Standing outside the locker room at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., on Friday night, as I waited for players to talk about a miserable night for the Buffaloes, I watched most of the Colorado football players walk by on their way to the bus.
I saw a lot of disappointment, anger and annoyance. One of the most upset players I saw might surprise you.
“It hurts man,” kicker James Stefanou said. “It feels like someone’s ripped your guts out when you lose like that. Close ones are tough to lose, but those ones, it’s got to build you as a team and you have to learn from it – like anything. Right now it hurts.”
In my opinion, Stefanou has embraced the team aspect of football more this year than in the past. The 32-year-old from Australia isn’t your typical college player, because of his age and because of the fact that he played about a decade of professional soccer before coming to CU in 2017. He is as competitive as anyone on the team, however.
Plenty of players spoke that night about the need to step up as leaders and put this loss behind them. For some players, maybe it’s the first time they’ve been through a game like this. Not Stefanou. His football career has been short, but he went through plenty of ups and downs during his soccer career. I asked if those experiences can help him be a leader this week for the Buffs.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m on the sideline and I try and talk to them. Even though you’re just a kicker, if you’ve got something to add, I think you add it. I try to talk to the boys and keep fighting.”
His advice on turning the page: don’t try to pretend that whipping by the Ducks didn’t happen.
“You’ve gotta let it hurt,” he said. “You can’t just move on. You’ve got to let it hurt, take it for what it is and we’ve got to prepare to go again next week. You moment you step back out on the track on Monday, then you’ve got to forget about it and move on.”
So, how do the Buffs (3-3, 1-2 Pac-12) move on? In this week’s edition of the Monday Rewind, we’ll look at the Buffs’ efforts to do that as they try to snap their two-game losing streak. Also this week:
- Game changing third down
- Best of the Buffs against Oregon (yes, there were some Buffs who played well)
- Stats and quotes of the week
- Pac-12 rankings and AP ballot
LEADING OFF: Bouncing back
Halfway through the season, what we’ve learned about the Buffs is that we don’t know which team will show up each week.
This is a team that got crushed by the No. 12 team in the country (Oregon), yet handed the only loss to the No. 17 team in the country (Arizona State). This is a team that rallied to win an emotional game at home against Nebraska, but came out flat against Air Force. It’s a team that can score 34 against a good defense (ASU), but only 30 in a loss to a mediocre defense (Arizona).
“We feel that every team on our schedule we can beat, but any team on our schedule we could lose to, as well,” head coach Mel Tucker said after Friday’s loss.
That is exactly why the Buffs – and the fans – shouldn’t let the loss to Oregon linger or make snap judgment because of on defeat, no matter how bad it was. CU is very capable of going into Pullman, Wash., and knocking off Washington State (3-3, 0-3) on Saturday. Of course, they’re also capable of being the team that helps Wazzu snap its own three-game skid.
Despite getting their heads handed to them in Eugene, the Buffs have to approach this week as a game they can win.
“It’s just the same 24 hour rule we’ve been talking about all year,” quarterback Steven Montez said. “You go you go back, you watch the film, you think about all the things that you wanted to take back and then you kind of just forget about it and you move on you start studying Washington State.”
The vibe I got from players after the game was not dejection or a feeling that this is the beginning of a season-long slide. Rather, it was anger about how they played and a determination to make sure it doesn’t happen again. (By comparison, dejection was evident last year during the Buffs’ seven-game slide).
“We’re gonna get back to the drawing board; we’re going to get better, man,” safety Mikial Onu said. “This is a tough loss. They always are. But I’m proud of the team and the direction we’re going to go. We’re going to learn from the experience and we’ll be better.”
The Buffs have to be, and they’re capable of it. This is not a team that’s going to win the Pac-12 title or even the South division, but they can still get to a bowl game. The key to the whole season, however, is the next two weeks, against Washington State and USC.
UCLA (Nov. 2 in Los Angeles) and Stanford (Nov. 9 in Boulder) are both very winnable games for the Buffs. The last two games, home against Washington and at Utah, seem fairly daunting.
CU’s bowl eligibility may very well come down to its ability to beat either Washington State in Pullman or USC in Boulder. Like CU, those teams are unpredictable.
