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Brian Howell’s Tuesday Rewind (Dec. 3, 2019)

Culture change taking place at Colorado

Raul Romero Jr./For BuffZone.com
Colorado Buffaloes head coach Mel Tucker congratulates quarterback Steven Montez (12) after scoring a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins during the first half of a NCAA football game at Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Saturday Nov. 2, 2019.
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Just like that, the Colorado football season has come to a close and that glimmer of hope for playing in December has been replaced by a look towards next year.

For the third year in a row, the Buffaloes went into the final game of the season knowing that with a win, they could reach that elusive bowl game. For the third year in a row, they had those hopes dashed with a tough road game.

How should this season be graded?

At 5-7, the bottom line is no different than the discouraging seasons of 2017 and 2018. Yet, as the Buffs go into the offseason, there’s more encouragement around the program than there’s been in a long time.

“I think the foundation is being set,” star receiver Laviska Shenault told me outside the locker room in Salt Lake City on Saturday after a 45-15 loss to Utah. “And if you want to put in some good work and get a good coach then this is the place to be. I feel like they’re going to be very, very, very, very good soon and especially under coach Tuck. He knows what he’s doing.”

In this edition of the Monday Rewind, we’ll look the disappointment/encouragement of the 2019 season. Also this week:

  • Dimitri Stanley’s muffed punt and how he rallied
  • Utah’s run D stepped up
  • Stats and quotes of the week
  • Pac-12 rankings and AP ballot

LEADING OFF: Hope for the future

Before getting to the optimism, let’s get this out of the way: The 2019 season was absolutely a disappointment for the Buffaloes.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Colorado’s KD Nixon gets around Southern California’s Caleb Tremblay during the first half on October 25 at Folsom Field. The loss to the Trojans was one of three home games that got away from the Buffs this year.

Athletic director Rick George fired former coach Mike MacIntyre because 5-7 in back-to-back years wasn’t good enough. George wanted wins and bowl appearances. George and Tucker said from Day 1 there was no honeymoon period. Winning was expected immediately.

With a fifth-year senior at quarterback (Steven Montez), an All-American candidate at receiver (Shenault) – plus a load of other talented players at receiver – this was supposed to be an explosive offense. It wasn’t. The Buffs finished 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring with 23.5 points per game. They averaged a dismal 15.6 in the last seven games.

The Buffs coughed up a 10-point lead and lost to Air Force. They held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against USC and lost. They couldn’t beat an Arizona team that left Boulder and lost seven in a row – all by at least 10 points. Those three games were all played at Folsom Field.

In their last four road games, the Buffs lost by 42, 31, 17 and 30 points.

So, yeah, this season was a disappointment. For the third year in a row, the Buffs had the talent to get to a bowl game and didn’t get there.

The 2017 and 2018 seasons, which both finished 5-7, were discouraging. Confidence in MacIntyre – from administration, from players and from fans – faded during the course of his last 12 months on the job.

When MacIntyre was fired a year ago and Tucker was hired, there was hope, but uncertainty. CU fans didn’t know Tucker, he didn’t know them and he had never held a full-time head coaching job.

Despite the all-too-familiar and excruciating 5-7 record this year, Tucker proved he can coach – and he’s proving he can recruit. He’s highly respected by the players, the administration, the fans and, yes, even the media.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – OCTOBER 25, 2019: University of Colorado’s Steven Montez, left and Tim Lynott, Jr, celebrate a TD run against Southern California’s during the second half of the game on October 25, 2019.(photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

“There’s been a culture change here at CU, and definitely a lot more intensity with coach Tuck,” senior receiver Tony Brown said. “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.”

Senior star backer Davion Taylor said the team felt more like a family this year, and it started with the seniors, who led the buy-in to Tucker and his staff. Looking to the future, the younger players have bought in, too.

