Rooney: Final games of Year 1 of Mel Tucker era should be tackled with eye on 2020 for CU Buffs

Buffs regressing, while other struggling Pac-12 programs show progress

Raul Romero Jr./For BuffZone,com
Colorado head coach Mel Tucker and the Buffs have lost five straight games after starting the season 3-1.
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Barring some unforeseen off-field drama or a particularly catastrophic bottom-falling-out situation, Mel Tucker almost assuredly has a much longer leash on turning things around at Colorado than a calendar year from now, November 2020.

But that should be the deadline on Buffaloes fans’ enthusiasm. One year removed from yet another listless road show, this time at the Rose Bowl. And no one within the CU program needs to look further than across the line of scrimmage to the team that handed the Buffs’ their latest embarrassment to find a second-year coach who at least is starting to give his fan base reason to believe.

Once again the final tally, a 31-14 setback for CU Saturday night against UCLA, is less alarming than its mode of delivery. The team with the true sophomore quarterback dictated the early tempo and quickly asserted command. The one with the fifth-year senior quarterback who moved into second-place in games started among all-time CU signal-callers, and the one with the preseason All-American candidate at receiver, couldn’t get out of its own way.

Going forward — and by that I mean forward beyond this season — the Buffs have an offense problem. That’s nothing new to anyone that has watched the last three road games, which have netted a total of 27 points. The CU defense was expected to struggle, and those struggles certainly have been magnified by injuries and roster departures.  The offense, however, was supposed to keep the Buffs in games like Washington State and UCLA. It has done just the opposite.

Take the first three offensive series for each team on Saturday. In those drives, Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson went 10-for-11 with 118 yards and a touchdown, added 44 yards on three carries on the ground, and staked his team to a 17-0 lead. In Montez’s first three drives, he went 1-for-6 with an interception and a sack, while the Buffs committed two costly penalties and watched KD Nixon drop a potential big-gainer.

One of those penalties was Daniel Arias interfering with UCLA’s punt returner, but that’s still a stunning number of miscues in your first 10 plays.

As for that standout receiver, Laviska Shenault, his part-time workload against the Bruins will be the talk of the week leading into the home date against Stanford. According to the Pac-12 Network broadcast, and Tucker’s postgame comments, the junior was working through some injury issues. Fair enough, and at times he certainly didn’t resemble the Shenault that torched USC for nine catches and 172 yards a week earlier. But if he was banged up, why was he utilized in the Wildcat? Why throw him a receiver screen that’s a high-impact play, particularly inside the 10-yard line?

Clearly Shenault wasn’t getting the one-on-one matchups the Buffs were able to exploit against USC. Yet despite the success of the aforementioned Wildcat run, it seemed there were better ways to utilize a half-strength Shenault who still commands defensive attention.

Not that the Buffs won’t go out and give their best to get back in the win column down the stretch, but the remaining three games of the 2019 season should be tackled with an eye toward 2020. On defense that process perhaps already has started, as the Buffs should return most of a rotation heavy on underclassmen, some of whom were playing offense when they arrived at CU just a few months ago. On that side of the ball there’s probably nowhere to go but up.

The offense presents a different problem. Tucker’s reluctance to use backup quarterbacks Tyler Lytle and Blake Stenstrom, even in get-your-feet-wet-mop-up situations, makes it easy to wonder how an offense without Montez, likely without Shenault, and without two senior starters on an average (at best) offensive line will make the Buffs any more formidable in 2020.

One way would be to dive further into the “run the ball on our terms” approach Tucker professes to embrace. It’s no coincidence the Buffs didn’t get on the board Saturday night until they stopped having Montez chuck the ball around and started leaning on the run game. Losing running back Alex Fontenot shouldn’t be used as an excuse for getting away from that approach; while Fontenot has had the hot hand of late, Jaren Mangham has proven more than capable and entered the game with a solid 4.3-yards per carry average. Even though the Buffs already were down 10 points by the time Mangham got his second carry, he still finished with 77 yards on 17 carries (4.5 per).

In those first three offensive series, the Buffs faced two second-and-six situations and a second-and-seven. Not ideal, but not grossly behind the curve either. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson called passes on each and every one of them, resulting in the Nixon drop, a no-chance heave to Shenault surrounded by UCLA defenders, and a sack. Maybe run the ball on your terms instead?

A year from now, the Buffs will be in the final month of Year 2 of the Tucker era. At UCLA, second-year man Chip Kelly was a potential hot-seat candidate a month ago. Now the Bruins have won three in a row and have an opportunity to make noise in their next two games at Utah and USC.

Buffs fans may have considered not having Oregon State and a potential win on the schedule as an unfortunate nuance in 2019. Instead the Buffs may have dodged a bullet as second-year OSU coach Jonathan Smith, with former CU offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren calling the offensive shots, have won three of its past four, with all of those wins on the road. The Beavers hung 56 points at Arizona on Saturday. Sure, the Wildcats have a bad defense, but so does Washington State and UCLA. Fifty-six points is like an entire season of road work for these Buffs.

Kelly and Smith have given the fan bases of struggling programs reason for optimism in the second half of their second seasons. By November 2020, Tucker needs to do the same.