Four games into Mel Tucker’s tenure as the head coach at Colorado, his Buffaloes have dealt with injuries and inconsistency.
Injuries are uncontrollable, and the inconsistency is no surprise because it’s rare a first-year coach has a team firing on all cylinders. Even the great Nick Saban needed a year to get Alabama rolling.
So far, however, CU (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) has put enough good on the field to sport a winning record, and the trademark — so far — of Tucker’s first team has been its resiliency and ability to play as tough and physical in the fourth quarter as in the first.
Following a 34-31 win Sept. 21 at Arizona State, a game that went down to the final seconds, Tucker said, “I felt like we could have gone another quarter, another half or whatever was needed. As a football team, if we needed to play more, we could play more.”
Coming off their first of two open weeks, the Buffaloes will host Arizona (3-1, 1-0) on Saturday at Folsom Field, with kickoff slated for 2:30 p.m. (TV: Pac-12 Network). Once again, CU’s next-man-up philosophy and start-to-finish competitiveness figure to be crucial against an opponent that comes in with a three-game winning streak.
Several players, including freshman running back Jaren Mangham last week, said the competitive nature of the team stems from Tucker. From the day he was hired in December, Tucker has preached tough, intense, relentless effort on and off the field, and it’s paying off.
“We believe in our players … and they believe in us,” Tucker said. “They want to have success, and we’re going to do everything we can to put them in position to have success.”
Even if that means filling holes created by injured stars.
CU goes into this week with uncertainly surrounding some of its top players. Receiver Laviska Shenault (undisclosed injury), defensive end Mustafa Johnson (ankle) and cornerback Chris Miller (sternum) all left the ASU game with injuries, and Tucker offered no update on their status last week.
Several other players were nursing bumps and bruises last week, as well.
Tucker and his staff have had players ready to fill holes, however. Against the Sun Devils, CU had several players, especially on defense, on the field for the first time all season because of the injuries, yet the Buffs still held on and played well down the stretch.
“Those guys, they went in and they were into it, and what stands out to me is that they were ready,” Tucker said. “They were prepared, and they competed in the game. And so that’s what we need.”
Ideally, Shenault, Johnson and the others will be ready to go, but if they aren’t, it’s a good bet there won’t be excuses from the Buffs.
“We’re confident in every single person on that sideline that they can come in when their number is called and perform at a high level,” quarterback Steven Montez said.
Takeaways piling up
Although the Buffs rank 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, yielding 30.8 points per game, the Buffs are tied — with Arizona — for the conference lead in takeaways with 11.
“I’m not surprised,” senior safety Mikial Onu said. “I feel like we have a chance to create a turnover every time we step on the field, and I think everyone on defense feels the same way. Along with physicality, takeaways is one of our key points in this defense, and we need them.”
CU forced only 15 turnovers last year and 14 in 2017, but so far has come up with interceptions or fumble recoveries at huge moments.
“You look at some of the games, turnovers have come in really, really, really big times — game-changing, momentum-swinging type plays. and so you’re always on defense looking to make that kind of play and looking to get it right back (to the offense),” Onu said.
Sky the limit?
CU’s second-half defense has been solid all season, and the offense has posted 35.8 points per game (fifth in the Pac-12), despite some rough stretches.
If the Buffs could play a complete game, Onu said, there’s no telling how good they could be.
“I think if we play a complete game, with our brand of football … I don’t think anybody can beat us,” he said. “I think we could be one of the best teams in the country, but we have to focus on getting better every day, day in and day out, play in and play out.”
Since 1948, CU is 27-22 in games following an open week. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Buffs are 2-5 following an open week. … CU received 19 points (tied for 32nd) in the Associated Press top 25 poll on Sunday and 18 points (33rd) in the Coaches’ poll.
CU opponent glance
Opponent: Arizona Wildcats
Game time: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. at Folsom Field in Boulder
TV: Pac-12 Network
Coach: Kevin Sumlin, 2nd season (8-8; 94-51 career)
Record: 3-1, 1-0 Pac-12
Last week: Defeated UCLA, 20-17, at home
Notable: The winner of this game will be in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South division. … After a 45-38 loss at Hawaii in the opener, the Wildcats have won three in a row. … Arizona has held its last two opponents – UCLA and Texas Tech to 17 points or less. It’s the first time an Arizona team has done that since the first three games of the 2013 season. … Wildcats’ senior QB Khalil Tate (hamstring, ankle) and junior RB J.J. Taylor (sprained ankle) both missed the UCLA game with injuries and Sumlin said he doesn’t know if they’ll play against CU. “We’re not going to put those guys in harm’s way with the type of injuries that they have,” he said after the game. “Those guys can be explosive players. When you have ankles or leg injuries like that, what you don’t want is for something that just nags on (them) for the whole year. We’ll assess that throughout the week.” … Tate has had two of the biggest games of his career against CU, with 481 total yards – 327 rushing, 154 passing – and 5 TD in 2017 and 365 yards – 350 passing, 15 rushing – and 5 TD in 2018. … True freshman Grant Gunnell made his first career start in place of Tate and threw for 352 yards and a touchdown against UCLA. … Arizona is 1-5 on the road under Sumlin, with one win coming at Oregon State last year.