It remains to be seen whether Colorado’s thrilling win late Saturday night at Arizona State will be a signature win of a memorable season, or a brief highlight first-year head coach Mel Tucker can point to as an example of what he expects to build within the Buffaloes program.
Like last year, if nothing else in the Pac-12 Conference, the victories and projections can change wildly from week to week. Heck, even CU’s stunning and impressive 34-31 win against the 24th-ranked Sun Devils — CU’s first win ever in Tempe and one that erased a 35-game losing streak against ranked foes away from Boulder — didn’t even count as the biggest surprise in the league Saturday night. That honor went to UCLA, which at least momentarily silenced doubts about second-year coach Chip Kelly’s ability to turn the Bruins around with an improbable comeback win at No. 19 Washington State.
Yet this much is certain for the Buffs: Just one third of the way into his first season full season as a head coach anywhere, clearly Tucker’s sermons of toughness and resiliency already are taking root at CU. That bodes well for Buffs fans for the remainder of 2019 and beyond.
Now in their ninth season in the Pac-12, Saturday’s win was just the eighth road victory within the league for the Buffs. None of the others occurred with the Buffs facing as much adversity as they overcame in Tempe.
Never mind how CU was attempting to bounce back from its first loss of the season, an overtime defeat against Air Force at home in which the Buffs were beaten up front on both sides of the ball by an undersized foe. On Saturday night in Tempe, some of the Buffs’ most impactful players kept staggering to the sideline. Receiver Laviska Shenault got only one touch before his night ended with an undisclosed injury. Defensive end Mustafa Johnson was sidelined on CU’s first defensive series. Cornerback Chris Miller was knocked out of the game late in the third quarter. Three other key figures — safety Mikial Onu, running back Jaren Mangham, and cornerback Delrick Abrams — all missed time but eventually returned to the field.
None of it mattered.
In the desert heat, it was the Buffs who didn’t wilt down the stretch. Quarterback Steven Montez played every bit like the field general he should be as a third-year starter. The offensive line rebounded from its poor showing against AFA to dominate an ASU defense that entered the game as one of the top units in the nation. And while CU’s defense remains a work in progress, the Buffs nonetheless dominated the fourth quarter. After ASU’s Frank Darby tied the game 31-31 with a touchdown catch on the third play of the fourth quarter, CU dictated the tone the rest of the way. The Sun Devils’ final three possessions ended with a Derrion Rakestraw interception, a three-and-out, and, on ASU’s last-chance drive, a fourth-down stop set up by a third-down sack from Terrance Lang.
It perhaps is the perfect time for a Buffs squad returning home giddy but battered to have a bye. The most concerning of the injury setbacks were the ones to Johnson and Shenault, but at least in the case of the latter the Buffs are proving they have enough offensive weapons to get the job done without big contributions from their star receiver. Obviously the Buffs are a better team with Shenault on the field. Yet the fact remains the offense has performed far more efficiently so far when he serves as more of a decoy (Colorado State, Nebraska) or has been absent almost entirely (ASU) than in the one game when he lit up the box score (Air Force).
What’s next? Anyone who can answer that definitively in the wildly unpredictable Pac-12 should buy a few lottery tickets. After the bye, the Buffs host a seemingly winnable home game against Arizona before facing a run of three of four games on the road — at Oregon, at Washington State, home against USC, and at UCLA — that will define the Buffs bowl chances, or perhaps even set the stage for a run at the South Division title.
It will depend which Buffs team shows up those particular days. Yet with the exception of a strong Oregon team that has played fairly consistently, the same can be said about any of those other three foes. If UCLA, seemingly dead in the water just a few days ago, can win at Washington State after trailing by 32 points midway through the third quarter, anything is possible.
Whether it’s back to the doldrums or the start of something special, this much is true: The Buffs are embracing the Tucker Way.