“(The foundation) has definitely set in,” redshirt freshman receiver Dimitri Stanley said. “Me actually getting to experience what it was like last year versus this year, definitely a culture change. Definitely a different sense of urgency when it comes to just where we need to be. I think coach Tuck will definitely have us ready and prepared to win games next year.”

Sophomore running back Alex Fontenot told me, “I feel like we did all we could and it’s a good first step.”

That, frankly, is what Tucker wanted to get out of this season: steps forward. I know he was confident he could figure out how to win six games and go to a bowl game, but I also know he wasn’t delusional. He and George had high expectations, but Tucker knew he was taking over a program that needed some work – or a lot of work.

I’m not sure the Tucker hire helped the Buffs in the win column this year; MacIntyre probably could have taken this team to 4-8 or 5-7, as well. But, George didn’t hire Tucker to win in 2019; he hired him to inject some excitement back into the program and set them up for winning in the long term.

This year’s attendance at Folsom Field – an average of 49,573 per game and 98.8 percent of capacity – signals that fan excitement, and it would be difficult to find a player who doesn’t like Tucker. Many have gone out of their way to praise Tucker. Only time will tell if Tucker will get this program on a long-term winning path, but for the first time in a long time, there’s optimism that the Buffs are on the way.

“Moving forward, we know what we need to do,” Tucker said. “We know what we need to do in recruiting, we know what we need to do in our offseason program and our fourth quarter conditioning program and our nutrition, in the weight room, scheme evaluation. We know exactly what needs to be done and we’re not going to take any days off in getting that done.

“I believe that we have the right coaching staff here to be able to get the job done with our players, on and off the field. I feel like we have the right coaching staff to be able to go out and recruit and get the players that we need to be able to win championships here. Our players in our program, our returning players, they see it and they have experience and they know, ‘Ok, now this is what we need to do; this is what’s required,’ and we’re gonna compete at the highest levels in this league and throughout this country. Right now it’s just a matter of just rolling our sleeves up. This is just the beginning for us, in my mind, in terms of our program and the direction we’re headed.”

TOUGH LESSON: Stanley bounces back

Fans often ask me how Tucker is different from MacIntyre. There are a lot of differences, actually, but throughout this season as I watched Tucker interact with players on the sideline, I kept thinking about a scene from the 2017 season.

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Former CU safety Nick Fisher had a 100-yard interception return for TD against Cal in 2017 – much to the dismay of his head coach.

CU led California 37-21 with less than three minutes to play, when Buffs’ safety Nick Fisher picked off a Cal pass deep in the end zone. The smart play would have been to take a knee, allowing the CU offense to run out the clock. Instead, Fisher ran it out of the end zone and wound up getting a 100-yard interception return for touchdown.

No, it wasn’t the smart play, but it turned into a big moment for Fisher. When he got to the sidelines, his teammates and several staffers congratulated him and shared his excitement. But, MacIntyre lit into him about the mistake he made. I remember being surprised in that moment that MacIntyre would do that, rather than patting Fisher on the back and teaching him the lesson during a closed-door film session the next week. Give Fisher his moment.

Compare that to last Saturday. Four minutes into a 0-0, do-or-die game at Utah, punt returner Dimitri Stanley watched a Utah punt bounce before lunging for the ball. He had seven Utes around him, couldn’t corral the ball and turned it over. It was a potentially critical mistake for the Buffs.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
CU’s Dimitri Stanley, right, had a big mistake in the Buffs’ loss to Utah last week, but he bounced back from it.

Stanley walked to the sidelines with his head hanging and Tucker walked over to him, put his hand on Stanley’s shoulder and briefly, calmly said something to the freshman. Disappointment was evident on Tucker’s face as he turned away from Stanley, but he sent Stanley out to return the next punt less than two minutes later. And the next offensive play was a 17-yard pass to Stanley.

