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Brian Howell’s Monday Rewind (Sept. 23, 2019)

Buffaloes defense steps up when needed

Photo courtesy CU athletics
Colorado’s defense stepped up in the second half against Arizona State.
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Walking out of the locker room at Arizona State on Saturday night, Tyson Summers wore a big smile on his face.

Granted, part of that smile was created by the fact that Colorado’s defensive coordinator doesn’t have to worry about dealing with a triple-option offense the rest of the year. But, mainly, it was because of the pride he felt in his defense – and particularly a young, inexperienced group – for rising up when it was needed most in the Buffaloes’ 34-31 victory against then-No. 24 Arizona State.

In this week’s edition of the Monday Rewind, we look at the Buffaloes’ defense, which has not been great overall, but has shown a remarkable knack for stepping up late in games and for filling holes. Also this week:

  • Buffs preparing roster for opportunities
  • Montez, OL  in sync
  • Buffs of the week
  • Thoughts on the weekend
  • Stats and quotes of the week
  • Pac-12 rankings and AP ballot

LEADING OFF: Stepping up on D

Give Summers and his defense this: they are consistent. Four games into the season, the Buffaloes have allowed 31, 31, 30 and 31 points. Luckily, their offense has put up 52, 34, 23 and 34, adding it all up to a 3-1 record at this point.

Currently, the Buffs are tied for 96th nationally in scoring defense (30.8 points per game), and 117th in yards allowed (466.5). Those numbers are brutal and will make it difficult for the Buffs to continue winning games if they don’t improve.

However, within those numbers is this: Of the 123 points allowed by CU, only 54 of them have come after halftime. And, only 40 percent of the opponents’ yards are coming after intermission.

Saturday at ASU was no different. The Sun Devils scored 21 points in the first half (all in the second quarter) and only 10 after the break. Early on, CU really couldn’t stop the Sun Devils. ASU missed a field goal on its first possession (the Sun Devils’ first miss of the year) and scored touchdowns on their next three. Its last possession of the half was a one-play kneel-down before the half.

Photo courtesy CU Athletics
Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers has been pushing the right buttons in the second of games this year.

“It’s a lot like the first four games overall,” Summers said. “We’ve got a five or six minvute spurt where we didn’t play real well. We didn’t play very well in the second quarter. We came back and we were able to make plays when we needed to.”

In the second half, ASU started with a punt, then a field goal and a touchdown. That left the game tied at 31-31 with 13:51 to play in the fourth quarter.

From that point, CU’s defense transitioned to lock-down mode. Derrion Rakestraw picked off a Jayden Daniels pass (the first INT of the year for the Sun Devils’ freshman QB); then the defense forced a punt; and with 2:03 to go and CU protecting a three-point lead, the defense shut down the Sun Devils.

“Obviously Derrion Rakestraw had a huge takeaway for us at a key point in the game,” Summers said, “and they made plays when they had to.”

Summers credited outside linebackers coach Brian Michalowski for getting the Buffs ready for third downs and bringing some pressure. Terrance Lang’s third-down sack of Daniels on the final ASU possession was one of the biggest plays of the night.

“You got to give these players and our coaches a lot of credit,” Summers said. “We played well in the second half, really for four weeks in a row, and put ourselves in a position to win all four games.

“To be 3-1 and have two top-25 wins, it’s really special for our overall football team. And again, we came out tonight did what (head coach Mel) Tucker preaches about and talks about, which is playing complimentary football: the offense, defense, special teams playing together. And we did that.”

The Buffs were particularly good on Arizona State’s final possession.

A week earlier, Daniels burned Michigan State with his arm and legs to produce a game-winning touchdown drive in a win. CU wasn’t about to let that happen.

With the game on the line, the Buffs used a four-man front (with outside linebacker Carson Wells lining up as an end) and rushed all four on first and second down. Daniels was off the mark on both of those throws.

On third down, Wells backed off at the snap and spied on Daniels. With Wells roaming free, Daniels didn’t have much option to run. Meanwhile the trio of Alex Tchangam, Terrance Lang and Na’im Rodman did a great job of collapsing the pocket and rattling Daniels. The true freshman had Curtis Hodges open on a crossing route, but was too worried about the rush and got taken down by Lang, who beat two ASU linemen to get the sack.

That set up fourth-and-16, and the three-man rush/Wells spy strategy worked again. Because of Wells, Daniels couldn’t really leave the pocket, which collapsed again and he got hit by Tchangam as he threw the ball.

