On the night of Nov. 2, the Colorado football team left Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif., with a fifth consecutive defeat and seemingly little hope of salvaging much from head coach Mel Tucker’s first season in Boulder.
“There’s nothing easy about it,” Tucker said that night about establishing a winning culture. “You can’t sprinkle dust on them or whatever, or you can’t wave a magic wand. It’s really, really difficult (in the first year with a program), and I expected it to be.”
Since then, Tucker seems to have found some sort of magic dust or wand to transform his team. CU (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) has won two in a row since returning home from Pasadena and go into Saturday’s regular season finale at sixth-ranked Utah (10-1, 7-1) with something to play for. Upset the Utes – who opened as a 27.5-point favorite – and the Buffs will be bowl eligible.
“That’s something that we need to look forward to next week and definitely prepare more than we’ve ever prepared before,” senior center Tim Lynott said after Saturday’s 20-14 win against Washington. “We are going to treat this week as if we are going to a championship.”
Despite the five-game losing streak, Tucker and his staff have not allowed the Buffs to fold. In fact, they’ve been able to get them to rally.
“I think it goes back to being relentless,” junior linebacker Nate Landman said. “That’s coach Tuck’s word. I just think it’ll be a testament to this team and our offseason training that we didn’t give up when stuff got hard. Football is a game of ups and downs. We had a lot of downs, a lot of ups and hopefully we can get a bowl game, which would be huge for our program and the city of Boulder.”
Senior safety Mikial Onu said the Buffs sharpened their focus after the loss to UCLA, and it’s resulted in back-to-back wins against Stanford and Washington.
“Since UCLA we have been saying we are in the playoffs now,” Onu said. “We have to win three straight to get a fourth game. (The last two games), we have played as good as we have played all year and better than we have played all year.
“That speaks to the grit of our team and how much these guys want it. The whole team wants it bad. You can tell by how we play and how we have been practicing.”
It may not be magic that turned the Buffs around, but the past two games have shown Tucker the message is sinking in with the players and the foundation is being set for his program.
“The shift in the culture of how we play football and how we go about our business is taking hold and we are starting to figure it out,” Tucker said. “We just have to continue to get better. I told them in the locker room, I wish we had 10 more games with this team, but we don’t. We have one more. We are going to prepare and make the most of it.”
That one more game could turn into two if the Buffs can knock off one of the hottest teams in the country. Utah has won seven in a row and has been dominant in almost all of those games. In the past two weeks, the Utes have routed UCLA and Arizona by a combined score of 84-10.
Ranked No. 6 in the country, Utah holds the Pac-12’s last hope of reaching the College Football Playoff. The Utes also need the win to clinch the Pac-12 South title; lose and Southern California will win the South.
The stakes aren’t nearly as high for Colorado, but the Buffs have put themselves in a position to play for something meaningful: bowl eligibility.
“All that tells me is that we need to go into practice this week and work exactly how we practiced last week and the bye week, as well,” quarterback Steven Montez said. “We had really good days of practice, really intense and really physical. I think that it showed out there on the field both offensively and defensively. I think that we were really physical (against Washington) and I think that we were really sound in all of our assignments that we needed to execute, and I think that we executed them at a high level. If we can have another week of practice like we did, I think that we will be able to do the same.”
CU opponent glance
Opponent: No. 6 Utah Utes
Game time: Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MT at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City
Coach: Kyle Whittingham, 15th season (130-62)
Record: 10-1, 7-1 Pac-12
Last week: Defeated Arizona, 35-7, on the road
Notable: With a win against the Buffs, Utah would win the Pac-12 South title and play Oregon in the conference title game on Dec. 6. If the Utes lose, Southern Cal would be the South champion. … Since a 30-23 loss at USC on Sept. 20, Utah has won seven in a row, outscoring the opposition 263-61. … Utah is 6-0 at home this season, allowing a total of just 36 points (6.0 per game) and shutting out two opponents. … The Utes have not allowed a touchdown in their last 15 quarters at Rice-Eccles Stadium . … Running back Zack Moss leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards (115.8 per game) and rushing touchdowns (14). He is 12th nationally in yards per game. … Quarterback Tyler Huntley is fifth nationally in passer rating, at 187.61 and second in completion percentage (75.0). He’s thrown for 2,608 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions. … Utah has won the last two against CU, by a combined score of 64-20.