With experience on defense and coordinator Tyson Summers back for his second year, the Colorado Buffaloes felt they had the tools to carry the momentum they gained on defense late in 2019.
At times on Saturday night that they did, but it was feast or famine for the Buffs’ defense in a 48-42 win against UCLA at Folsom Field.
Colorado’s defense set the tone by causing four first-half turnovers to help the Buffs to a 35-7 lead.
“It’s huge to be able to put the offense in good field position,” safety Derrion Rakestraw said. “That’s why we stress it on punt, we want to pin them deep. We needed the takeaways down in their territory, so that was great.”
Rakestraw forced a fumble and recovered another to lead the defense. Carson Wells added an interception, while Alec Pell and Jamar Montgomery recovered fumbles. All of that led to 21 first-half points to build the big lead.
Throughout the night, however, the Buffs were repeatedly stung by big plays. UCLA finished the night with 478 yards, averaging 7.4 yards per play.
The Bruins got back in and stayed in the game with touchdowns of 28, 52, 65, 15 and 26 yards.
“We have got to limit the busts,” Wells said. “Too many big plays. We left two guys wide open for touchdowns, two screens. We shouldn’t have let that happen.”
Despite those big plays, the defense rose up for a critical stop in the fourth quarter.
With CU leading 45-35 early in the fourth, UCLA had fourth-and-1 at the Buffs’ 30. Linebacker Nate Landman and his teammates stuffed Bruins’ running back Keegan Jones for no gain to give the ball back to the offense.
“That was huge,” Rakestraw said, “and it was crazy because Nate Landman was telling us that he was going to go in there and make a play. I think that he was the one who made that play so it was crazy to see that happen. That was huge for us. We needed that.”
CU responded with another field goal for a 13-point lead and held on from there.
Rakestraw and Landman finished with a team-high six tackles each. Mustafa Johnson added the Buffs’ only sack.
Change at kicker
Senior James Stefanou came into the season healthy and feeling good about his final season. A rough start, however, led to head coach Karl Dorrell making a chance.
Just before halftime, Stefanou was short on a 51-yard field goal attempt. Then, early in the third quarter, he had a 40-yard attempt blocked.
Dorrell said Stefanou had “a little bit of a nick” physically, so they turned to sophomore Evan Price and he handled the kicking duties from that point. Price hit field goals of 45 and 36 yards and also nailed his only extra point attempts. His final attempt, however, from 44 yards was blocked.
“It’s good to have two kickers in our program that have had some playing experience,” Dorrell said. “That is an area we’ll continue to work on and try to get better at. Our field goal protection with two blocks, that’s not good. We need to really address that and make that a nonissue for us as we move forward.”
Senior receiver KD Nixon has been dealing a soft tissue injury. He was in uniform for warm-ups, but was in street clothes for the game.
“He is close to 100-percent,” Dorrell said. “He probably could have played if we wanted him to. It is just the start of the season and he has missed some time in training camp. We didn’t want to put him out there when he is not completely prepared to do that. We are hopeful this week. He’s got a great mindset about getting himself back as quickly as he can. We just didn’t feel like this was the game for him to come back yet.”
Lytle gets a series
Senior Sam Noyer played almost the entire game at quarterback for the Buffs, but junior Tyler Lytle did take the reins for a series.
In the second quarter, with CU leading 21-7, Lytle took over as the Buffs started at the UCLA 47-yard line. A holding penalty got the drive off to a bad start and the Buffs wound up punting.
Lytle completed his only two passes, for four yards, but Noyer played the rest of the night.
The Buffs improved to 5-5 in Pac-12 openers, including 2-0 against UCLA. … The 90 combined points made Saturday’s game the highest-scoring opener in CU history. It topped the 83 points scored last year, when the Buffs beat Colorado State, 52-31. … CU wore an “EH” decal on the helmets as a tribute to Elizabeth Hilton, the wife of CU equipment manager Christopher Dountas. Hilton passed away of cancer on Aug. 28 at the age of 34. … Saturday’s game marked the 200th CU football broadcast for KOA radio play-by-play announcer Mark Johnson. … Five CU players made their first career starts: freshman cornerback Christian Gonzalez, sophomore running back Jarek Broussard, junior receivers Daniel Arias and Maurice Bell and senior quarterback Sam Noyer. … Overall, 15 players made their CU debuts.