Coaches and players often come out of losing situations talking about the little things they did wrong and being oh-so-close to turning those defeats into victories.
After watching the Colorado football team get drilled by scores of 45-3 and 41-10 the past two weeks, it’s difficult, at least on the surface, to believe the little things mattered too much.
Yet, while Oregon and Washington State deserve credit for soundly beating the Buffaloes (3-4, 1-3 Pac-12), CU comes into Friday’s matchup with Southern California (4-3, 3-1) with a focus on those little things because, in reality, they have been detrimental.
“You see where you’re just really, really close on some things,” head coach Mel Tucker said this week. “Like really close. It’s a game of inches. It’s not just cliché.”
Riding a three-game losing streak, the Buffs have dealt with a rash of injuries, particularly on defense, but the key to turning their season around just might be tightening up the details.
“Honestly, just us,” receiver KD Nixon said this week when asked what issues have been exposed the past two weeks. “Playing as a brotherhood, being more fundamental, being more detailed, not making penalties.
“We’re not worried about the opponent. We’re worried about ourselves. As long as we trust the coaches and stay focused, we can do us.”
Offensively, that starts with senior quarterback Steven Montez, who has struggled the past two weeks. In the first quarter against Washington State, he missed wide open Dimitri Stanley near the goal line, and in the third quarter a deep pass to Laviska Shenault was just inches out of reach. Had they connected, both plays would have been touchdowns that might have changed the complexion of the game, if not the outcome.
Montez isn’t alone in needing to buckle down, though. Dropped passes in key situations have stalled drives. So have false start penalties; 11 of them in the past two weeks. A missed block here or there has turned potential big runs into drive-killing tackles for loss.
Defensively, Tucker said the Buffs missed five sacks against Washington State, as well as other opportunities that were inches away from being takeaways.
“It’s just emphasizing those types of things,” Tucker said. “It’s very revealing. Finishing blocks; strain a little bit longer. Just all of the details. Body language is huge. Staying poised, staying neutral, playing the next play. There’s a lot of things that are revealed (when reviewing the losses), and you just have to point them out.
“Same thing as a coaching staff. We look at everything we do, too. How can we be more efficient? How can we do a better job of coaching or maybe how can we get the message across in a different way? You can’t overlook anything. It all adds up. It’s all important.”
Early in the season, the Buffs were better at the details and the body language was good because they were winning.
Coming into Friday, the Buffs face a difficult test in trying to recover from back-to-back humbling losses. They’ll have the benefit of playing at home and the odds favor them. Pac-12 road teams are 5-15 in Friday night conference games since the start of the 2016 season, including 2-12 when having to travel out of state.
For the Buffs to cook up an upset over the heavily-favored Trojans, however, they’ll need to focus on every detail and rediscover the confidence that carried them through a 3-1 start to the season.
“First of all, you’ve got to believe you can win the game,” Tucker said when asked about the recipe for pulling off an upset win. “That’s first. You have to have a belief; not just hoping, but actually believe.”
From there, the Buffs have to be better at the details: producing takeaways, taking care of the ball, playing well in the red zone and on special teams, etc.
Finally, the Buffs need their best players to be their best players. They need Montez to have a big game. They need Shenault and Nixon and Alex Fontenot to produce on offense. They need Mustafa Johnson, Nate Landman, Delrick Abrams Jr. and Mikial Onu to play well on defense.
“Big time players make big time plays in big time games, so your good players have to step up and be good players,” Tucker said. “They call that competitive greatness.”
The Buffs haven’t had that in recent weeks. If they can regain it, they’ll have a chance to pull the upset and get the season back on track.
Game at a Glance
Matchup: USC Trojans (4-3, 3-1 Pac-12) at Colorado Buffaloes (3-4, 1-3 Pac-12)
Kickoff: 7:01 p.m. MT
Where: Folsom Field in Boulder. Capacity: 50,183. Playing surface: Grass.
Radio: KOA (760 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: USC by 13.5
Series: USC leads 13-0