Maybe things were going too well for the Colorado Buffaloes.
Coming off back-to-back 5-7 seasons and nearly annual residents of the basement of the Pac-12 South division, the Buffaloes had been rolling along under first year head coach Mel Tucker.
Hired in December, Tucker could not have had a better offseason, as he proved to be charismatic and a good representative of the university. He brought to Boulder a winning pedigree and some SEC-style swagger. Throughout the offseason, he demanded intensity, physicality and relentlessness.
By all accounts, the Buffs answered the bell. With a couple of exceptions, practices were closed, but the reports were almost always positive.
Then the Buffs worked out some first-half kinks – to be expected with a first-year staff – before routing Colorado State in the opener, 52-31. That was followed by a thrilling, come-from-behind 34-31 overtime victory at Folsom Field over then-No. 25 Nebraska.
The run of positivity came to an end last Saturday when the Buffs, who were 4-point favorites got physically beat up against Air Force. Credit CU for rallying, but Air Force walked out of Folsom Field with a much-deserved 30-23 overtime win.
Quite frankly, Air Force was the better team. The Falcons were more physical. They were more disciplined. They were more prepared.
In this week’s edition of the Monday Rewind, we look at where the Buffs go from here. Also this week:
- Buffs show respect for Falcons
- Scary moment for Maddox
- Passing game struggles
- Buffs of the week
- Thoughts on the weekend
- Stats and quotes of the week
- Pac-12 rankings and AP ballot
LEADING OFF: Bouncing back
Nebraska was supposed to be the major hurdle of CU’s non-conference schedule, and once the Buffs cleared that, a 3-0 start seemed not only possible, but probable – at least to those outside the locker room.
CU coaches, however, had serious concerns about the Air Force offense, which is unique and unlike anything CU will see the rest of the year. They prepared for it not only all week, but throughout fall camp, as well.
When it came time to face that offense, however, the Buffs had no clue how to stop it. They got fortunate to force a first-quarter fumble and got lucky on a tipped interception before the half. Otherwise, Air Force might have had a 20-point lead, or more, at intermission.
“They came out and attacked us in a couple different ways that we weren’t prepared for,” linebacker Nate Landman said. “Then once we got those halftime adjustments, it seemed they couldn’t really run in the middle. We were doing pretty good on the edge in the second half up until overtime.”
Yes, the Buffs made their usual halftime adjustments and once again played better defense in the second half. But, overall, CU looked unprepared.
Luckily for the Buffs, they won’t see that offense again. Unfortunately for the Buffs, the schedule doesn’t get any easier. On Saturday, they visit No. 24 Arizona State (3-0) to open Pac-12 play. Last time an unranked CU team beat a ranked opponent on the road was on Sept. 21, 2002, at UCLA. The Buffs are 0-27 in those games since.
A year ago, CU never recovered from its first bit of adversity. After a 5-0 start, the Buffs finished 5-7. They finished 2017on a three-game slide.
Receiver Laviska Shenault said avoiding that same slide this year “starts with the head coach.”
“He’s relentless, he wants us to go hard 24/7,” Shenault said. “That’s where it first starts at. We’ve all seen what we can do when our backs are against the wall and when times are hard. I feel like we have to just do all the little things the right way.”
It does start with Tucker, but for CU to push the Air Force loss aside and have a chance to win in Tempe, Ariz., on Saturday, it is the players that need to step up and lead.
“You find out something about your team every single day and every game,” Tucker said. “Whether you win or lose, you find out things. My expectation is for us to look critically at ourselves in terms of what can we do better. Let’s not try to fool ourselves. Just look at it objectively and say this is where I need to improve. This is how I can get better. Then take the steps to get better and move on to the next game. We have to play another game and it’s going to come on us right now.”
Tucker added that all of CU’s goals are still in front of them. Presumably, that means bowl eligibility and a Pac-12 South title.
