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Rooney: Mistakes catch up with CU Buffs in overtime loss to Air Force

Mel Tucker’s tenets of discipline, toughness absent against Falcons

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez looks to pass on Saturday against Air Force.

In the fulfilling afterglow of Colorado’s memorable overtime win against Nebraska last week, it was easy to forget the Buffaloes were destined to run headlong into the face of adversity at some point this season.

Air Force created that collision on Saturday, and it was a jarring one for the Buffs.

Once again Folsom Field was the scene of a jubilant celebration in the immediate aftermath of an overtime stunner, yet this time it was the Air Force Falcons that set off the party while the Buffs were forced to quietly retreat to the locker room on the heels of a 30-23 overtime defeat.

Talk of physicality and toughness and discipline at the outset of the Mel Tucker era at CU has made for great headlines while instilling hope the new-look Buffs eventually will resemble nothing like the squad that unraveled in a hurry last year with seven consecutive losses. After Saturday’s stunner, turning those tenets into reality will be crucial if the Buffs hope to make some noise as Pac-12 Conference play begins.

The box score says the Buffs lost this in overtime. The truth is the Buffs lost this game in the first half, when too many penalties and a lack of mental toughness stuck CU in a 10-point hole at halftime that, quite frankly, should have been worse.

The emotional nature of last week’s win against Nebraska obscured several puzzling penalties that, seemingly, could be attributed to a lack of organization. Just three snaps into the game against the Cornhuskers, the Buffs were forced to take a timeout. Coming out of that timeout, CU was flagged for a delay of game. The Buffs suffered two other penalties coming out of stopped-clock situations — another delay after taking possession following a kickoff, and an illegal substitution on first down after taking possession following a Nebraska punt.

Those miscues, though difficult to defend, became footnotes once the Buffs silenced the Huskers’ faithful at Folsom with a stirring comeback. Against AFA, similar mistakes proved costly. The Buffs were whistled for four false starts in the first half alone, and while their total penalties (six) and penalty yards (35) were markedly fewer than their totals against Nebraska, they nonetheless forced CU’s offense to work that much harder on a day when nothing came easily.

As has been the habit through three games, the Buffs cleaned up their act somewhat after halftime, but the damage was done. Had Air Force quarterback DJ Hammond opted for a little finesse on an end-of-half fastball that resulted in a tipped ball and an end zone interception by CU safety Mikial Onu, CU would have trailed 27-10 at halftime and AFA’s victory would have been decided without the need for overtime.

Adversity was bound to hit Tucker’s Buffs sooner or later. How they respond this week will be critical to the fortunes of the season, given CU begins Pac-12 play with the most favorable stretch of its league schedule. The Buffs have been outgained in all three games so far which, until Saturday, was more a nod at a vulnerable defense that has minimized damage by forcing turnovers than an offense unable to produce. Against AFA the defense again forced three turnovers but the yardage disparity, 444-325, can be equally attributed to an offense that struggled to maintain drives until scramble-mode arrived in the fourth quarter. False starts, errant shotgun snaps, and a performance that saw quarterback Steven Montez too often lock on to a single receiver all were factors in the most frustrating offensive showing of the still-young season.

The good news for Buffs fans is the unpredictable Pac-12 might provide immediate relief. Next week the Buffs visit Arizona State, which has played some downright ugly football so far but has nonetheless dominated CU at home (5-0). The Sun Devils also managed to win ugly Saturday afternoon at No. 18 Michigan State. After that it’s a very winnable home game against Arizona.

The miscues on display Saturday, and even against Nebraska, are fixable. If they are corrected, the Buffs have a chance to be 4-1 when they come out of the games against the Arizona schools to face Oregon, Washington State, and USC.

If they aren’t, things could get ugly in a hurry for CU.