GAME CHANGER: Coming up empty
I never thought CU would win at Oregon and they were outplayed throughout the first half on Friday night. But, as the second quarter was winding down, the Buffs actually had a golden opportunity in front of them to make it a game for the second half.
Thanks in part to a pair of pass interference penalties on the Ducks – along with a nice catch by Laviska Shenault and a 20-yard run by Alex Fontenot – the Buffs had first-and-10 at the Oregon 15 with 4:22 to play in the quarter.
Four consecutive Fontenot runs totaling 14 yards gave the Buffs second-and-goal at the 1 with 2:21 to go. Those four plays were impressive, as Fontenot ran hard and the line blocked its tails off. All four runs went behind the right side of the line, and I thought Casey Roddick, in particular, was impressive in that sequence against a very good Ducks front.
It was after those plays where the game turned. On second-and-goal at the 1, tight end Jalen Harris was flagged for false start (more on him later). That was going to be Fontenot’s fifth consecutive run and it appeared that he either stretched the ball over the goal line or came close. Either way, Harris’ penalty pushed the Buffs back to the 6.
The Buffs did get the yards back on the next play, on a 5-yard pass from Montez to Harris, but now it was third-and-goal at the 1. That may have been the most significant play of the game for the Buffs.
From the pistol formation, Montez took the snap, immediately rolled right and threw the ball away, and receiver KD Nixon was flagged for holding, costing the Buffs 10 yards. The play looked disjointed, and it was.
FS-1 color analyst Brock Huard said it looked like it was supposed to be a run play because no receiver released. He was right.
The play was designed as a zone read, with Montez either handing off to Fontenot for a run up the middle, or keeping it himself. Most likely, he would have handed it off, because Montez hasn’t been keeping the ball much on those plays.
The problem was that the snap came in low and to the left. When Fontenot ran by Montez’s right side, Montez was in no position to hand it to him. With Oregon’s Isaac Slade-Matautia blitzing, Montez had no choice but to scramble. And, with no receivers out on routes, he had no choice but to dump the ball out of bounds.
Slade-Matautia made a great play and was likely going to tackle Fontenot for a 2 or 3-yard loss, but the back-breaker was the penalty on Nixon. And, it was a highly questionable call. Nixon was holding the jersey of Oregon’s Thomas Graham Jr., but Graham had a fistful of Nixon’s jersey, too, and in fact, nearly pulled Nixon down. It easily could have been a hold on Graham, but it should have at least been offsetting penalties and a replay of the down – or a no call to set up fourth-and-goal at the 1.
Instead, Oregon accepted the penalty, setting up third-and-goal from the 11, and on the next play, the Ducks’ Verone McKinley III made an acrobatic interception in the end zone. Just 67 seconds later, Oregon’s offense scored to make it 24-3 going into the half.
“Critical errors,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson told me about that sequence. “We had the penalty push us back and then we had kind of a fluky turnover in the end zone there on a tipped ball. Otherwise, it was a good effort. But yeah, you have to capitalize on those situations.”
CU had some unfortunate bad breaks there – the jump by Harris, the questionable call on Nixon, the “fluky” interception – but ultimately, I look at Johnson in that situation.
It’s easy to pick on play-calling, and I don’t usually like to go that route. However, on that third-and-goal from the 1, the Buffs were three feet away from getting back into the game and had two chances to get those three feet. Treat it like a short-yardage situation, get in a power formation and let your 230-pound quarterback push the pile. Do it twice if needed.
This season, on third- or fourth-and-1 situations, Montez is 3-for-3 in getting that yard. (As a team, the Buffs are 12-for-14). Give Montez two chances for a QB sneak in that situation, and I’d bet he gets in. I certainly like those odds better than a play that puts the ball 6 yards away from the end zone after the snap – especially against THAT defense.
Johnson’s not alone in making such a call, though. There are a lot of OCs around the football world that would opt for digging into the playbook to find something creative to beat the defense. I’m not sure why so many play-callers choose that option over the safe, high-percentage option of the power run.
I don’t believe CU wins that game anyway, but had they been able to punch the ball into the end zone in that situation, and pulled within 17-10 going into the half, while then receiving the second half kickoff, the whole complexion of the game would have changed.
