Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Mikial Onu, left, has four interceptions and has been an integral part of the Buffaloes’ defense this season.
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

“Next man up” has become a cliché in sports in recent years when injuries hit a team, but Colorado head football coach Mel Tucker made it clear it’s really the only option for his team right now.

“The next man up is not a cliché, it’s what’s required,” Tucker said.

What was already a difficult list of injuries grew even longer last week during the Buffs’ 35-30 loss to Arizona.

We don’t know the extent of some of the injuries. In fact, with some players, we don’t even know IF they are injured, but have to assume they are. When I asked about several players not on the field Saturday, Tucker said to me, “We haven’t benched anyone or anything like that, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Therefore, we have to assume there is some sort of physical ailment impacting several players, including:

Offense: WR Laviska Shenault (core muscle strain) and KD Nixon (unknown); RG Colby Pursell (unknown); TE Jalen Harris (unknown) and Brady Russell (unknown)

Defense: DL Mustafa Johnson (ankle) and Jalen Sami (knee); S Aaron Maddox (leg laceration) and Mikial Onu (torso); and CB Chris Miller (knee; out for the year).

That’s a long list of key players not on the field for the Buffs at the end of that game against Arizona. While nothing is official, I do believe Johnson, Maddox and Shenault will be on the field soon – perhaps Friday at Oregon, but maybe not until next week at Washington State – and Onu did return for the final few plays against Arizona, but still looked hobbled.

Obviously, the ideal would be to have everyone healthy this week against the Ducks. Shenault is one of the most dynamic players in the country, Johnson is one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the Pac-12 and Nixon, Russell, Maddox, etc. have all made big impacts. But, the biggest loss of them of all, if he can’t play, could be Onu.

In this week’s edition of the Monday Rewind, we’ll look at what Onu means to the Buffs (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12). Also this week:

  • Steven Montez: Great game, but tough finish
  • Nate Landman finally gets a TFL
  • Best of the Buffs against Arizona
  • Stats and quotes of the week
  • Pac-12 rankings and AP ballot

LEADING OFF: Onu’s impact massive

Just moments after Nixon threw a laser to Dimitri Stanley for a double-reverse pass for touchdown with 1 minute, 50 seconds to play in the first half on Saturday, the excitement of that play was crushed when Arizona’s Khalil Tate heaved a strike to Cedric Peterson for a 75-yard counter-punch TD.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Graduate transfer Mikial Onu has been arguably Colorado’s best player on defense this season.

Most crushing to CU, though, was seeing safety Mikial Onu, who was beat on the play, holding his side as he jogged behind Peterson for the final 25 yards. He didn’t return to the field until Arizona’s final, clock-killing drive with 2:23 to play, and he looked tentative during that series.

If Onu misses any time, the Buffs could be in trouble. This season, the graduate transfer from SMU has been CU’s best player on defense. That’s  a testament to Onu’s talent and work ethic, but also a bit of an indictment on the recruiting by the previous coaching staff. Ideally, a graduate  transfer plugs a hole, but he’s been the most vital piece on a defense that has struggled. The Buffs rank 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed (31.6 per game) and 10th in yards allowed (470.6 per game).

Earlier in the game, Onu picked off a Tate pass. In fact, it was his interception that set up the Nixon-to-Stanley touchdown.

Onu now ranks second in the country with four interceptions on the year, while also forcing two fumbles. Even bigger than that is the impact he’s making as a leader for a young secondary.

“He’s a great player,” said junior Sam Noyer, who replaced Onu for a brief time against Arizona. “We know that he makes plays, and he’s in the right position and he’s a smart guy. We’re all trying to trying to learn and trying to get better and he does a good job of helping all of us and we all do a good job of helping each other. But he’s definitely a crucial part to this team and to this defense, for sure.”

Sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis added that Onu “kills that role.”

With injuries hitting the secondary hard, Onu’s presence in the back is critical. He’s a student of the game and a very cerebral player who can help this team like nobody else. Onu is assignment-sound and has a nose for the football. Next man up is great, but the next man up doesn’t have Onu’s instincts.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez threw for 299 yards and a touchdown against Arizona on Saturday.

GAME CHANGER: Montez’s up and down

More often than not, senior quarterback Steven Montez plays very well and I think that throughout his career, he’s been near the bottom of CU’s list of worries.

Like all quarterbacks – even the Hall of Famers – Montez is the most scrutinized player on the team and there are certainly moments where the criticism against him is warranted. On Saturday, we saw both sides of Montez’s game.

