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Rooney: Swing game against Minnesota could shape CU Buffs’ 2021 fortunes

Victory could catapult Buffs into Pac-12 play

DENVER, CO - September 11, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder's Guy Thomas wraps up Texas A&M's Zach Calzada.  (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
DENVER, CO – September 11, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder’s Guy Thomas wraps up Texas A&M’s Zach Calzada. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

It is just the third game of the season, and win or lose the Colorado Buffaloes still will have ample opportunity to dictate their own course through the 2021 season.

Yet after a near-miss against one of the top teams in the nation, and with the start of what is likely to be a wide-open race in the Pac-12 South just around the corner, it’s not an exaggeration to say that by sunset on Saturday, the Buffs and their fans will either have their hopes dashed or bask in the victorious validation for their optimism.

Win, and bowl eligibility might be the least of CU’s goals in what could be an underwhelming Pac-12 South. Lose, and the upset bid against then-No. 5 Texas A&M becomes a mirage, and the Buffs once again will have to take the hard road toward bowl eligibility.

It’s a heavy burden to assign a game in the middle of September, but the result of Saturday’s showdown could impact the critical weeks to come. If they win, the Buffs travel to Arizona State high on confidence before hosting a USC team navigating an early-season coaching change. Following a bye, two very winnable games follow at home against Arizona and at Cal before visiting No. 4 Oregon.

With a loss, however, not only will the Buffs fail to capitalize on the momentum of nearly knocking off Texas A&M, but that same schedule suddenly takes a more daunting complexion. Instead of visiting a venue at Arizona State where the home team is battling its own inner turmoil (and where the Buffs won last time), that journey becomes a demanding trip to the No. 19 team in the nation. USC suddenly looks less like a vulnerable foe undergoing regime change than one that has never lost to the Buffs.

The loss against Texas A&M and the game’s very legitimate frustrations — the lack of a passing game, questionable situational play-calling — obscured some of the strides the Buffs made from week one to week two. The defense backed its showing against Northern Colorado with an even more impressive effort against A&M, showing signs of being a unit the Buffs can lean on as quarterback Brendon Lewis goes through his growing pains.

CU will need that defensive effort on Saturday and the weeks to come, but the other promising outcome from the A&M loss was the Buffs’ marked improvement on penalties. A week after getting flagged 12 times for 118 yards against UNC, CU was called for just two penalties totaling 17 yards — the bulk of which occurred on a sketchy offensive pass interference call. Until Lewis and the offense gets on track, CU must continue to turn the UNC flag-fest into an aberration.

“That’s what I love about this team. They respond to anything that we do that hasn’t been well,” CU head coach Karl Dorrell said. “I know penalties was the biggest issue in the first game. And guess what? We played a higher caliber of opponent and we played smarter. So that was huge to reduce those things.

“That’s what’s great about this team. They respond and see it, and they react to it. They’re ready to move forward on doing those things. They understand what we’re trying to do, and then they just go to work. So that’s what I love about this football team.”

Wake up with your game faces on, Buffs fans. The perfect definition of a swing game kicks off at 11 a.m.