It wasn’t the first time this season that Tucker could be seen talking to a player who just messed up and seemingly giving that player a “forget about it and be better next time” type of message. I saw him do it with Daniel Arias, KD Nixon and others. That approach breeds confidence in players and it certainly kept Stanley’s head in the game.

“My coaches kind of left me alone,” Stanley said after the game. “They know that I knew that I messed up. I know that I gotta do better and I kind of just take that and log that in my head and just learn from it.

“It’s one snap and clear around here. I know (quarterback Steven Montez) trusts me; he has faith in me. When I was able to kind of shake that punt off through that catch, it helped me out throughout the game a little bit.”

When players talk about a culture change, and Tucker being a players’ coach, that’s what they mean. Tucker doesn’t let mistakes slide, but he doesn’t let them linger, either. MacIntyre is a good man and I think he did some good things with CU’s program, but he didn’t connect well with the players. Tucker does, and it makes a difference.

“It’s just a different mindset coaching wise,” Fontenot said. “Whenever the top reacts a certain way, other people are going react a certain way.”

GAME CHANGER: Utah’s D

Harry Caston/CU Athletics
Colorado running back Alex Fontenot finished with 49 yards against Utah, and the team ran for just 60.

Utah’s defense was a hot topic going into last week, and with good reason. Statistically, the Utes have the best defense of the Pac-12 era (since 2011). On Saturday, that defense made a huge difference against CU.

Utah came into the game allowing just 55.9 rushing yards per game – the best number by any FBS team is more than a decade.

By halftime, CU had 54 yards on 13 carries – a respectable 4.2 average against that defense.

The second half, however, was a different story. CU rushed for 6 yards on 18 carries after intermission, finishing the game with just 60 yards on the ground.

It wasn’t the only reason Utah won the game, but without a run game, CU had no chance.

BEST OF THE BUFFS: This week’s top CU players

CU receiver Laviska Shenault, center, was one of the best players on the field for the Buffs at Utah.

Some of the players that stood out to me in CU’s 45-15 loss to Utah:

  • CB Delrick Abrams: Strong finish to his career, with nine tackles and his first career sack.
  • LB Akil Jones: Not sure any player on this team improved more from Game 1 to Game 12. He had a career-high 11 tackles.
  • LB Nate Landman: Yet another big night for Landman, who posted 10 tackles and one tackle for loss.
  • QB Steven Montez: Not a great game for the senior, but considering the circumstances, the competition and the pressure he was under all night, it wasn’t a bad final line: 17-for-26 for 157 yards, two touchdowns.
  • TE Brady Russell: Wound up being one of the Buffs’ top weapons, with three catches for 18 yards, a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
  • DL Jalen Sami: He played a big role in stuffing the Utah run game early on. Finished with five tackles and half a sack (his first career sack).
  • WR Laviska Shenault: Finished with four catches for 43 yards and five runs for 25 yards. He needed closer to 15 touches to make a big impact in this game, though.
  • Star Davion Taylor: He missed twice on sack attempts (including a play that resulted in Utah’s first touchdown), but was pretty good all-around, racking up eight tackles.

THOUGHTS ON THE WEEKEND

BOULDER, CO – NOVEMBER 9, 2019: Laviska Shenault arrives with the team. The Colorado Buffaloes play Stanford in Pac-12 football.(photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

1. Did you notice in the first quote of this piece that Laviska Shenault said “they” when talking about CU’s future? It’s been no secret all season that the freaky-talented receiver was eyeing the 2020 NFL Draft. He’s a possible first-round draft pick and said Saturday that he has “most likely” played his final game with CU. He’s not ready to make that official, but his use of “they” wasn’t a slip. I think he’s known all along that this would be his final college season. For CU fans, that’s disappointing because he’s so fun to watch when he’s healthy. For Shenault, though, there’s no reason to come back. Much like Chauncey Billups leaving the men’s basketball team after two seasons back in the 1990s, it was a bummer for CU, but the obvious choice for Billups, who belonged in the NBA. Shenault belongs in the NFL. He’s got NFL talent and NFL confidence and it’s time to cash in. In my opinion, he’s the best football player at CU since Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman Trophy 25 years ago. Selfishly, I’d love to cover Shenault at CU for one more season, but he’s ready for the next level.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Freshman offensive lineman Austin Johnson is one of several big players the Buffs have recruited to this past year.