For the most part, Montez was great against Arizona. He completed 67 percent of his passes (28-of-42) and that was despite a handful of drops – including a monumental one from Daniel Arias. He threw for 299 yards and a touchdown, ran for 16 yards and wasn’t sacked.

Montez has always been great at keeping plays alive and he’s improvised the Buffs into some great plays. Toward the end of the first half Saturday, he did just that.

With 11 seconds to play in the half and CU trailing 14-13, it had third-and-3 at the Arizona 12 and no timeouts left. He scrambled around the pocket, avoiding the rush, waved his receivers to open spots and then delivered a strike to tight end Brady Russell for a touchdown with 3 seconds on the clock.

“Initially, everybody was covered, so I just kind of figured I would scramble around,” he said. “I knew we had 11 seconds, so we had some time. I could still throw it out of the back at the end zone, we could get a field goal and get points before half. So I scrambled around a little bit. I knew all I needed to do was not take a sack, so I avoided a couple of defensive linemen, saw Brady sitting in the corner with his hands up and I just tried to give him a ball that he could catch.”

It was vintage Montez and it gave the Buffs a 20-14 lead going into the half.

There really wasn’t much I didn’t like about Montez’s game on Saturday, except for his finish.

Trailing 35-30, CU took over with 6:51 to play and Montez did a nice job leading the Buffs into Arizona territory in the final minutes, but two critical plays cost CU a chance to keep the ball moving.

2nd-and-7, Arizona 49: Montez dropped back and quickly took off running up the middle. One yard downfield, however, he veered to the right and was actually retreating as he ran out of bounds. He wound up with a 3-yard gain, but it could have been much more. Had he never made that initial cut to the right, and instead veered a bit left or kept going downhill, he likely would have picked up five or six yards, if not all seven for the first down. Erring on the side of quarterback safety is usually a good policy, but we’ve seen Montez be aggressive as a runner in the past and in the closing minutes and in a fairly desperate situation, he needs to be aggressive and make a play.

3rd-and-4, Arizona 46: On the next play, Montez dropped back and went for the home run, overthrowing Arias deep down the right sideline. Great if it works, but CU didn’t need a touchdown on that play; it only needed 4 yards to move the sticks. To Montez’s left, Dimitri Stanley was in the slot, with Arizona’s Tristan Cooper lined up 9 yards away. At the snap, Stanley ran across the middle and Cooper left plenty of cushion for a relatively easy and quick completion for the first down and possibly more. Montez either never saw that pre-snap, or simply chose the home run. Either way, the missed opportunity forced a fourth-and-4 and CU failed on that attempt (Arizona’s Tony Fields II blitzed and forced an off-balance throw from Montez that missed the mark).

Below is a look at that third down play, with the location of Stanley (circled) before and just after the snap.

That sequence didn’t cost CU the game. There’s no guarantee they would have scored a touchdown on that drive, and there were plenty of miscues by the Buffs throughout the day that hurt. And for Montez, it was a very good overall performance. But, those are the moments when CU and its fans want to see the fifth-year senior make winning plays. In this particular case, he didn’t.

LANDMAN’S LACK OF ‘BIG PLAYS’: Linebacker finally gets TFL

Throughout the 2018 season, linebacker Nate Landman seemed to be everywhere on the field making plays for the defense. Landman not only led the team in tackles (123), but he had four sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 12 tackles for zero gain. He also led the team with two interceptions.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Nate Landman, right, had 12 tackles and on tackle for loss against Arizona.

Four games into the season, Landman had racked up a ton of tackles (49), but no sacks or tackles for loss and only two tackles for no gain.

Last week, Landman said it’s really because of the Buffs having a new defense.

“I would say different system and different calls and the way offenses are scheming us different,” he said. “I’m not blitzing as much. A lot of plays and run plays have been outside or straight up the middle. Not as much stretches where I usually get my TFLs, which I’m fine with because other guys are making tackles and our safeties are doing a great job coming up and that’s a big key for our defense.”

Against Arizona, Landman finally came through his first TFL of the season, dropping Wildcats running back Gary Brightwell for a 3-yard loss. It came on a stretch play that Landman read perfectly.

Landman had 12 tackles overall, and once again played nearly every snap. Going into the Arizona game, he had played 97.5 percent of the defensive snaps, compared to 70.8 percent in 2018 (ejected twice for targeting impacted that number, however).

The extra work load hasn’t been a big deal to Landman, he said.