“The last play, if we had this much more time, (Daniels) is going to hit Brandon Aiyuk over the middle of the field and he’s probably going to run for 40 yards, and it just didn’t happen,” ASU offensive coordinator Rob Likens said.

Ideally, the Buffs can figure out how to play better defense for four quarters and stop giving up 30-plus points each week. But, this is a group that’s been fresh in the fourth quarter and continues to make winning plays when it matters.

TESTING DEPTH: Buffs’ philosophy prepares them for adversity

At this point the “next man up” theory has become a cliché sports. It’s now the standard answer for teams who deal with injuries. We heard it again in Tempe, and Tucker added a line he’s used a few times already: “If you’re in the game you’re a starter.”

I get it. I understand guys have to step up. But, I said to Summers, let’s be honest, you can’t just replace Mustafa Johnson, the star defensive lineman who was clipped on CU’s seventh defensive snap and didn’t play again; you can’t replace Delrick Abrams and Chris Miller, two veteran corners who were injured the game (Abrams returned, but Miller did not). Then, there’s the fact that safety Aaron Maddox, a starter the first three games, was out with an injury suffered against Air Force.

Yes, if you’re in the game, you’re a starter, but the reason Johnson, Maddox, Abrams, Miller, etc., were starters in the first place is because they had been CU’s best players in practice.

So, I asked Summers, what’s the secret to filling those holes with guys like defensive linemen Janaz Jordan (a JUCO transfer making his first start), Jeremiah Doss (a JUCO transfer who hadn’t seen the field before Saturday), and Rodman ; true freshman cornerback KJ Trujillo (who hadn’t played the first three games), and others?

The answer is in Tucker’s approach with this program.

“I think first thing you have to be able to do is be able to continue to motivate them,  continue to tell them how much you believe in them,” Summers said.

That’s not just a game-day thing. That’s every day. Tucker has often said they coach everybody and don’t want to leave anyone behind. It’s because of days like Saturday. The players who came into the game were ready because there is practice time every day devoted to the backups getting experience. Those players feel ready and stay engaged all week.

“They are not (backups) that don’t get a chance to play any throughout the week or in practice,” Summers said, “so they’ve gotten the repetition, they believe in themselves and they’re able to come in there and be able to help us.”

On top of that, Summers takes input from all of his coaches, including quality control analyst Bryan Cook, to run plays that are comfortable for the specific players in the game.

“Those things are huge for me to be able to talk to our guys and be able to give them calls and give them a chance to feel comfortable in the second half,” Summers said.

Summers added that strength and conditioning coach Drew Wilson has “done a fantastic job” in preparing the players physically so that they aren’t fatigued late in a game.

It’s all contributed to a team, and a defense, that has carried confidence throughout every game, even when the opposition puts points on the board.

“Those guys, they believe in each other and they trust in what we’re doing,” Summers said. “You know, we haven’t had one fourth quarter or one second half where they didn’t feel like 100% they’re going to win the game. As long as we continue to have that belief and continue to put ourselves in position to win games late, we’ll keep winning them, I hope.”

GAME CHANGER: Give him time, watch him shine

Saturday might have been quarterback Steven Montez’s best performance of the season. He was sharp all night, threw three touchdowns and no interceptions and led the offensive like a senior QB and third-year starter should.

It helped that he had time.

Photo courtesy CU Athletics
Steven Montez had a big night for the Buffs on Saturday, thanks to Colby Pursell (right) and other linemen stepping up.

It’s no coincidence that Montez’s big night came when the offensive line had its best game. Montez wasn’t sacked and often sat in the pocket comfortably.

“The key to this game was this: the quarterback had a lot of time to throw. A lot of time,” ASU head coach Herm Edwards said. “That’s not fun with a quarterback that can throw the ball like this guy. We have to find a way to make the quarterback uncomfortable; he wasn’t very uncomfortable tonight.”

ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said Montez “did a pretty good job seeing where our stunts were coming from” in the first half. In the first half, Montez was 13-for-16 for 196 yards and two touchdowns.

Even when he did feel a little pressure, Montez kept his poise and his eyes downfield and found receivers. On his first touchdown to Tony Brown, Montez left the pocket, baited the ASU defense to focus on him, and then lofted the ball to Brown.

“(Montez) made a bunch of announced plays; plays that are not scripted – leaving the pocket and extending the play, and he did a nice job of doing that,” Edwards said.

Each of Montez’s three touchdown throws to Brown were veteran plays and his throws were about as good as can be.

