There were a lot of smiles, hugs and cheers outside of the Colorado locker room in the late hours of Sept. 21.
An hour or so earlier, the Buffaloes had polished off No. 24 Arizona State, 34-31, to beat the Sun Devils in Tempe, Ariz., for the first ever and snap a 17-year losing streak against ranked opponents on the road.
Athletic director Rick George, other CU staff members, coaches and players all celebrated what appeared to be a monumental victory. At 3-1 and receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25, the Buffs could not have asked for a better start to the Mel Tucker era.
Last Saturday night, I stood outside the Buffs locker room in Pasadena, Calif., and wondered what happened to that team I saw in Tempe.
“We’re still here,” nose tackle Jalen Sami said when I asked him where that 3-1 team went. “It’s just little mistakes, mental errors.”
Sami has to think that way. They all do. To get back on track, the Buffaloes have to cling to the idea that they can get back to what they were four games into the season.
The reality, though, is that it’s much more than just little mistakes and mental errors. The CU team that lost 31-14 to UCLA on Saturday night is nowhere near where it was in Tempe. They haven’t won since that night, dropping five in a row and closing in on another last-place finish in the Pac-12 South.
In this edition of the Monday Rewind, we’ll look back at Saturday’s loss to the Bruins and try to figure out where the Buffs are with three games to play. Also this week:
- Luckett’s bright future
- Best of the Buffs against UCLA
- Stats and quotes of the week
- Pac-12 rankings and AP ballot
LEADING OFF: Losing their way
When CU went to Tempe in September, they were coming off a disappointing loss to Air Force, while Arizona State as rolling at 3-0 and fresh off an upset win at then-No. 18 Michigan State. The ASU defense had allowed a grand total of 21 points in three games – seven in each game.
The Sun Devils, naturally, were an 8.5-point favorite.
CU’s star receiver, Laviska Shenault, was injured on his only touch of the game, on the Buffs’ seventh offensive snap. He would return for a couple more plays, but basically didn’t play that night.
On CU’s seventh defensive play, star end Mustafa Johnson was taken out with an illegal block and missed the rest of the game – plus the next two – with an ankle injury.
Starting cornerback Chris Miller suffered a season-ending knee injury that night, as well
Disaster? Hardly. CU fought through it all to pull the 34-31 upset. Quarterback Steven Montez was fantastic, throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns, all to Tony Brown, who hauled in nine catches for 150 yards. Defensively, the Buffs shut down the ASU run, James Stefanou hit two field goals, including the game winner; and Tucker garnered national attention for rocking shorts on the sidelines.
That ASU game epitomized the Tucker message: relentless, play tough and physical, run the ball “on our terms,” next man up, etc.
CU hasn’t played like that since. In fact, with the exception of three quarters against Southern California on Oct. 25, we haven’t seen anything resembling that team from Tempe.
“If I knew what it was, I would definitely address it and fix it,” right tackle William Sherman said. “But, right now it’s just a bunch of little things. There is no one main issue. There’s a bunch of little things we have to clean up and until we do that, we’re not going to win a game.”
He’s right, and because the Buffs haven’t done it, they haven’t won a game since.
Certainly injuries have played a role. Unlike last year, when that became THE excuse from then-head coach Mike MacIntyre for CU’s seven-game losing streak, Tucker has never publicly used injuries as an excuse, but he could.
Miller and Mekhi Blackmon – two of the Buffs’ top three cornerbacks – were both out for the year by Week 5. Their top replacement, true freshman KJ Trujillo, missed the UCLA game with a knee injury.
Starting guard Colby Pursell hasn’t played since the ASU game because of an illness that required his gallbladder to be removed. Starting safety Aaron Maddox missed two games with an injury and then quit the team. Sami played just 26 snaps during a three-game streak because of knee injury.
After barely playing against ASU, Shenault missed the next game against Arizona and has been playing hurt ever since. Johnson’s absence hurt the defense for a few weeks
That’s a lot to medical attention for a team that wasn’t very deep to begin with.
Aside from the injuries, the issues have included:
- A total of 47 penalties in the last five games. They were flagged 22 times in the first four games.
- Only 4 takeaways (all interceptions) during the losing streak. They had 11 in the first four games. CU had a plus-7 turnover margin in the first four games and minus-4 in the last five.
- QB Steven Montez played fairly well in the first five games, with a 10-to-2 touchdown-to-interception rate. The last four games, he’s played well once (against USC) and has a 4-to-7 rate (1-to-7 in three road games).
- Stefanou has struggled. He made his first 10 field goals of the year – tying the CU record for most successful kicks in a row. Since then, he’s 2-for-7.
