Karl Dorrell made it clear moral victories won’t be a crutch to lean on during his regime at Colorado when he abruptly pulled the plug on the post-Alamo Bowl virtual press conference last winter.
Dorrell wasn’t at all inspired to discuss the bright spots of a season that defied expectations in the face of a lopsided loss that night against Texas. And so on Saturday, when the dust settled from a backyard brawl of a football game more reminiscent of Dorrell’s playing days in the mid-1980s than the fling-the-ball-around-the field modern game, neither the Buffaloes nor their leader wanted to talk about the near-miss that very nearly gave CU a monumental upset victory against the fifth-ranked team in the nation.
Moral victories may be for losers and suckers, but they exist nonetheless. And the Buffs and their fans can take solace that Saturday’s performance showed CU should be ready to contend with each and every team remaining on its schedule.
The 10-7 loss against Texas A&M at the Broncos’ Empower Field showed a Buffs team going toe-to-toe with a team expected to breeze through Mile High in its quest to eventually crash the College Football Playoff. Maybe the Aggies still have that run in them. But the bigger revelation on Saturday was the Buffs serving notice they should be a factor in the Pac-12 South.
“Definitely something to build on,” CU quarterback Brendon Lewis said. “But we don’t take consolation. I feel like, and we all feel like, we should have won that game. We could have won that game.”
The CU defense played inspired football, and anyone dismissing the effort as the result of a team going against a backup quarterback suddenly thrust into the action (A&M starter Haynes King left with an injury after the first season) failed to see the blanket coverage the Buffs’ secondary leveled upon the Aggies. Or the 3.3 yards per rushing attempt Texas A&M managed the entire afternoon. But the Lewis-led offense failed to move the ball consistently, and the points left on the field late in the first half ultimately loomed large.
Though Dorrell disagreed with this sequence making a profound impact, for me the turning point was when the Buffs inexplicably called consecutive quarterback sneaks from the 5-yard line facing short yardage on third and fourth down. I loved going for it there, even if the three points would have come in handy later in the game. To knock off the No. 5 team in the nation, you need to be aggressive and score touchdowns. Yet those calls weren’t aggressive and lacked imagination. If you’re planning to go for it on fourth down anyway, open up the playbook on third down. Instead the bigger Aggies packed the interior on the second sneak attempt, and the Buffs came away empty.
From there, the Buffs never threatened to score again, and now the page will turn to Minnesota next week. If the Buffs can hang with Texas A&M, there isn’t anyone on the league slate who should roll the Buffs. Not No. 23 Arizona State, which still is trying to match its hype with production. Not No. 14 USC, which has never lost to CU. Not even Oregon, which is certain to move up from No. 12 after a win at No. 3 Ohio State that was huge for the entire conference.
Asked afterward if he’s optimistic about what’s still to come for the Buffs, Dorrell didn’t mince words.
“Damn right I’m optimistic,” said Dorrell, channeling his inner Tad Boyle “Hell yes!” Dorrell added: “I think everybody thought we wouldn’t even be close to this team. I told you all along, we’re a better team than you think.”
Maybe he’s right. There remains plenty of work to get the offense up to speed with a defense that left it all out on the field. But, indeed, signs are pointing to 2021 being far more interesting and competitive than anyone outside that locker room believed.