Rooney: Visit to UCLA a chance for CU Buffs football to display elusive progress

Not last chance, but maybe best, for Buffs to end losing streak

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photograher
Colorado’s Davion Taylor and the defense has struggled at times this season.
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UCLA is doing things Colorado football fans hope to see out of Mel Tucker’s bunch before the 2019 season concludes.

How’s that for a sentence pretty much no one expected to read, or certainly write, in mid-September?

Chip Kelly’s UCLA Bruins and Tucker’s CU Buffs are just two of a handful of Pac-12 Conference teams that fit a profile of up-one-week-down-the-next this season, though the Buffs enter Saturday night’s showdown at the Rose Bowl mired in a four-game losing streak that is starting to resemble the seven-game slide that completed the forgettable 2018 season.

While Tucker, in his first season with a woefully inexperienced defense, still has plenty of leeway in his quest to reshape the CU program into a perennial contender, it was less than two months ago there were serious questions whether Kelly, the man who used a revolutionary offense to turn Oregon into a national title contender less than a decade ago, was the right man to get the job done at UCLA.

The Bruins opened 0-3 and looked bad doing it. Yet in retrospect it was a commendably tough nonconference slate. Cincinnati is now 8-1. San Diego State is 7-1 and ranked 25th. And Oklahoma is Oklahoma.

After that 0-3 start came the improbable 32-point second-half comeback for the Bruins in a 67-63 win at Washington State that rekindled faith in Kelly, then two more losses — including a home drubbing against Oregon State — that may not have put Kelly on the hot seat, but certainly started warming things up.

Then the Bruins turned it around again, dominating Stanford on the road for a 34-16 win and topping then-No. 24 Arizona State at home last week. It’s probably overstating things to anoint Saturday night’s contest as a litmus test for which struggling program will reach contender status first in the Pac-12, but Kelly at least has done something on the field the past few weeks Buffs fans still are waiting to see out of Tucker’s crew — reason to hope, perhaps even believe, better days are ahead.

It’s been stated in this corner previously that Tucker certainly deserves time to get his own pieces in place before passing judgment on his ability to turn things around. Nothing has changed on that front.

However, should the Buffs produce another road clunker on Saturday, the chances of this year’s losing streak extending further than the misery of last year’s season-ending losing streak grows exponentially. UCLA is at least showing signs of improvement as the season wears on. So far, CU is not.

The guess here is that most Buffs fans would be OK with missing out on bowl season with a first-year coach and a ridiculously young defense if there was legitimate reason to be confident that drought might last only one more season. As the calendar flips to November, with only four regular season games remaining, there hasn’t been much tangible evidence on the field such enthusiasm is warranted, other than hoping the natural growth of the myriad freshmen filling the defensive lineup will lead to a more formidable unit in 2020.

Tucker has reasserted several times in recent weeks he wants his offense to run the ball on their terms. Recently the Buffs have done just that, while also not doing it as well. No doubt, the running game has been better than advertised. Yet in critical moments in the past three games, Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson have elected for more finesse, passive options instead of running the ball on their terms.

With the weather possibly playing a bigger factor in the final three games — home against Stanford and Washington, followed by the season-closing trip to Utah — leaning even more heavily on the run game might be prudent.

“I think each week is different. It kind of presents on what that defense does and where we’re at and things of that nature,” Johnson said. “But I think for the most part, I think we have a good plan. The coaches do a great job of preparing our guys. I feel good in what we’re doing and how we’re trying to execute it. It’s all kind of, I guess, with the flow of the game and each week is a little bit different.”

A win Saturday night certainly wouldn’t fix every problem facing CU as the Tucker era continues to try and gain traction. But for the first time since Sept. 21 — the day the Buffs knocked off ASU on the road and the Bruins pulled off the stunner at Washington State — Buffs fans would have reason to believe.