A big part of CU’s early success was getting stronger as games went along. They trailed in each of the first four games, but outscored the opposition 54-24 in the fourth quarter. They’ve obviously trailed in each of the last five games, and have been outscored 45-10 in the fourth quarter.
Sami is right when he says that the little things have hurt the Buffs. The problem is the little things have piled up. It’s easy to fix one or two little mistakes. It’s not easy to fix a bunch of them.
“It’s just doing the extra plays, doing it one more; keep doing it another time, another time,” Sami said. “The more we keep that up, the more consistent we are, the better we’ll be, and that 3-1 team that you saw before is going to come back.”
The way things are going, it’s hard to imagine that team is coming to come back this year. Then again, thinking back to that night in Tempe, it’s hard to believe that team has disappeared.
Heck, Tucker even wore shorts in Pasadena and nobody noticed. The Buffs have fallen completely off the national radar again and here’s the path to bowl eligibility: go 3-0 against Stanford, Washington and No. 8 Utah.
“We still have chance to be bowl eligible,” linebacker Nate Landman said. “We’ve got three games left, three opportunities to get better and play Colorado football.”
But, what is Colorado football? Is it the 3-1 we saw during the first month, or the 0-5 we’ve seen since?
LUCKETT’S OPPORTUNITY: Freshman solid in first start
Going into preseason camp with only five scholarship cornerbacks, including two freshmen, the Buffs knew they couldn’t afford many injuries.
So, of course, the position group that has been hardest is cornerback. Blackmon and Miller are out for the year. Trujillo missed last week with a knee injury. He did make the trip to UCLA and dressed, which is a signal that it may not be a long-term injury.
In preparation for this type of situation, the Buffs moved freshman Tarik Luckett from receiver to corner in August. Almost immediately, he flashed some potential in practice.
Going into last week, Luckett had played just 12 snaps, but with Trujillo out, his number was called. Luckett started and played the whole game at corner, finishing with five tackles.
After the game, cornerbacks coach Travares Tillman said it was unfair to give an accurate assessment of Luckett’s performance without grading the film. “Sometimes I’m watching his side and sometimes I’m not watching his side,” Tillman said. “But, he didn’t have any busts on the field.”
Bigger picture, Tillman said playing against UCLA was a big step for Luckett.
“It’s a credit to him,” Tillman said. “He moved over (from receiver) and I think the adjustment at first was kind of overwhelming for him, but he’s settled down now. He knows the plays; he’s getting the techniques down. He’s going to be a good player when it’s all said and done. He’s long, he can run. The sky is the limit for him.”
While this has been a rough season for the corners on the injury front, Tillman believes this year is going to pay off down the road. Senior Delrick Abrams Jr. is the only corner slated to graduate after this season.
Projecting to next year, the Buffs should have Blackmon and Miller back as juniors, along with Trujillo and Dylan Thomas as sophomores. Luckett could still redshirt if he only plays one more game, so he’ll either be a redshirt freshman or sophomore. Miami transfer Nigel Bethel Jr. will be eligible to play as a sophomore and D.J. Oats will be a redshirt freshman. (The Buffs are also expected to sign other corners in the 2020 class).
The 2020 group has potential to be fairly deep and, because of this year, experienced.
“No doubt (it will pay off),” Tillman said. “You hate losing, but these guys are gaining game experience which is great for next year.”
Not that Tillman is looking ahead to next year yet. There’s still plenty of work to do in the next three games.
“We’re just going to keep on plugging away, man,” he said. “The season is not over for us. We still have a chance to win the last three games. We’re going to go out every day in practice and work to do that.”
BEST OF THE BUFFS: This week’s top CU players
CU’s top performers in last week’s 31-14 loss to UCLA:
- WR Tony Brown: Continues to produce, this time with six catches for 77 yards and a touchdown.
- DL Mustafa Johnson: Solid against the run, he had six tackles, which was his second-best total of the season.
- LB Nate Landman: Best player on the field for CU. He had 11 tackles and his first two sacks of the season.
- RB Jaren Mangham: In his first career start, he had 77 yards on 17 carries.
- OLB Carson Wells: Best game of the year for Wells, who had six tackles, one tackle for loss and his first career interception.
THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND
1. This is not a new thought, but the Buffs are going to be good at running back for the next several years. I love the way Mangham runs and he’s only going to get better. Sophomore Alex Fontenot missed the game with a concussion, but he’s been really good all year. That duo will be fun to watch the next two years. And, Deion Smith is pretty good, too.
