CU Buffs’ Steven Montez has evolved since last visit to Autzen Stadium

Colorado senior quarterback returns this week to the site of his starting debut in 2016

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez was a key part of the Buffs’ 2016 win at Oregon.

It will forever go down as one of the greatest moments in Colorado football history, and arguably the best single moment of the past decade for the Buffaloes.

Still fighting for respect as a member of the Pac-12 Conference, the Buffaloes went into Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Sept. 24, 2016, and, led by a wide-eyed freshman quarterback making his first career start, stunned the host Oregon Ducks, 41-38.

Now a fifth-year senior, Steven Montez will lead the Buffs (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) back to Autzen on Friday night against the 13th-ranked Ducks (4-1, 2-0).

“I don’t really remember a lot of the second half from that game,” said Montez, who was filling in for injured senior Sefo Liufau. “But the two plays that I do remember pretty clearly were Bryce Bobo’s one-handed catch, which was a great catch, and then Ahkello Witherspoon’s pick to seal the game. I think those two plays will stick with me for a while; two really good plays made by two really talented players.”

Montez’s 31-yard pass to Bobo with 8 minutes, 43 seconds to play gave the Buffs the lead for good and Witherspoon’s interception in the end zone with 48 seconds left capped a miraculous victory that propelled CU to an out-of-nowhere run to the Pac-12 South title.

On that day, Montez threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for 135 yards and a touchdown. He became the first player in CU history to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 in the same game (Liufau would match that feat later in the year).

“It kind of still feels like a like a dream,” he said. “It was kind of crazy. It was like an out of body experience. It was weird.”

Friday will be the first meeting between the teams since then, and both are dramatically different.

Oregon went into a bit of a tailspin that season and finished an uncharacteristic 4-8 (it’s only losing season in the past 14 years). Since then, the Ducks have changed head coaches twice and have seemingly returned to the elite of the Pac-12 Conference.

Colorado has also changed head coaches, with Mel Tucker replacing the dismissed Mike MacIntyre last winter. While the win in 2016 was the springboard to a South title, the Buffs have settled into the division basement the past two years again.

Very few players from that 2016 game remain, especially for CU, and, the guy who was the star of the show – Montez – isn’t the same player he was back then.

Yes, he still has the same cannon for an arm and the ability to run and make plays with his feet. But, he’s now the leader of the team rather than a temporary stand-in, and he likely won’t try to beat the Ducks the way he did then.

Montez ran 21 times in that game – just one less carry than he has in five games this season.

“Back then, we were running a lot of power read option,” said Montez, who has 32 yards on 22 rushes this year. “We still run a little bit of zone read option, but we run a lot less of it now.”

In addition to fewer designed QB runs, Montez is less likely to take off running these days. This season, he’s made several plays where he could have run the ball, but instead used some improvisation to find an open receiver downfield.

“Just trying to be smart and just keep your eyes downfield instead of tucking my head down and trying to go get it myself,” he said. “I like Dimitri Stanley, KD Nixon, Laviska Shenault with the ball in their hands a lot better than I like myself with the ball in my hands. So I try to get the ball to those guys and see if they can go pick it up for us.”

An example of Montez’s evolution came at the end of the first half of Saturday’s 35-30 loss to Arizona. On third-and-3 at the Arizona 12 with 11 seconds to go, Montez scrambled around until he found tight end Brady Russell in the end zone for a touchdown.

“I think 2016 Steven would have probably tucked the ball and tried to go get the touchdown  and try to feel like he needed to do too much and probably would have come up short and we would have ran the clock out and wouldn’t have gotten any points before half,” Montez said.

The 2019 version of Montez is wiser than that, and Tucker has been pleased with the performance of the senior, who has completed 67 percent of his throws for 1,463 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.

“He’s running our offense and he’s doing what we ask him to do,” Tucker said. “That’s what you would like a quarterback to be able to do: to be able to run the offense, take what the defense gives you and if things break down, be a good decision maker, see if you can create something. If not, throw it away, or run and get down. I think he’s just really a veteran quarterback who is also a good player.”

He’s a different, more mature player now and his supporting cast has been overhauled, but one thing hasn’t changed from 2016: the Buffs need Montez to play well in order to walk out of Autzen Stadium with a win.