Rooney: Razing offensive approach needs to be next step for CU Buffs’ Karl Dorrell

Historic offensive futility on display in shutout loss

BOULDER, CO - Sept. 18, 2021: ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Brendon Lewis reaches for a first down as Minnesota’s Tyler Nubin hangs on during the Colorado Minnesota NCAA football game on September 18, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Despite an almost unwatchable first half turned in by the Colorado offense, the game still very much was in the balance when quarterback Brendon Lewis ducked under center for the first time after halftime.

On the first play of the third quarter, Lewis did what he does best, executing a bootleg play to connect with Brenden Rice for an 11-yard gain on first down.

Sadly, it took that long for the Buffaloes to call a play in Lewis’ wheelhouse. Even more embarrassing is that play matched the Buffs’ longest play of the day until the waning moments of a dismal, utterly forgettable 30-0 loss to Minnesota at Folsom Field.

No one wants to hit the panic button three games into any football season, and certainly panic shouldn’t be the decisive emotion in spurring whatever comes next. Yet with the Pac-12 Conference opener next in line, Saturday’s effort confirmed the CU offense — from Darrin Chiaverini making the play calls to Lewis’ expectations to the guys blocking ahead of him — no longer requires tweaking and adjustments. The Buffs need a complete offensive overhaul because based on what was on display against the Gophers, anything less might lead to an 0-11 season against FBS-level foes.

That scenario still is difficult to foresee in a league in which the Buffs hardly are the only program capable of laying an egg any given week. Nevertheless, razing the offensive approach from the ground up with personnel, schemes, and even the play caller has to ensure if CU wants to salvage the 2021 season.

Where to begin? The home shutout was the first at Folsom in nine years. The Buffs’ 63 total yards was the eighth-worst single-game total in program history. The minus-19 rushing yards was the third -worst in team history.

In a preseason column, I noted the injury suffered by Tennessee transfer JT Shrout during an intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 14 didn’t necessarily preface the death knell of the CU offense, given he was in a competition for the job with Lewis anyway. I stand humbly corrected.

Lewis clearly isn’t ready for the responsibility on his shoulders. It’s tough not to feel for the young man, who made just the third start of his career against the Gophers and who may still develop into a solid contributor and leader for the program. Yet so far we’ve witnessed a quarterback with a slow release who can’t make quick decisions and can’t get the ball down the field. Add in a clear hesitation to let Lewis loose with planned running plays due to the lack of depth at the position, and the Buffs on Saturday morphed from a one-dimensional offense to a no-dimensional offense.

Lewis didn’t have much help. Pressed into service with the first start of his CU career, the snaps from freshman center Noah Fenske were all over the place. Minnesota blitzes and stunts led to unimpeded rushes at Lewis. And the running game that was so explosive last season has been nonexistent. While the minus-19 rushing total was bloated by the four sacks Lewis suffered, the 10 handoffs given to running backs Jarek Broussard and Alex Fontenot netted just 12 yards. All against a Minnesota defense that entered the game allowing 5.4 yards per rush.

Personnel-wise, the answers won’t come easily. The Buffs are who they are up front. And unless true freshman backup quarterback Drew Carter makes exponential leaps in a hurry, or unless Shrout receives a miracle cure, or unless head coach Karl Dorrell somehow manages to talk Tad Boyle into letting former Cherry Creek standout quarterback and freshman hoops guard Julian Hammond return to the gridiron, the Buffs are stuck living through Lewis’ growing pains.

That leaves the leadership. Whatever buttons Dorrell attempts to push in the coming days will prove critical to not only saving Lewis’ confidence, but the Buffs’ goal of challenging for a bowl berth as well. Chiaverini now is in his second stint at the Buffs’ play-caller, and the early returns aren’t any more encouraging than what Buffs fans saw in 2018.

Lewis obviously doesn’t have a lot of arrows in his quiver just yet, but the schemes he’s taking the field with also aren’t doing Lewis any favors. As stated earlier, the athletic Lewis didn’t throw on the run until the second half. A screen pass to a running back, as one example, is a low-risk way to take advantage of defensive pressure and perhaps give your young quarterback a little momentum. That didn’t happen, either.

I wrote this week the Minnesota showdown could be the swing game that will dictate the course of the remainder of the season. With a trip to Arizona State on deck to begin Pac-12 play, followed by a visit from USC, the margin for error from a CU offense that isn’t doing anything well right now will only grow thinner.

If Dorrell still hopes to get that momentum swinging back the other way, he must rethink the entire offensive operation.