The three touchdowns:

 

BEST OF THE BUFFS: This week’s top CU players

A few Buffs that stood out in the win against ASU:

  • WR Tony Brown: The senior had the best game of his career, with nine catches for 150 yard and three touchdowns.
  • Photo courtesy CU Athletics
    Running back Alex Fontenot had 111 yards in total offense vs. ASU.

    RB Alex Fontenot: It wasn’t an easy night, but he churned out 89 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, while adding 22 yards on three catches.

  • DL Janaz Jordan: Just one tackle for the JUCO transfer, but he deserves a nod for being solid in his first career start.
  • DL Terrance Lang: His sack near the end of the game was a big-time play and much-needed for the defense.
  • QB Steven Montez: Exceptional night for the fifth-year senior.
  • WR KD Nixon: Overall, it was a good game for Nixon, but he did have a costly fumble on a kickoff and a personal foul penalty that hurt a fourth-quarter drive. Still, he had 196 total yards (98 receiving, 98 on kickoff returns)
  • Offensive line: The whole group – Arlington Hambright, Kary Kutsch, Tim Lynott, Colby Pursell and William Sherman – shined and made a difference. They were the MVPs of the offense.
  • S Derrion Rakestraw: In his first start of the year, filling in for Aaron Maddox, he stepped up in a big way, with nine tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception.
  • K James Stefanou: Third time in four games he makes this list. He’s been exceptional all year. In this one, he was 2-for-2 on field goals, including the game-winner, and scored 10 points.

THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND

1. Not sure what a win like this will do for this team, but I’ve got to think it’s a confidence builder. The Buffs have a loss that was unexpected (vs. Air Force), but they’ve now got two wins they weren’t supposed to get (Nebraska, ASU). They’re gonna need to win a few others people aren’t expecting. Four weeks in, though, there’s gotta be some confidence that this group is capable of getting the job done and pulling some surprises.

2. Seemingly every year, there is talk of which team is actually CU’s rival in the Pac-12. These questions usually come during Utah week, because that’s the rivalry the conference has tried to manufacture. I don’t believe CU truly has a rival in the conference, but I think ASU might be the closest thing to it. This has become, annually, one of the most entertaining matchups on CU’s schedule. CU has now won three out of four against the Sun Devils, and probably should have won in 2017. The games have been physical, too. Maybe it’s UCLA. Maybe it’s Utah. I don’t know. But, I think CU/ASU has become worth the price of admission every year.

3. After some issues with snaps on Sept. 14 against Air Force – including one that sailed over the head of Montez – senior center Tim Lynott Jr. cut the fingers off of the glove on his right hand this past week. Lynott felt that gripping the ball with his bare fingers gave him more control of the ball. He didn’t have any snapping issues against the Sun Devils. (And, it should be noted, he didn’t have any issues in the first two games of the year, either).

4. Props to the CU band for their efforts in getting the Buffs’ faithful going on Saturday night. About 50 members of the band (roughly a quarter of the full marching band) made the trip to Tempe. That lively group was on my plane Sunday morning and gave a nice rendition of the fight song after the plane was in the air. I sat next to Max, a clarinet player from San Diego, who knows his football and is on board with what Mel Tucker’s doing to Boulder. This was the one trip the band will make during the regular season. If the Buffs reach a bowl, the full contingent will be able to make the trip.

5. Last week, my son, who is a junior in high school, brought me some physics homework and asked if I could help him figure it out. I felt totally lost in looking it over. Then I watched a weekend of Pac-12 football. I think I’d have more success figuring out the physics homework. Winless UCLA comes from 32 down to stun No. 19 Washington State. USC loses another QB, goes to third-stringer Matt Fink and upsets No. 10 Utah. California – Cal?! – is the only unbeaten team in the conference. Ol’ reliable, Stanford, suddenly can’t beat anybody. And Colorado finally solves the riddle of Sun Devil Stadium. Crazy conference!

STAT OF THE WEEK: 0

Sacks allowed by CU against Arizona State – not only last week, but in the last two meetings with the Sun Devils. Here’s what makes that stat remarkable: Under Herm Edwards, the Sun Devils have had at least one sack in 14 of 17 games. The only games they failed to reach the quarterback are the two against CU and their Las Vegas Bowl loss to Fresno State.

STAT OF THE WEEK, part II: 9 for 102

Laviska Shenault’s total combined numbers – nine catches for 102 yards – in CU’s three wins. Those are numbers we expected to see from Shenault on a weekly basis. By contrast, he had eight catches for 124 yards in the Buffs’ one loss.

MY PAC-12 RANKINGS

How I rank the Pac-12 after Week 4:

1. Oregon Ducks (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12; previous rank: 1): It wasn’t dominant, but it was an efficient win over Stanford last week.

