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Mel Tucker, CU Buffs trying to fix cracks heading into showdown with USC

Buffs, who are on a three-game losing streak, have never beaten the Trojans

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado head coach Mel Tucker and the Buffs try to break a three-game losing streak on Friday agains USC.
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With nearly half a season to play, the Colorado football team is developing a few cracks in its walls.

The Buffaloes, however, are hoping that a little putty will do the trick to keep them from falling apart.

On Friday night at Folsom Field, the Buffs (3-4, 1-3 Pac-12), who reside in the basement of the South division, will host first-place Southern California (4-3, 3-1) at 7:01 p.m. (TV: ESPN2).

CU comes into the game – against a team it has never defeated – riding a three-game losing streak, which includes back-to-back humiliating losses on the road.

The Buffs also come in with a team so loaded with injuries that true freshmen and junior college transfers are starting to see the field more now than they did in September.

They come in with a locker room that is a bit smaller after three players have recently left the team.

And, they come in with a fifth-year senior quarterback trying to move past the ugliest two-game stretch of his career.

From the outside, the Buffs are a team on the verge of a season-defining collapse. On the inside, they are a team hoping to rally together and reverse course.

“No, not at all,” junior defensive end Mustafa Johnson said Tuesday when asked if the Buffs are struggling with team morale. “A lot of teams would be worried about morale, but seeing these practices starting from Sunday to today, it’s been great. No heads are down. We’re all happy and ready to play.”

The Buffs will continue without three veterans, however. On Monday, it was revealed that safety Aaron Maddox, who started the first three games of the season, and backup tight end Darrion Jones had entered the transfer portal and won’t play again at CU. On Tuesday, head coach Mel Tucker said that sophomore outside linebacker Jacob Callier, who has been a part-time pass rush specialist during his time with the Buffs, is no longer a part of the team.

“That’s three guys in a matter of two days, but I wish them the best and I’m going to be here for them if they need anything,” Tucker said.

The first-year head coach then talked about the great academics at CU and the high value of a degree from the school. He talked about the academic support, mental health support, training and equipment offered to players; as well as a weekly schedule that gives players time for balance in their lives.

“We do everything we can for our players, on and off the field, but it’s just not for everyone,” he said. “In recruiting, we have recruits that are very impressed with what we’re doing and they see the direction this program is going. It’s obvious things are being done the right way, but there are things that are going to be done a certain way here.”

Tucker appeared to be in fix-the-cracks mode during his weekly press conference, which was, by far, his longest of the season. He spoke for nearly 35 minutes and quite often spent several minutes answering one question.

In particular, he was in protection mode when it came to senior quarterback Steven Montez. After playing well during the first five games, Montez had a disastrous two-game road trip, throwing six interceptions and no touchdowns in back-to-back losses to Oregon and Washington State in the last two games.

Usually even keeled, Montez let his frustration show during Saturday’s 41-10 loss to Washington State. Tuesday was the first time all season Montez was not made available to the media at the weekly press conference.

When asked about his quarterback’s confidence, Tucker said: “Looks good to me. You can tell when a guy doesn’t have confidence because you see him all the time. You see him every single day, so you know if a guy is struggling with confidence. I haven’t seen that from him. And I mean, he’s fighting and scrapping.”

Tucker used 5 minutes, 5 seconds answering that one question, but most of that time was spent shifting the focus away from Montez and onto the very good GPS numbers of his players this week; the great crowd and atmosphere at Folsom Field; tough times he experienced as a coach at Ohio State, LSU and Georgia; and growing up going to Cleveland Browns games with his dad, with freezing temperatures, fights in the Dawg Pound, and riding home on the bus complaining about the struggles of the hometown team.

“That’s what I know football to be,” he said. “And so that’s why I’m really excited to come back home on Friday night.”

His point: he understands the frustrations that come with losing and the fans’ desire to see better play from the quarterback and everyone else. He also understands that, as was the case with Ohio State, LSU, Georgia and, yes, even the lowly Browns, the tough times didn’t last.

How long they last for the Buffs remains to be seen, but Tucker and his staff are trying to repair enough of their cracks to get the team going again this week.

“Our guys have been really focused  just coming off a couple really tough losses,” he said.