The Buffs weren’t very good on Saturday against Air Force. For their goals to continue to be on the table, they’re going to need to be at their best at ASU and get the momentum shifted in the other direction.
SHOWING RESPECT: Buffs honor Falcons
At the conclusion of Saturday’s game, the Air Force football team went to the northwest corner of the field and, looking towards its fans and band, sang the third verse of “The U.S. Air Force” song. The third verse of the song is performed after many Academy sporting events, with the Cadets participating, as well. The verse has a different tone than the other three verses in the song, and it is performed in honor of the fallen airmen.
CU head coach Mel Tucker kept his team on the field to stand behind the Falcons during the performance of the song. Mountain West Conference teams have done that, as well, but for Tucker, it was important for the Buffs to honor the Air Force.
“It was out of respect for them,” Tucker said on KOA radio after the game. “We knew before the game, win, lose or draw, that they were going to play that song and we were going to stand there. I have a lot of respect for Air Force and what they’re all about and our football team does, as well.”
Lyrics of the third verse:
Here’s a toast to the host
Of those who love the vastness of the sky,
To a friend we send a message of his brother men who fly.
We drink to those who gave their all of old
Then down we roar to score the rainbow’s pot of gold.
A toast to the host of men we boast, the U.S. Air Force!
SCARY MOMENT: Maddox injury
When safety Aaron Maddox was injured on Saturday, late in the third quarter, I initially thought it was going to be much worse than it was.
Maddox crashed into a misting machine on the Air Force sidelines and suffered a bad laceration to his lower left leg. At first, most in the press box thought Maddox had broken his leg. It was alarming how quickly doctors rushed to Maddox’s side, and some CU players were visibly shaken by the injury.
“It was tragic for me. It really hurt me seeing one of my brothers on the ground and really hurting in that much pain,” said CU cornerback Delrick Abrams Jr., who was near Maddox at the time, saw blood on Maddox’s leg and looked visibly upset on the broadcast. “I just prayed for him and I prayed he’ll recover. I saw what happened. He hit something on the sideline. I don’t know what he messed up but it was real bad.”
Luckily for Maddox and the Buffs, the leg wasn’t broken. The wound will need some time to heal, but Maddox should be back in four or five weeks. He might only miss two or three games.
“It’s definitely emotional,” linebacker Nate Landman said. “Me and Aaron are tight. It comes through that shared experience on the field and he’s a great safety. He’s a hard-hitting safety, great in coverage, too. It’s a tough loss for the team.”
Junior Derrion Rakestraw took Maddox’s place in the lineup after he left the game. He’s likely to start this week at Arizona State, but it will be interesting to see if CU turns to Mark Perry. The highly touted true freshman has surprisingly not seen the field this year.
Another intriguing option for the Buffs is former quarterback Sam Noyer, who switched to safety midway through fall camp and was listed second on the depth chart last week.
GAME CHANGER: Failing grade for passing game
Certainly one of the keys to Air Force’s victory was it success through the air. Falcons quarterback Donald Hammond III completed 7-of-12 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. His TD throws of 32 and 81 yards in the first half stunned the Buffs and set the tone for the day for the Falcons.
Those who pay attention to Air Force, however, realize that it wasn’t that much of a surprise. The Falcons have been top-25 nationally in pass efficiency four times in the last five years and they had more than 155 passing yards four times last season.
An even bigger surprise and game-changer was CU’s struggles in the passing game. Laviska Shenault had a big game (eight catches for 124 yards, 1 TD), but there wasn’t much else through the air.
Going in, CU figured to have a significant advantage because of its weapons at receiver and Steven Montez throwing the rock.
Air Force, however, kept pressure on Montez much of the day. The Falcons also did a nice job in coverage. The senior quarterback was off his game, too, missing several throws. In general, the offense was out of sync.
“I just have to do a better job,” Montez said. “I can’t come out there lethargic like that. We just have to come out faster and just better. All credit to Air Force. They played a hell of a game. They played lights out.”