“Not really, just because the way we practice and the way we trained in the offseason,” he said. “Since we have the trackers on our back, my GPS tracking number (at practice) is almost equivalent to the game, so I’m not feeling too gassed. Those first couple drives are just because of adrenaline and everything’s going but once you’re settled, our defense talks about it all the time: we’re not gassed and we’re a fourth quarter (team) and can even play overtime, as you guys can see.”

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

Several Buffs that I thought stood out against Arizona:

  • CB Delrick Abrams, Jr.: He was great in coverage most of the day, finishing with six tackles and one pass breakup.
  • TE Beau Bisharat: He did have a drop on the only ball thrown to him, but he also made some key blocks on big plays for the Buffs.
  • WR Tony Brown: The senior had a career-high 10 catches for 141 yards and also ran for a 15-yard touchdown.
  • RB Alex Fontenot: Finished with 94 yards on 21 carries and added 34 yards on five catches.
  • LB Nate Landman: Posted 12 tackles and his first TFL of the season.
  • QB Steven Montez: Sharp most of the day, he completed 28-of-42 passes for 299 yards and a touchdown.
  • RT William Sherman – CU’s nominee for Pac-12 lineman of the week, he graded out at 87 percent (tops for the Buffs), with eight knockdowns and two perfect blocks on TD passes. He didn’t allow a pressure or a sack.
  • WR Dimitri Stanley: Finished with five catches for a career-high 75 yards and his second career TD.
  • PK James Stefanou – What a monster year he is having. On Saturday, he was 3-for-3 on field goals (37, 39 and 20) and 3-for-3 on PATs.
  • OLB Carson Wells: He recorded a career-high 11 tackles and a did nice job all day in the run game.

THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND

1. Buckle up, CU fans. This is going to be an emotional roller-coaster all year. We’ve already seen the Buffs win two games they weren’t supposed to win (Nebraska and Arizona State) and lose two they were supposed to win (Air Force, Arizona). I think Tucker and his staff are doing a great job of laying the foundation, but it’s going to take some time, and I don’t think this team is good enough to be consistent week in and week out. I still think they get to a bowl game and they’re going to win another game or two that people don’t expect them to win, but they may also lose a game or two they aren’t supposed to lose.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Daniel Arias caught two passes for 35 yards against Arizona.

2. Daniel Arias is one of the nicest and most humble young men on the Colorado football team and he’s one of the hardest workers. Just a sophomore, I think he’s going to be a real star his last two years in Boulder. But, the physically gifted, 6-foot-4 speedster has got to learn how to catch the ball with his hands and not his body. He got away with a body catch for a 37-yard touchdown against Washington last year, but he got burned last Saturday when he dropped what would have been a 41-yard touchdown. Montez threw a sensational pass, and had Arias reached out to corral it with his hands, he likely would have scored. He did come back with a nice, 29-yard catch later in the game. One interesting note on the Arias drop, and I didn’t notice this during the game, but Andy Lindahl, who was the sideline reporter for the KOA broadcaster, said on air that even if Arias had caught the ball, the play might not have counted. Arias was seen pushing off against Arizona’s Lorenzo Burns, and the official near the play was apparently ready to throw the flag had Arias caught the ball. Either way, that’s a ball Arias has to catch and he’ll learn from that.

3. Buffs right guard Casey Roddick, a redshirt freshman who got his first career start, was flagged twice in a span of three plays on the Buffs’ second possession. On the first, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, turning what would have been a 2nd-and-3 at the Arizona 48 into 2nd-and-18 at the CU 37. Two plays later, the Buffs were penalized for holding on 3rd-and-18 and the referee tagged Roddick with the penalty. Watching the replay, though, it was right tackle William Sherman who hooked his defender, and that’s likely what drew the flag.

4. After the 2017 season, three of the most hyped coaching hires in college football came at Nebraska (Scott Frost), UCLA (Chip Kelly) and Arizona State (Herm Edwards). Nebraska and UCLA were applauded for their home-run hires. Arizona State was mocked for its decision to lure Edwards out of the TV studio and back to the sidelines. Edwards, 63 at the time, had not coached anywhere in a decade and had not been involved with college football since 1989. Midway through year No. 2, Edwards is the runaway leader. Under his watch, the Sun Devils are 11-7 overall, including 4-1 – and a No. 18 national ranking – this year. Kelly is 4-14 with the Bruins and Frost is 8-10 (although 4-2 this year after a last-play home win against 1-4 Northwestern on Saturday).

