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Rooney: CU football reaches new 2019 low at Washington State

From top down, vaunted Buffs offense fizzles against vulnerable WSU

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Brady Russell #38 of the Colorado Buffaloes carries the ball against Marcus Strong #4 of the Washington State Cougars in the first half at Martin Stadium on Saturday.

That thud that rattled The Palouse Saturday night was the sound of another Colorado football season beginning with promise once again crashing to earth.

Maybe that process started last week at Oregon. Or even at home the previous week against Arizona. But Saturday’s 41-10 defeat at Washington State had the unmistakable feel of a new season low.

There were some offseason thoughts, even a few from this corner, that this might not necessarily be a complete rebuild at Colorado for first-year coach Mel Tucker. That maybe there were enough pieces in key areas — a veteran quarterback, a talented receiving corps, maybe just enough play-makers on defense to offset the unit’s overall youth — to eke out the six wins necessary for Tucker to send the Buffaloes bowling in his first season.

It wasn’t my season prediction, yet it certainly was reasonable scenario. But it’s time to officially squash those thoughts. If Tucker can squeeze three more wins out of this disjointed (offensively) and young and overmatched (defensively) outfit, he might merit a few votes among the Pac-12 Conference Coach of the Year ballots.

Last week’s 42-point drubbing at Oregon showed just how far the Buffs have to climb to reach Pac-12 contention. Saturday’s listless showing at Washington State showed the task at hand for Tucker is far more challenging than it seemed in August.

What made Saturday night’s uncompetitive matchup wasn’t that the Buffs lost. Or that Buffs fans witnessed another disappointing showing from senior quarterback Steven Montez. It’s that now, at the outset of the second half of the new CU regime’s first season, it’s fair to question if Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson are putting their best assets in the best position to succeed.

Surrendering 86 points in consecutive weeks, in the two toughest non-Utah road games of the season, is an ugly number yet oddly palatable. Or at least understandable. Oregon and WSU both have high-powered attacks, and no one believed the defense, even when fully healthy, was going to be the strength of this CU team anyway. Scoring just 13 points in those eight quarters of futility, with a QB who tied the CU program record for consecutive starts Saturday night and a bona fide NFL receiver prospect, is a stomach-churner.

There actually was a brief mid-game stretch in which that overmatched CU defense came up with enough stops to keep the Buffs in it. However the Buffs’ offense, the unit expected to at least put a couple touchdowns on the board even on a bad night, made one miscalculation after another.

It began on the opening drive. Faced with a 4th-and-3 at the WSU 31-yard line, the relentless, we’ll-out-tough-them Buffs of the Tucker era opted for a 48-yard field goal attempt in miserable conditions. Kicker James Stefanou has been solid-plus, but this clearly was the passive choice and he missed the kick. It was early enough the Buffs weren’t behind the count, and field goals weren’t going to defeat the Cougars in their den.

From that point forward, Johnson made curious calls with points in the balance. With WSU up 14-0, a 10-yard run by Jaren Mangham set the Buffs up with a 1st-and-goal at the 10. CU went with three pass attempts that netted three yards before settling for a field goal. On CU’s first drive of the second half, with the Buffs defense having held WSU to a field goal over its previous four drives, two runs by Alex Fontenot covering 40 yards gave the Buffs a first down at the WSU 40. It was a 105-yard night for Fontenot, who averaged 9.5 yards per carry, but this was the last he was seen on this drive. On first down, a potential Montez-to-Shenault touchdown bomb was either slightly overthrown or slightly under-caught depending on one’s point of view. On second down, the CU brass decided the time was right to give Maurice Bell his first career touch. It went for minus-2 yards. A Jaylon Jackson drop later, the Buffs punted.

That’s not relentless. Pounding the ball with Fontenot and Mangham, who averaged 5.2 yards on eight carries, to control the pace and keep the WSU offense off the field is a game plan that shouldn’t have been abandoned so early.

As for Montez, the young man is who he is. During his first two seasons as the full-time starter, under two different play-callers, his statistics were nearly identical. With Johnson calling the shots this year, those stats are tracking to be in the same ballpark. Montez is equally capable of making throws that make one wonder what he might be able to do on future Sundays as he is making the inexplicable desperation heave that ended in an end zone interception Saturday night. Expect more of the same over the final five games of his CU career.

Washington State entered the game having surrendered an average of 47.7 points per game during a three-game losing streak. Injuries, weather, and a couple missed field goals do not explain how the Buffs managed just 10.

It’s because this just isn’t a good football team. And Tucker has his work cut out for him to change that.