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Rooney: At Oregon, Mel Tucker gets painful glimpse how far CU Buffs are from contending in Pac-12

Penalties, disorganization thwart Buffs against 13th-ranked Ducks

Oregon running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio tries to break free from a Buffs defender.
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Big boy football. It’s a whole different game than what the Colorado Buffaloes are playing.

CU head coach Mel Tucker is no stranger to watching the best of the best. He has been a decorated assistant at Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia. Elite college football rarely is seen in Boulder anymore. But Tucker, the Buffs’ first-year leader, is no stranger to it.

And he received a stark reminder Friday just how far the Buffs have to go to be a relevant factor in the Pac-12 Conference.

It’s not the loss itself, a 45-3 thrashing at the hands of No. 13 Oregon, that is cause for alarm for Buffs fans, no matter how lopsided the score. Few gave CU a chance of returning home victorious, and even the most optimistic of prognostications for the 2019 Buffs typically included a road loss against the toughest foe they’ll face this season.

That the Buffs got destroyed while generally not putting up much of a fight, while watching their senior quarterback struggle during a team-wide unraveling that included another plague of penalties and complete disorganization on the most critical play of the game, shows Tucker still has his work cut out for him in setting a first-year template for the success he hopes to build at CU.

CU needed to play a near-perfect game to compete at Oregon. This was anything but. One week after committing an array of undisciplined penalties in a home loss against Arizona, totaling eight flags for 85 yards, the Buffs hit a new low in that department at Autzen Stadium, finishing with 14 penalties for 114 yards. Both numbers are season highs.

For those counting, that’s 22 penalties for 199 yards over the past two weeks. In three of six games this season, CU has been flagged at least eight times. That’s no longer a frustrating anomaly. That’s a habit. And one that will torpedo any progress the Buffs do manage to make the rest of the way if it’s not addressed immediately.

Oregon is talented enough, and executes crisply enough, to overcome a night that saw the Ducks commit 119 yards worth of penalties. The Buffs simply aren’t good enough to overcome those mistakes. CU does deserve credit for at least remaining within striking distance until late in the first half, but the sequence in which the Buffs had a chance to truly make a game of it illustrated perfectly the chasm between CU and the Ducks.

On a second-and-goal play from the Oregon 1-yard line, with the Buffs on the brink of cutting the Ducks’ lead to 17-10 — potentially going into the second half with the ball trailing by just a touchdown — senior tight end Jalen Harris committed a false start (Harris later was ejected for throwing a punch). CU managed to work its way back into a third-and-goal from the 1 when the comedy of errors took a fresh turn.

First, the shotgun snap to quarterback Steven Montez very nearly clipped motion man Dmitri Stanley. Then, if the play was a designed run as the blocking seemed to suggest, it never had a chance with an unblocked Oregon defender immediately in Montez’s face. If it was a designed pass no one told the receivers, who immediately engaged in blocks. With Montez running for his life, receiver KD Nixon committed a holding penalty. One play later Oregon’s Verone McKinley III grabbed an interception in the end zone on a tipped ball, and CU’s last best scoring chance was done.

It was a fluky interception for sure, but the Buffs have been the beneficiaries of a couple of those so far as well. Those things tend to even out. Oregon proceeded to further flex its elite-status muscle with an end-of-half drive that pushed the halftime score to 24-3, a boot-to-the-throat march that ended the Buffs’ fight.

On a night where little went right, there might be a temptation to cast this film aside and forget the trip to Oregon ever happened. Tucker would be wise to do otherwise. If it wasn’t painfully clear enough on the field Friday night, the young Buffs need to be shown just how far they have to go to compete for Pac-12 championships.