Plenty of focus was on the Air Force offense, and rightfully so. The Falcons dominated the Buffs’ defense for much of the afternoon.
This game was won, however, with the Air Force defense on the field. CU’s execution was poor at times, but give the Falcons credit for a great game plan against the Buffs’ offense. Air Force controlled CU’s presumed advantage and even took away the Buffs’ run game for much of the day.
BEST OF THE BUFFS: This week’s top CU players
A few Buffs that stood out in the loss to Air Force:
- LB Akil Jones: Got extensive action for the first time in his career and he made the most of it, with five tackles, including one for loss.
- S Aaron Maddox: Before his injury, he was playing well. Finished with eight tackles, including one for loss and a forced fumble.
- RB Jaren Mangham: Not a big game, but he had 56 yards on 10 carries and ran well in the second half (six carries for 42 yards).
- S Mikial Onu: Finished with 11 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception.
- WR Laviska Shenault: He finally busted loose, with eight catches for 124 yards and a touchdown, along with three rushes for 25 yards and a score.
- WR Dimitri Stanley: Caught five passes for 35 yards and the first touchdown of his career.
THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND
1. CU’s offensive line had its worst game of the season. Montez was sacked just twice, but he was under pressure most of the afternoon. It also took three quarters for the Buffs to find any room in the run game. A week earlier, against Nebraska, the starting five played the entire game. Against Air Force, the Buffs made changes at both guard spots, with Casey Roddick relieving Colby Pursell at right guard and Chance Lytle replacing Kary Kutsch for a bit at left guard. (Pursell, apparently, had an injury that prevented him from finishing the game). It was also a tough day for center Tim Lynott. For the first time this season, he had troubles with his snaps, delivering a few of them low and sailing one over the head of Montez. While not a lineman, tight end Brady Russell had his first rough outing, as well. He, too, was benched for large chunks of the game in favor of Jalen Harris.
2. On defense, the Buffs have been much better in the second half of each game so far this season. That’s great, and it has helped them win two games. It’s also troubling. Why is it that the Buffs can figure things out after 10-15 minutes of adjustments, but not after six days of preparation? There are too many good offenses in the Pac-12 for CU to keep up with this formula and succeed.
3. Great win for Arizona State on Saturday at Michigan State, but a bad look for Pac-12 officiating once again. On Sunday night, the Pac-12 admitted it made an officiating error on the final play of the game in East Lansing, Mich. With 11 seconds left, Michigan State made what would have been a game-tying field goal, but the Spartans were flagged for having 12 players on the field. The ball was moved back to the 29-yard line and, with 6 seconds left, the ensuing field goal attempt failed as time expired. On that second attempt, an ASU defender ran and leapt over the Michigan State line to try to block the kick. That leap is illegal and should have been a 15-yard penalty (or half the distance to the goal). Had it been called correctly, Michigan State would have had one untimed down from near the 15-yard line, leaving them about a 32-yard field goal attempt. No guarantee Michigan State makes it, but the Spartans should have had a chance to send the game to overtime. Instead, ASU got the 10-7 upset win.
4. Half of the Pac-12 is ranked among the Associated Press Top 25 this week. Utah (3-0) is at No. 10, Oregon (2-1) at No. 16, Washington State (3-0) at No. 19, Washington (2-1) at No. 22, California (3-0) at No. 23 and Arizona State (3-0) at No. 24. Good sign for the Pac-12? Maybe, but let’s not get our hopes up. Utah’s had a soft schedule, Oregon lost its only competitive game and Washington State’s best win is against a 1-2 Houston team. Washington, meanwhile, has a bad loss (at home to Cal). As for Cal and ASU … let’s see if they can sustain this. Cal started 3-0 last year, too, vaulted to No. 24 and then lost three in a row. ASU earned a national ranking after its upset of Michigan State last year, as well, but then lost its next two and four of its next five. For now, enjoy it. It’s a good look for the Pac-12. But, there’s still plenty for these teams to prove.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 5
Graduate transfer safety Mikial Onu has produced five turnovers so far this season for the Buffs. The senior, who transferred from SMU, has three interceptions and two forced fumbles. In 36 games at SMU, Onu had three interceptions and one forced fumble.