2. Last Tuesday, I was leaving the Champions Center after the weekly press conference and rode the elevator with freshmen offensive linemen Austin Johnson and Jake Wiley. When we got to the first floor and the door opened, a group of defensive linemen – including Jalen Sami and Janaz Jordan – were standing there. I was impressed with how big each of those guys are, and they’re all coming back. It wasn’t a shock, of course, since I’ve been around the program and know Tucker is emphasizing more size in the trenches, but seeing so many of those guys together and without pads on, there’s no question there’s a difference in the size of human beings that Tucker is bringing to this team. As a side note to that, I have a feeling Johnson is going to be really good at CU. The Buffs return Colby Pursell, Kary Kutsch and Casey Roddick to the interior of their line next year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson is a starter in 2020.

3. I’m not sure if Utah is one of the four best teams in the country, but I do think the Utes are deserving of a spot in the College Football Playoff if they beat Oregon this week in the Pac-12 title game and move to 12-1. LSU, Clemson and Ohio State have separated themselves as the three best teams in the country; and I wouldn’t have an issue with any of them taking the No. 1 spot. The race for No. 4 is interesting, though. Alabama and Georgia are probably better than Utah, but Alabama’s got two losses and if Georgia loses to LSU this week, it will have two losses, as well. In my opinion, a one-loss conference champion deserves the spot over a two-loss non champion. Then there’s Oklahoma and Baylor. The two Big 12 leaders square off this week and the winner will be 12-1 and have a better win than any of Utah’s wins. For me, I go with Utah because of the way the Utes are winning. Ten of their 11 wins have come by 18 points or more and during their current eight-game win streak, they’ve outscored the competition 308-76. Oklahoma has narrowly escaped at home against Iowa State (a 7-5 team) and TCU (5-7) in recent weeks and needed a furious rally to knock off Baylor, 34-31. Baylor needed three overtimes to beat TCU, two overtimes to beat Texas Tech (4-8), a last-minute field goal to beat Iowa State and edged West Virginia (5-7) by three points at home. Oklahoma has the better reputation and Baylor has the better story – going from 1-11 in 2017 to 11-1 this year – but Utah has the better resume.

4. Now, if Georgia upsets LSU, that changes everything for Utah. That puts Georgia at 12-1 with an SEC title, and a sure spot in the CFP, and leaves LSU at 12-1. Even without a conference title, LSU likely will – and should – get in over Utah.

STAT OF THE WEEK: 1

Bowl appearance for the Buffaloes in the past 12 seasons (2008-19). Among Power 5 programs, that’s tied for the lowest total, with Kansas. The Jayhawks’ lone bowl during that stretch came in 2008, with CU’s, of course, coming in 2016. Indiana has the next lowest total with three bowls (including this year), while every other Power 5 program has reached bowls at least four times in the last 12 seasons.

STAT OF THE WEEK, Part II: 10th

Average Pac-12 ranking for CU’s scoring offense during its nine years in the conference. This year, the Buffs had their worst scoring average since 2012 and they’ve now finished 10th or worse seven times.

2019: 23.5 (10th)

2018: 27.1 (7th)

2017: 26.4 (11th)

2016: 31.1 (7th)

2015: 24.6 (11th)

2014: 28.6 (10th)

2013: 25.4 (11th)

2012: 17.8 (12th)

2011: 19.8 (12th)

STAT OF THE WEEK, Part III: 56

Let’s end this section with a positive stat – the number of receptions for both Laviska Shenault and Tony Brown. That ties for the 13th-best single-season catch total in CU history and it marks just the third time that CU’s had two players with that many catches. In 1992, Michael Westbrook (76) and Charles E. Johnson (57) did it and in 2003, DJ Hackett (2003) and Derek McCoy (63) did it.