BEST OF THE BUFFS: This week’s top CU players
Yes, even in a 45-3 loss there were a few Buffs who played fairly well.
- CB Delrick Abrams, Jr.: Another solid game overall for Abrams, who had six tackles and two pass breakups. When Oregon’s Justin Herbert threw to Abrams’ man, he was 1-for-5 for 22 yards.
- TE Beau Bisharat: He was nominated as the Pac-12 special teams player of the week. He had a couple of tackles on special teams and continues to play well there. He’s also playing a lot more at tight end the past two weeks and had a few nice blocks.
- RB Alex Fontenot: Continues to be quietly impressive, as he finished with 71 yards on15 carries, including a 20-yarder, and three catches for 12 yards.
- LB Nate Landman: Easily the best player on defense for the Buffs, he had 14 tackles and two tackles for loss. One of his best games of the year.
- WR Laviska Shenault: Although not a great game for the offense, Shenault caught four passes for 70 yards. He had the four longest catches of the night for CU and all four resulted in first downs. He also got the Buffs 30 yards in penalties, as the Ducks were flagged twice for pass interference when covering Shenault. (Should have three, in my opinion, as I felt Oregon’s Haki Woods made early contact on a deep pass that wound up becoming a tipped interception for the Ducks late in the third quarter).
- RB Deion Smith: The first time we’ve really seen Smith get significant action and he was impressive, with 41 yards on seven carries. That included an 18-yard run where he showed some good burst.
THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND
1. Friday was rough on Jalen Harris. His false start penalty on that drive near the end of the first half was a killer penalty for the Buffs. He jumped again on a third-and-1 from the Oregon 19 late in the third, making it third-and-6. On the next play Deion Smith had a nice, 18-yard run down to the 6 to put the Buffs in prime scoring position – except that Harris lost his cool after that play and threw a punch at an Oregon player, drawing a 15-yard penalty and getting ejected from the game. His night was done, but his actions took the Buffs out of the red zone and they wound up not scoring. The fact that they were trailing 38-3 at the time doesn’t matter. The graduate transfer from Auburn was brought in this year because of his major college football experience and potential as a leader. He didn’t act like that against the Ducks.
2. The Buffs are having a hard getting the ball to KD Nixon lately. Although second on the team with 302 receiving yards this season, Nixon has been almost non-existent in the passing game the past two weeks. Against Arizona on Oct. 5, he did throw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Dimitri Stanley, but as a receiver he was targeted just one time, finishing with one catch for 7 yards – his lowest yardage total since 2017. Against Oregon, Nixon not only finished without a catch (ending a streak of 16 consecutive games with at least one), but was not officially targeted, either. Montez did throw his way twice, but neither wound up counting; one resulted in a defensive pass interference penalty and the other an offensive holding call. Through the first four games, Nixon was targeted 25 times, second on the team to Shenault’s 26. The last two games: 1 official target.
3. After the game on Friday, I asked Mel Tucker why Steven Montez and the first-team offense were still in the game down 45-3 in the fourth quarter. He said:
“We’re trying to get something going and trying to have some positive plays. Guys are still playing hard, guys still fighting, trying to move the ball. We had some opportunities; we’re down there, going for it on fourth down trying to score. Then we pulled him at the end to get Tyler (Lytle) some work. But, I don’t think that’s unusual. You’re out there, you’re fighting. They’re still playing hard over there; we’re playing hard, still trying to get some work done. And, (Montez) was he was into it. He was competing and trying to make something happen.”
This is a rare occasion at this point in his tenure where I completely disagree with Tucker. To me, there was no good reason to keep Montez – the guy on your team you can least afford to lose – in a game that’s a lost cause. A late touchdown or a successful drive in a game like that does nothing to change the outcome and, I’d argue, does nothing to impact a future game. Would the team feel a lot better getting on the bus after a 45-10 loss instead of 45-3? I doubt it. You put your QB at risk of injury in a meaningless situation. But, more important, there are precious few opportunities during the season to give your backup QB some quality reps. Yeah, they got Lytle “some work.” He got into the game with 3:18 to play, handed off twice and got sacked. We’re halfway through the season and the top backup – a guy that very well could be the starter next year – hasn’t even thrown a pass. He’s been on campus three years and has thrown five passes (all on a snowy November day in a blowout loss to Utah last year). Down 38-3, and with Montez having just thrown four picks in nine passes, Lytle should have been on the field when CU got the ball with 6:26 to play in the third. Do that, and even third-stringer Blake Stenstrom (who has yet to play) could have had a series at the end. Two weeks ago, Tucker said, “(Experience) is the best teacher. I love to see young guys play. It’s exciting for me to see guys that haven’t played get a chance to step up and get the job done.” Tucker missed an opportunity to give Lytle some valuable experience on Friday night.