2. If I was in position to make the call at quarterback (and thanks goodness I’m not), I’d keep starting Steven Montez. He’s always capable of doing what he did against USC, by compiling 369 yards in total offense and accounting for four touchdowns. I would, however, have a quicker hook going forward. The only time CU has gone to backups Tyler Lytle and Blake Stenstrom is with the game out of hand or, for one play against USC, after Montez got knocked out. Montez has been too shaky over the past month to keep him in the game if things go sour again. Not that he no room for error, but I wouldn’t let him play too long through struggles. Giving Lytle or Stenstrom could spark the offense and, if nothing else, give them some game experience they sorely need. I’ve enjoyed covering Montez and getting to know him over the years, and he’s always been fantastic with the media, so I root for him to do well, especially as he’s so close to breaking the all-time passing record. But, as Tucker has often said, this is a results-oriented business, and if the results aren’t there in the next three games, it would be a disservice to the program if Tucker let’s a struggling Montez play out the year while Lytle and Stenstrom don’t get an opportunity.
3. Oregon and Utah were impressive last week. If they win out (which I expect), that’s going to be a heck of a Pac-12 title game between those teams. The winner of that game should be 12-1 and should be in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs. For all the criticism the Pac-12 takes, the country ought to take notice that it’s top two teams are pretty darn good.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 6
Losing streaks of at last five games for the Buffs since they joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
STAT OF THE WEEK: 0-8
CU’s record in November games the past three seasons. They were 0-3 in 2017, 0-4 in 2018 and 0-1 so far this year.
MY PAC-12 RANKINGS
How I rank the Pac-12 after Week 9:
1. Oregon Ducks (8-1, 6-0 Pac-12; previous rank: 1): When the Ducks are on, they really good and can play with anyone in the country.
2. Utah Utes (8-1; 5-1; PR: 2): Utes have been rather remarkable since their loss to USC on Sept. 20.
3. Oregon State Beavers (4-4; 3-2; PR: 6): Uh, really? Oregon State at No. 3? For now anyway. The schedule gets tougher, but they’re playing good football right now.
4. UCLA Bruins (4-5; 4-2; PR: 7): UCLA is playing better than Oregon State, but I can’t put them ahead of the Beavers after losing by 17 to them earlier this year.
5. Washington State Cougars (4-4; 1-4; PR: 5): Cougars off last week. They’re 1-2 in their last three, but they did almost Oregon.
6. USC Trojans (5-4; 4-2; PR: 3): Ugly loss for the Trojans last week against Oregon, and coach Clay Helton might be on his way out, but they could still win the South if they win out and Utah slips up.
7. Stanford Cardinal (4-4; 3-3; PR: 8): Bye week for the Cardinal last week. They’ve won three of four.
8. Washington Huskies (5-4; 2-4; PR: 4): Disappointing season for the Huskies, who have now lost three of four.
9. Arizona State Sun Devils (5-3; 2-3; PR: 9): Off week last week for the Sun Devils, who have lost two in a row.
10. Arizona Wildcats (4-5; 2-4; PR: 10): Since leaving Boulder in first place in the South, the Wildcats have been a train wreck.
11. California Golden Bears (4-4; 1-4; PR: 12): Off last week, the Bears have lost four in a row.
12. Colorado Buffaloes (3-6; 1-5; PR: 11): It’s getting ugly for the Buffs.
MY TOP 25 BALLOT
Here’s the ballot I submitted to the Associated Press for this week’s Top 25:
4. Ohio State
5. Penn State
15. Notre Dame
20. Boise State
21. Kansas State
22. Wake Forest
24. Central Florida
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Head coach Mel Tucker on the Buffs playing well on defense after falling behind 17-0 against UCLA: “We’ve done that a few times this year where a team goes down and scores and then we find our footing and then we start getting some stops, get after the quarterback, stop the run, play physical, go get some takeaways and things like that. You can’t wait and see how it’s going before you get into it. You gotta start fast. You’ve got to get into it right away. Just the mentality , the confidence to go out there and stop people right away, you’ve got to have that going in. It’s really a mentality, and it’s something that we have to develop.”
Linebacker Nate Landman on leadership playing a key role down the stretch: “Yeah, 100 percent. The next couple weeks are definitely going to fall in the leadership. Those young guys are going to be looking at us and the older guys to kind of give that guidance and that reassurance that we’re not out of it.”
Right tackle William Sherman on the struggles offensively: “I just don’t think we’re clicking, coming out hot enough. Scoring on the first drive is something big; football is momentum. I think we need to establish our dominance early on the first drive, first play. It hasn’t been happening on the road.”
THIS WEEK: Stanford in town
The Buffs return home to host Stanford on Saturday at 1 p.m.