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Rooney: Karl Dorrell sets cool, collected tone in victorious CU Buffs debut

Even-keeled leadership may be great fit for college football’s pandemic season

BOULDER, CO – NOVEMBER 07: University of Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell, right, leads the Buffs out onto the field to play UCLA at Folsom Field November 07, 2020. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

As the questions continued, with all the proper and plentiful praise doled out for the many heroes on a memorable night at Folsom Field, it was easy to wonder if Karl Dorrell had just notched his first win at CU or if he was reviewing the results of a spring scrimmage.

Not only was it Dorrell’s first win with the Buffs after the pandemic-delayed start to the 2020 football season, but it was his first win as a head coach anywhere in 13 years, back when he was the leader of the team on the other sideline on Saturday, UCLA.

For Dorrell, the 48-42 victory his Colorado Buffaloes secured seemingly was, in his eyes, business as usual. Or at least the sort of business he expects to make the norm during his time in Boulder. Afterward, while meeting with reporters in a pressbox-to-locker room video conference, Dorrell went through all the relevant talking points in a business-like manner, completely devoid of the jubilation that almost certainly was bubbling within.

That’s not at all a knock on Dorrell. If anything, after the emotional peaks and valleys exuded by former coach Mike MacIntyre and the combustible intensity of the one-season Mel Tucker era, the even-keeled calm of Dorrell might be exactly what the Buffaloes need in this most unusual of college football seasons.

“It was a good start to the season,” said Dorrell with matter-of-fact restraint. “It was a W. Obviously some things to fix. But I’ll take it.”

So will the rest of Buffs Nation.

Saturday’s win provided plenty of reasons for optimism for a Buffs squad roundly regarded as one of the bottom dwellers in the Pac-12. Sam Noyer was steady and tough in what not only was his Buffs debut at quarterback, but his first start at the position since high school. Tucker wanted to toughen the Buffs on the interior on both sides of the ball, and that plan came to fruition in Dorrell’s debut, as CU dominated both sides of the trenches. And Jarek Broussard showed that regardless of Alex Fontenot’s injury situation, there is a new No. 1 running back in town.

With a new quarterback, new running back, and the top three receivers from a year ago not in the mix, the Buffs nonetheless didn’t commit a single turnover.

Yet even Dorrell admitted it wasn’t a flawless victory. The CU defense got the game-changing takeaways early to set the tone, but by the end of the night it had surrendered 478 yards, much of it occurring in big chunks on long plays. There were a couple questionable fourth-down decisions and two blocked field goals by UCLA, though Evan Price deserves credit for coming off the bench in place of James Stefanou to knock down a pair of second-half field goals the provided the final margin.

Still, an opening win in college football’s pandemic season, particularly after the trials and stops-and-starts of the past months, is immensely gratifying. And while it remains just one game, with plenty of work remaining if Dorrell hopes to eventually turn the Buffs into perennial bowl contenders, I’d take whatever problems the Buffs have over UCLA’s problems any day. In the first game of Year 3 of the much-ballyhooed Chip Kelly era, the Bruins committed four turnovers in the first half and were flagged for nine penalties. Sure, CU also finished with nine penalties for more yards, but the Buffs didn’t have Kelly and a three-year starter at quarterback combining for one of my favorite inane football penalties, a delay of game on first down following a kickoff touchback.

The true test of Dorrell’s even-keeled demeanor will come after a frustrating loss. Yet given his own trials of the past eight months, from being hired shortly before the pandemic shut down NCAA athletics to the Pac-12’s rollercoaster decision-making process that finally led to a November kickoff,  Dorrell already has had ample experience in calmly keeping the ship aligned through turbulent waters.

That trait is likely to come in handy before the truncated 2020 season is over. The Buffs will play better teams than UCLA — pretty much everyone on the remaining schedule, with the possible exception of Arizona. But this was a win to savor. And if this was the first sketching of the template the cool and calm Dorrell expects to set, the Buffs have taken their first promising steps in the right direction.