4. I’m certainly not a doctor, but I’m not sure Laviska Shenault is going to be fully healthy again this season. Maybe he will, but I think the Buffs might have to deal with him being somewhat limited during the second half of the season. That doesn’t mean he can’t effective or even really good, but the core muscle strain that kept him out of the Arizona game might linger. He said after the game on Friday that he felt good, but added that a decision was made to shut it down near the end of the game because, “it got a little sore at the end. But, I feel good. It was better to sit out.”
STAT OF THE WEEK: 9
Plays of 20 yards or more by the Oregon offense on Friday. Nine! That included runs of 70, 47 and 30 yards (for perspective, CU has ONE run of at least 30 yards – a 32-yarder – all season). The Ducks also completed six passes that went for 22 yards or more. Big plays are killing the Buffs’ defense, which has allowed a nation-worst four plays of 70-plus yards (the rest of the Pac-12 has allowed 9, combined).
MY PAC-12 RANKINGS
How I rank the Pac-12 after Week 7:
1. Oregon Ducks (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12; previous rank: 1): Ducks have the Pac-12’s best QB, best OL and best defense? Yikes!
2. Utah Utes (5-1; 2-1; PR: 2): Since their loss to USC, Utes have outscore the opposition 90-20 in two wins.
3. Arizona State Sun Devils (5-1; 2-1; PR: 3): Sun Devils look legit after a win against Wazzu.
4. Washington Huskies (5-2; 2-2; PR: 4): Not sure how to figure this team out from week to week, but when they’re very good.
5. California Golden Bears (4-2; 1-2; PR: 7): Bears had a bye and move up because thanks to losses in front of them.
6. USC Trojans (3-3; 2-1; PR: 6): A loss is a loss, but Trojans had a good showing in a 3-point loss at No. 9 Notre Dame.
7. Arizona Wildcats (4-2; 2-1; PR: 5): Wildcats hung with Washington for a while.
8. Stanford Cardinal (3-3; 2-1; PR: 9): Cardinal had a bye last week.
9. Colorado Buffaloes (3-3; 1-2; PR: 8): Buffs licking their wounds after a disastrous week.
10. Washington State Cougars (3-3; 0-3; PR: 10): Played fairly well at ASU, but it was a loss – the Cougars’ third in a row.
11. Oregon State Beavers (2-4; 1-2; PR: 11): After a great performance at UCLA, the Beavers were rolled by Utah, 52-7, at home.
12. UCLA Bruins (1-5; 1-2; PR: 12): Bruins had a bye last week and the last time we saw them, they were getting routed by Oregon State.
MY TOP 25 BALLOT
Here’s the ballot I submitted to the Associated Press for this week’s Top 25:
5. Ohio State
7. Notre Dame
11. Penn State
14. Boise State
16. Arizona State
25. Appalachian State
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Head coach Mel Tucker when I asked him if there was a thought to run the ball when the Buffs had third-and-goal from the Oregon 1-yard line near the end of the first half: “I’m not in the second guess business. I don’t think that’s a good business to be in for me as a as a coach. Looking at a game from a media standpoint or just a fan or whatever, when you don’t have success, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s probably what should happen. You should question what happened, but for me I don’t go down that road. I don’t think it’s productive.”
WR Laviska Shenault on getting back on the field and making some plays after missing the Arizona game: “It felt so good to make some plays and actually get back with the team and be on the field making plays. It definitely felt good.”
PK James Stefanou on his first missed field goal of the season after a 10-for-10 start: “It happens. I think it was that kind of game where you’ve got to be ready and it was a bit cold, but you’ve got to make them. No excuses.”
THIS WEEK: Pullman bound
The Buffs visit Washington State on Saturday night at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.