STAT OF THE WEEK, part II: 3
Fumble recoveries for CU senior Nu’umotu Falo, all the last two games. He’s got a ways to go to match the school record, though. Four times, a CU player has had seven fumble recoveries in a season; Don Branby (1952), Stuart Walker (1978), Mark Haynes (1979) and George Smith (1983).
MY PAC-12 RANKINGS
How I rank the Pac-12 after Week 3:
1. Oregon Ducks (2-1; previous rank: 1): Ducks had an easy one against Montana.
2. Utah Utes (3-0: PR: 2): Utes capped non-conference play with a shutout of Idaho State.
3. Washington State Cougars (3-0; PR: 4): Another solid outing for the Cougars, who knocked off Houston, 31-24.
4. California Golden Bears (3-0; PR: 5): Wasn’t pretty against North Texas, but the Bears are 3-0 for the third consecutive season.
5. Washington Huskies (2-1; PR: 7): Huskies rebound from loss to Cal by routing Hawaii.
6. Arizona State Sun Devils (3-0; PR: 9): Defense was impressive in 10-7 win at Michigan State.
7. Arizona Wildcats (2-1; PR: 10): Big fourth quarter pushed the Wildcats past Texas Tech, 28-14.
8. USC Trojans (2-1; PR: 3): Trojans fall at BYU, 30-27 in OT.
9. Colorado Buffaloes (2-1; PR: 6): Missed a chance to go to 3-0 with an OT loss to Air Force.
10. Stanford Cardinal (1-2; PR: 8): Ugly 45-27 loss at UCF. Cardinal have given up 94 points in the past two weeks.
11. Oregon State Beavers (1-2; PR: 12): Feel-good win for the Beavers, who routed Cal Poly 45-7. Beavers 3-0 vs. FCS teams the past three years, but 1-23 vs. FBS teams (sorry, CU fans).
12. UCLA Bruins (0-3: PR: 11): Bruins getting rolled by Oklahoma was predictable. Sooners cruised, 48-14, dropping UCLA to 3-12 under Chip Kelly.
MY TOP 25 BALLOT
Here’s the ballot I submitted to the Associated Press for this week’s Top 25:
5. Ohio State
8. Notre Dame
12. Central Florida
14. Texas A&M
17. Penn State
18. Washington State
20. Boise State
24. Arizona State
25. Michigan State
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
S Mikial Onu on his five forced turnovers this season: “It’s less me and more coach has put me in good positions and guys follow, making plays. It’s all cool. Turnovers are cool; you try to help your team get momentum, you try to help your team head in the right direction. It means nothing if you lose. I could care less about the turnovers I had or how many I have on the season. I want to win. Whatever I have to do to win, that’s my approach.”
QB Steven Montez on the lack of offensive consistency against Air Force: “I don’t have an answer for that as of right now. We have to figure it out. We have to keep practicing hard and I think that will help us be more consistent. As of like a magic switch, a flip and everything changes and all of a sudden we’re consistent now, I don’t think we have that. We have to keep continuing to practice and work at our fundamentals and work at the mental game. I think that will make us more consistent if we keep doing that on a day to day basis.”
LB Akil Jones on getting the most playing time of his career and making several tackles: “Personally, I was happy to be out there making plays, but overall I really did just want to win. That was my main goal.”
Head coach Mel Tucker on the physical toll of back-to-back hard-hitting games: “All these games are tough, they’re physical games. Our guys will recover and we’ll get ready for the next one.”
THIS WEEK: Down to the desert
CU opens Pac-12 Conference play on Saturday night at Arizona State.