5. UCLA is an absolute mess. The Bruins’ 50-point explosion during the final 19 minutes to upset Washington State on Sept. 21 was thrilling, but apparently an aberration. They’ve lost to Arizona and at home to Oregon State since. Serious question: What’s more likely to happen first – Chip Kelly gets fired or leads UCLA to a bowl game?

STAT OF THE WEEK: 1,273

Yards of total offense produced by Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate against CU the past three years. In those three games, Tate completed a stunning 60-of-76 passes (78.9 percent) for 908 yards and nine TDs, while rushing for 365 yards and four scores. A few remarkable numbers within those stats:

  • Tate has averaged 424.3 yards and 4.3 TDs against CU, compared to 253.6 yards and 2.3 TD in his other 23 games. Since the start of the 2017 season, 20 percent of his TDs and 18 percent of his yards have come in those three games against CU.
  • His completion percentage against CU is 78.9; against everyone else: 57.5.
  • His 327 rushing yards against CU in 2017 are the most ever by a CU opponent in Boulder (and the second-most in any game).
  • Tate’s 404 passing yards on Saturday are the most by a CU opponent in Boulder in nearly 12 years (Nebraska’s Joe Ganz threw for 484 on Nov. 23, 2007).

STAT OF THE WEEK, Part II: 19 for 291

Tony Brown’s receiving statistics for the past two games, combined: 19 catches, 291 yards, 3 TD – and one rushing TD. He’s on pace for one of the best statistical seasons in CU history.

MY PAC-12 RANKINGS

How I rank the Pac-12 after Week 6:

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Arizona and Khalil Tate are riding a four-game winning streak.

1. Oregon Ducks (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12; previous rank: 1): Ducks won ugly against Cal, but they’re playing great defense.

2. Utah Utes (4-1; 1-1; PR: 3): After a bye, the Utes move up a spot and now get a visit to Oregon State.

3. Arizona State Sun Devils (4-1; 1-1; PR: 5): Thanks to the unpredictability of this conference, ASU moves up two spots after a bye.

4. Washington Huskies (4-2; 1-2; PR: 2): Just when I thought Washington was getting on a roll, it laid an egg at Stanford.

5. Arizona Wildcats (4-1; 2-0; PR: 9): Are the Wildcats really this good? I don’t think so, but hey, they’ve won four in a row and lead the South.

6. USC Trojans (3-2; 2-1; PR: 7): Trojans have lost two of three and visit No. 9 Notre Dame this week.

7. California Golden Bears (4-2; 1-2; PR: 6): Bears falling back to reality? They’ve dropped two in a row.

8. Colorado Buffaloes (3-2; 1-1; PR: 4): If the Buffs could get out of their own way, they could be 5-0.

9. Stanford Cardinal (3-3; 2-1; PR: 11): Down to their third-string QB, the Cardinal pulled off the upset of the Huskies.

10. Washington State Cougars (3-2; 0-2; PR: 8): Cougars had a much-needed bye after two straight losses.

11. Oregon State Beavers (2-3; 1-1; PR: 12): Beavers dominated at UCLA, winning for just the second time in the last three years against an FBS team.

12. UCLA Bruins (1-5; 1-2; PR: 10): Losing by 17 at home to OSU? Yikes.

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. Wisconsin

9. Notre Dame

10. Texas

11. Auburn

12. Oregon

13. Penn State

14. Michigan

15. Boise State

16. Utah

17. Virginia

18. Iowa

19. SMU

20. Arizona State

21. Wake Forest

22. Memphis

23. Cincinnati

24. Baylor

25. Washington

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

LB Nate Landman, talking about the adversity of losing key players on defense: “If you asked me that three weeks ago, I would have said it’s tough. Now I don’t  really see that as an obstacle just because those guys have so much coaching under them over these weeks and having that bye week. I trust the every single one of those guys, I love every one of those guys, and they’ll fight for me and I’ll fight for them. I have no doubt in my mind that they’re here for a reason. And you know, they’re D-I athletes and  they’re worthy to play and that’s why they’re playing.”

CB Delrick Abrams Jr. when asked if it’s tough to play with the starting safeties out: “Nah, because I believe in all of us. We are all putting in the extra time, watching film. They trust in me, I trust in them. We just have to have more communication and keep on working.”

THIS WEEK: On to Eugene

The Buffs visit No. 13 Oregon on Friday night at Autzen Stadium.