2. California Golden Bears (4-0; 1-0; PR: 4): Cal at No. 2?? We’ll see if it lasts, but the Bears deserve it right now as the last remaining unbeaten team in the pac-12.

3. Washington Huskies (3-1; 0-1; PR: 5): Impressive win for UW over BYU.

4. USC Trojans (3-1; 2-0; PR: 8): Not sure which USC team shows up from week to week, but they had an impressive win against the then-No.10 Utah Utes.

5. Utah Utes (3-1; 0-1; PR: 2): Costly loss for the team favored to win the South.

6. Colorado Buffaloes (3-1; 1-0; PR: 9): A top-25 win on the road was a nice way to start conference play.

7. Washington State Cougars (3-1; 0-1; PR: 3): Very few games have been as stunning as WSU’s loss to UCLA. Cougars had no business losing that one, but they are usually good for one head-scratching loss a season.

8. Arizona State Sun Devils (3-1; 0-1; PR: 6): For the second year in a row, the Sun Devils followed a statement-making win against Michigan State with a loss.

9. Arizona Wildcats (2-1; PR: 7): Wildcats were off last week; only reason they dropped is to make room for CU and USC ahead of them.

10. UCLA Bruins (1-3; 1-0 Pac-12; PR: 12):  Remarkable comeback win, but this is still a team that trailed by 32 late in the third quarter.

11. Stanford Cardinal (1-3; 0-1; PR: 10): Struggling Cardinal have lost three in a row for the first time since 2008.

12. Oregon State Beavers (1-2; PR: 11): Beavers had a bye last week and get Stanford this week.

MY TOP 25 BALLOT

Here’s the ballot I submitted to the Associated Press for this week’s Top 25:

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. Georgia

4. Oklahoma

5. Ohio State

6. LSU

7. Florida

8. Auburn

9. Wisconsin

10. Notre Dame

11. Texas

12. Oregon

13. Penn State

14. California

15. Washington

16. Michigan

17. Virginia

18. Boise State

19. Southern Cal

20. Utah

21. Iowa

22. Central Florida

23. Michigan State

24. SMU

25. Colorado

I was one of only three voters (out of 62) to put CU on my ballot. Some might call it a homer pick, but as of this point in the season, the Buffs are one of only three teams in the country with two top-25 wins (along with Auburn and USC). Yes, they’ve got a home loss to a decent Mountain West team, but at 3-1 and two top-25 wins, I’m not sure you could find a team with a better resume at the bottom of the poll. In fact, compare CU to the bottom three teams in the Top 25 this week:

23 – Texas A&M (2-2): A very tough schedule that has included losses to Clemson and Auburn, but the only wins so far came against Texas State and Lamar. Aggies are probably better than CU, but they’ve failed their two toughest tests.

24 – Kansas State (3-0): This one doesn’t make sense to me. Wildcats got in after a bye and a resume that includes wins against Nicholls State, Bowling Green and Mississippi State.

25 – Michigan State (3-1): This one is weird, too. Spartans fell out of the top-25 with a home loss to ASU, and got back in with an impressive win against Northwestern. Also have wins against Tulsa and Western Michigan. Same record as CU and when you look at common opponent, Buffs get the nod.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

QB Steven Montez on last week being a chance to show everybody that the offense is more than just a one-man (Shenault) show: “It’s not good to lose Laviska Shenault, just because he’s so dynamic with the ball in his hands and he attracts a lot of attention defensively, just because he’s such a great ball player. But we definitely have other guys on the perimeter that can make great plays when they get the ball in their hands. Tony  Brown had three touchdowns today. KD Nixon looked good out there today. We have Dimitri Stanley who was playing well today. We have a lot of talent on the perimeter that can be very dynamic and we want to get them the ball as much as we can. We also relied heavily on our run game today and our run game looked pretty good, so props to the big guys up front for blocking and doing a great job and props to the running backs for taking care of the ball.”

OLB Carson Wells, on returning to the lineup after missing two games with a concussion: “It felt good. It kind of hurt missing the last two weeks. Good to be back out there with the brothers.”

WR Tony Brown on whether the win against ASU was big mentally for the Buffs: “It’s just another game for us; just like all the rest of the games this year. But, you know, I expect this and coach Mel expects it from us every game. So this might seem like a big game to you and to a lot of people but you know, it’s just a normal game for us.”

THIS WEEK: Taking a break

The Buffs have a much-needed bye week to heal some wounds and start preparing for an Oct. 5 battle against Arizona.