game managed zero yards on 14 attempts. After intermission CU allowed zero sacks and rushed for 89 yards on 23 attempts.
3. Just when you think you know the Pac-12 … two of the best teams in the conference suffer surprising losses. Washington’s 20-19 upset loss at home to California was a big surprise, although that’s now two in a row for Cal over the Huskies. The real shocker was Stanford getting drilled at USC, 45-20, with the Trojans using a true freshman at QB for his first start.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 0
Number of catches for Laviska Shenault during CU’s 34-point offensive burst during the final 17 minutes of regulation and overtime. The Buffs simply haven’t been able to get their best player going in the passing game. His last catch of the game came with about 10 minutes, 45 seconds to play in the third quarter. Shenault, who led the country with 9.6 catches per game last year, has eight catches for 79 yards through the first two games.
STATE OF THE WEEK, PART II: 3
CU starting quarterbacks since 1960 with two career wins against Nebraska:
Gale Weidner, 2-1 record (W in 1960-61, L in 1959)
Darian Hagan, 2-0-1 (W in 1989-90, T in 1991)
Steven Montez, 2-0 (W in 2018-19)
Those 3 are 6-1-1 vs. Neb; all other CU QBs are 6-39.
MY PAC-12 RANKINGS
How I rank the Pac-12 after Week 2:
1. Oregon Ducks (1-1; previous rank: 2): Routed Nevada 77-6 at home.
2. Utah Utes (2-0: PR: 3): Defeated Northern Illinois, 35-17 at home.
3. USC Trojans (2-0; PR: 6): Defeated Stanford, 45-20 at home.
4. Washington State Cougars (2-0; PR: 5): Defeated Northern Colorado 59-17 at home.
5. California Golden Bears (2-0; PR: 9): Defeated Washington, 20-19, on the road.
6. Colorado Buffaloes (2-0; PR: 8): Defeated Nebraska 34-31 (OT) at home.
7. Washington Huskies (1-1; PR: 1): Lost to Cal, 20-19, at home.
8. Stanford Cardinal (1-1; PR: 4): Lost to USC, 45-20, on the road.
9. Arizona State Sun Devils (2-0; PR: 7): Defeated Sacramento State, 19-7, at home.
10. Arizona Wildcats (1-1; PR: 10): Defeated Northern Arizona, 65-41, at home.
11. UCLA Bruins (0-2: PR: 11): Lost to San Diego State, 23-14, at home.
12. Oregon State Beavers (0-2; PR: 12): Lost to Hawaii, 31-28, on the road.
Oregon returns to the top spot after a week away, thanks to Cal’s upset of Washington. Utah keeps rolling along, while USC had the most impressive win of the week (yes, more so than Cal’s upset). Washington State has beat up on cupcakes and ASU has defeated two cupcakes, but neither win was easy – so it’s hard to really judge those teams right now. There aren’t seven teams better than Washington and Stanford in this conference, but after their performances last weekend, they deserve to be knocked down a few notches.
MY TOP 25 BALLOT
For the fifth year in a row, I’m a voter in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Here’s my ballot for this week:
5. Ohio State
8. Notre Dame
12. Michigan State
14. Texas A&M
16. Central Florida
18. Penn State
20. Washington State
23. Iowa State
24. Boise State
As for the Buffs … they made it onto the ballots of 10 of the 62 voters, but not mine yet. I was never sold on the Nebraska hype and didn’t have them ranked – and I heard from plenty of CU fans who felt the Corn didn’t belong on the Top 25. So, while it was a rivalry game, a fun game and a big win, it was ultimately an escape at home against an average team. I need to see them do a bit more.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Mel Tucker on offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s gutsy call of a flea-flicker backed up at the Buffs 4 – a play that resulted in a 96-yard touchdown: “Jay Johnson has called plays for a long time. It was a great play call at an opportune time and it was great execution. That’s what you have to do. You have to be able to make plays in critical situations and have competitive greatness. Be at your best when your best is needed.”
WR Tony Brown (5 catches, 60 yards, game-tying TD in the final minute of regulation): “Sitting out a year (in 2017 after transferring from Texas Tech) was pretty tough for me, but I used that year to work on my craft and get better. I have a lot of expectations for me this year, stepping up my game, stepping up and playing any role that coach wants me to play in.”
LB Nate Landman on the environment Saturday: “There was a lot of red, but there was a lot of CU support too. I love how small our sidelines are. We have the support right there. We feed off the energy. By having that crowd and that support it really pushed us to get that win for our CU fans because se they showed great support. We wanted to get that win not only for us but for our fans the history of this program.”
QB Steven Montez on the postgame celebration and fans rushing the field: “It takes me back to 2016 when we beat Utah for the Pac-12 South championship. Just lifelong memories that you just really won’t forget, that you can’t forget. Just a burst of adrenaline, so many things happening around you, and you’re just so happy with your teammates and you’re hugging people. You can’t explain it with words. It’s something special.”
THIS WEEK: Welcome back, Falcons
For the first time since Oct. 5, 1974 – 24 days before I was born – the Buffaloes will face Air Force on Saturday at Folsom Field. It will be AFA’s first trip to Boulder since Oct. 13, 1973.