SALT LAKE CITY – The door has been shut on the 2019 season for the Colorado football team, but there was no sense of finality coming from head coach Mel Tucker on Saturday night.
CU’s 45-15 loss to sixth-ranked Utah put an end to Tucker’s first season as the Buffaloes’ head coach, but before he left Rice-Eccles Stadium, he made it clear he’s just getting rolling.
“This is just a starting point for us,” Tucker said. “We know exactly where we are in this league and what we need to do.”
While Utah (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) wrapped up its second consecutive South division title – becoming the first team to win in back-to-back years – the Buffs (5-7, 3-6) fell one win short of bowl eligibility for a third year in a row.
“It’s very frustrating because we knew it was that close,” said receiver Laviska Shenault, who caught four passes for 43 yards in what might be his last game as a Buff. “We knew we could have got some wins that we should have gotten and we didn’t come out with them. It’s definitely hard, but it’s a part of football. We just have to keep looking forward to get better.”
Unlike the 2017 and 2018 seasons, there a sense of optimism as this season closes.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Shenault said. “I’m telling you, I wouldn’t have been able to say this last year like I’m saying now: we really could have done way better than we did this year. It just wasn’t clicking for us. It wasn’t going our way.”
CU’s season included three one-score losses that could have gone either way. That wasn’t the case against the Utes, who have been steamrolling their competition over the past couple of months.
Utah has won eight in a row, seven of them by at least 18 points, and it continued its home dominance. The Utes went 7-0 at home this season, outscoring the opposition 254-51.
Needing the win to clinch the South, the Utes were motivated not only by the division title, but the opportunity to win their first Pac-12 championship and to make a push for the College Football Playoff. Utah will play North champion Oregon (10-2, 8-1) in the Pac-12 Championship game on Friday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
“A lot of us stayed back for this very reason, and it’s just all about finishing and giving it our all,” said Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae, who had 1.5 of the Utes’ five sacks against the Buffs.
With bowl eligibility at stake, the Buffs gave the Utes their best shot early.
CU’s defense forced the Utah offense to go three-and-out on each of its first three possessions. Colorado’s offense finally took advantage, with a 12-play, 62-yard scoring drive near the end of the first quarter.
Steven Montez’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Brady Russell with 43 seconds left in the first quarter gave the Buffs a 7-0 lead.
“Early in the game, I thought that we were dominant in some areas,” Tucker said. “We just need to have more discipline to do our jobs on a consistent basis.”
That’s discipline Utah has displayed all year and certainly did again on Saturday.
Utah responded to CU’s early touchdown by scoring 31 straight points. The Utes put the game away with another 14 points in the fourth quarter.
Tyler Huntley completed 14-of-17 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns, both to sophomore tight end Brant Kuithe. A suddenly emerging dual-threat weapon, Kuithe added two runs for 59 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Utes held CU to 217 yards in total offense. The nation’s No. 1 rush defense limited the Buffs to 60 yards on the ground.
For the Buffs, Montez threw a pair of touchdown passes and became the program’s all-time leading passer in his final game. He was one of 17 seniors to put on a CU uniform for the final time.
“I want to thank our seniors,” Tucker said. “Guys have really put a lot of hard work into this football team and guys gave everything that they had. I’ve got a lot of respect for our seniors and what they’ve done laying the foundation for how we’re going to play football here and staying with it.
“It’s a privilege to coach this particular group of guys, and I’m very, very proud of this group for a lot of things that they’ve done. Our record doesn’t necessarily reflect everything about this particular football team.”
Most notably, it doesn’t reflect that the program is in a better spot than it was a year ago at 5-7.
“Definitely,” senior receiver Tony Brown said. “There’s been a culture change here at CU, and definitely a lot more intensity with coach Tuck. He brings that SEC culture here and he’s a players’ coach and we all like that, but I think the culture was what changed.”
A year ago, the Buffs wrapped up their season without a head coach plenty of questions about the future. While this season fell short of a bowl game once again, even those leaving are optimistic about what’s on the horizon.
“I’m excited for the program because we set a foundation for this team and I feel they’re about to do great things next year, great things in the future,” senior star backer Davion Taylor said.
Utah 45, Colorado 15
Play of the game: Daniel Arias caught a 27-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to give the Buffs a bit of hope with 12:51 to play. It was the first touchdown of the season for Arias, and the second of his career.
Turning point: Utah scored on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Huntley to Brant Kuithe with 11:21 to play in the second quarter. That score only tied the game at 7-7, but it sparked a 31-0 run for the Utes.
Top 3 Buffs of the game
1. LBs Akil Jones and Nate Landman: The inside backer duo finished with more than 20 tackles between them (11 for Jones, 10 for Landman).
2. NT Jalen Sami: He racked up five tackles and half a sack – his first career sack.
3. QB Steven Montez: The offense struggled against the Pac-12’s best defense, but he threw a pair of TD passes and became the program’s all-time leader passer.
No. 6 Utah 45, Colorado 15
Colorado 7 0 0 8 — 15
Utah 0 17 14 14 — 45
COL – Russell 7 pass from Montez (E.Price kick), :43
UTH – Br.Kuithe 38 pass from Huntley (Redding kick), 11:21
UTH – Br.Kuithe 7 pass from Huntley (Redding kick), 2:03
UTH – FG Redding 23, :04
UTH – Brumfield 1 run (Redding kick), 4:11
UTH – Simpkins 66 punt return (Redding kick), :56
COL – Arias 27 pass from Montez (Russell pass from Montez), 12:51
UTH – Moss 1 run (Redding kick), 10:46
UTH – Br.Kuithe 15 run (Redding kick), 5:12
First downs 17 18
Rushes-yards 31-60 41-207
Passing 157 165
Comp-Att-Int 17-26-0 14-17-0
Return Yards 64 119
Punts-Avg. 7-30.14\ 4-36.0
Fumbles-Lost 3-1 1-0
Penalties-Yards 5-35 5-45
Time of Possession 27:10 32:50
RUSHING – Colorado, Fontenot 13-49, L.Shenault 5-25, D.Smith 3-9, Hambright 0-0, (Team) 1-(minus 2), Montez 9-(minus 21). Utah, Moss 20-88, Br.Kuithe 2-59, Huntley 10-27, Dixon 2-15, Vickers 3-15, Brumfield 2-7, (Team) 2-(minus 4).
PASSING -Colorado, Montez 17-26-0-157. Utah, Huntley 14-17-0-165.
RECEIVING – Colorado, L.Shenault 4-43, Russell 3-18, Fontenot 3-2, Stanley 2-24, D.Smith 2-22, Arias 1-27, Nixon 1-12, Brown 1-9. Utah, Br.Kuithe 3-63, Dixon 3-34, Simpkins 2-35, Vickers 2-15, Fotheringham 1-14, Henry-Cole 1-4, Brumfield 1-3, Moss 1-(minus 3).