Getty Images
QB Tyler Huntley has Utah eyeing a Pac-12 title this week.

MY PAC-12 RANKINGS

How I rank the Pac-12 after the regular season:

1. Utah Utes (11-1; 8-1 Pac-12; Previous rank: 1): They’ve been extremely dominant over the last two months.

2. Oregon Ducks (10-2, 8-1; PR: 2): Ducks have stumbled to the finish, but have a chance to win the Pac-12 title this week.

3. USC Trojans (8-4; 7-2; PR: 3): Trojans were off last week and await their bowl destination.

4. California Golden Bears (7-5; 4-5; PR: 5): Nice finish to the season with a win against UCLA.

5. Arizona State Sun Devils (7-5; 4-5; PR: 6): After a four-game skid, the Sun Devils finished with wins against Oregon and rival Arizona.

6. Washington Huskies (7-5; 4-5; PR: 8): In what turned out to be Chris Petersen’s final game as head coach, the Huskies smacked Washington State. Again.

7. Washington State Cougars (6-6; 3-6; PR:4): Not long ago, 6-6 would have been celebrated in Pullman. Mike Leach has taken the program to the point that this was a disappointing year.

8. Colorado Buffaloes (5-7; 3-6; PR: 7): One win shy of bowl eligibility once again.

9. Oregon State Beavers (5-7; 4-5; PR: 9): Beavers had their best season since 2014, but could’ve gone bowling. They coughed up a 14-point lead at Hawaii and an 11-point lead – with 3 minutes to play – at Washington State. So, CU has company.

10. UCLA Bruins (4-8; 4-5; PR: 10): Nice three-game win streak to start the second half of the season, but the Bruins finished with a three-game losing streak to fall to 7-17 under Chip Kelly.

11. Stanford Cardinal (4-8; 3-6; PR: 11): We knew this wasn’t a great Stanford team; it wound up being a bad Stanford team. Cardinal finished on a four-game skid to end a 10-year streak of bowl appearances.

12. Arizona Wildcats (4-8; 2-7; PR: 12): Wildcats edged CU in Boulder, 35-30, on Oct. 5 to take over first place in the South division. They went 0-7 from that point forward, getting beat soundly in each game.

MY TOP 25 BALLOT

Here’s the ballot I submitted to the Associated Press for this week’s Top 25:

1. LSU

2. Clemson

3. Ohio State

4. Utah

5. Georgia

6. Oklahoma

7. Baylor

8. Alabama

9. Florida

10. Notre Dame

11. Wisconsin

12. Auburn

13. Oregon

14. Memphis

15. Minnesota

16. Penn State

17. Michigan

18. Iowa

19. Boise State

20. Appalachian State

21. Cincinnati

22. Air Force

23. Navy

24. SMU

25. Virginia

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photograher
Colorado’s Davion Taylor breaks up a pass for Southern California’s Drake London during the second half on October 25 at Folsom Field.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

Senior Davion Taylor on comparing this year to last year: “The family, the bond that we have (this year). We’re really a family. We’re so close. They’re all like my brothers and it’s hard just knowing you’re about to leave your brothers and knowing you were a big part of the team and knowing you could have helped them in the future if I had more years. But, I’m just proud of them. I’m just proud of the way we worked this whole season. I’m excited for next season for them.”

Junior receiver Laviska Shenault on the Buffs finding different ways to lose throughout the season: “It’s been weird for us all this year, but deep down we knew it could have been better. It could have gone different, but it’s part of the game of football. Just keep living and move on.”

THIS WEEK: On to recruiting

The football season is over and the recruiting season is heating up. Coaches are on the road this week as they prepare for national signing day on Dec. 18.