Change is coming to the Colorado offense. At least, we think change is coming.
When a team is three games into the season and the head coach says it’s time to “wipe the slate clean and start all over,” that’s not good and it doesn’t suggest that a couple of minor tweaks will fix the issue.
The Buffaloes need an overhaul after Saturday’s embarrassing 30-0 loss to Minnesota at Folsom Field.
Colorado’s offense hasn’t been very good all season, but the first two weeks at least offered up some legitimate excuses.
In Week 1, the Buffs rolled past Northern Colorado, 35-7. It wasn’t sharp, by any means, but hey, it was the first start in the young career of freshman quarterback Brendon Lewis.
In Week 2, the Buffs managed just a single touchdown in a 10-7 loss to Texas A&M. Yeah, it was clear that the offense needed to improve, but … the seventh-ranked Aggies have one of the best defensive units in the country. A&M shut out New Mexico last Saturday and currently ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring defense.
In Week 3, there were no excuses and there was nowhere to hide after that horrendous showing against the Golden Gophers, who, unlike A&M, don’t have a great defense. They had given up 31.3 points per game since the start of the 2020 season before looking like the Purple People Eaters (old school Minnesota Vikings reference!) against the Buffs.
So, where do the Buffs go from here? I asked head coach Karl Dorrell after the game if cleaning the slate could mean changing up play-calling duties or opening up the quarterback competition.
He certainly didn’t dismiss either option.
“I think we’ve got to get through the tape and see a lot of things,” Dorrell said. “As a head coach, I have to look at everything. I really do. So it is one of those points in the season and given that performance that we really have to reevaluate everything.”
In this edition of the Rewind, we look at some of CU’s options in fixing the offense on the fly, as well as …
- Hope for this week
- Barnes settling in
- Best of the Buffs
- Notes and quotes
LEADING OFF: Where to start?
When I was a senior in high school many years ago, our head coach spent the entire offseason installing the run-and-shoot offense (yeah, this was a while ago). Two games in, we were awful. Game 2 was a Saturday afternoon and Gateway High School dominated us, 34-7 if I recall correctly. Our only touchdown came on a short scoop-and-score from our nose tackle.
After the game, the bus took us back to school. Typically, we were dropped off in front of the school and we went into the locker room to change and go home. This time, however, coaches had the bus driver take us to the back of the school to where our practice field was located.
Coaches didn’t say a word as we got off the bus. They went to the shed, found a couple of shovels and told us to dig a hole – and then they threw the tape into the hole and buried it. We then proceeded to have a walk-through practice where coaches decided we were going to ditch the run-and-shoot after those two games and go back to the I-formation that got us to the playoffs a year earlier. It didn’t change our season much (we went 2-9), but it was certainly a drastic move after a horrible performance.
Saturday brought back memories of that game because Dorrell seemed like a man ready to bury the tape and scrap the current offense.
The Buffs (1-2) still have nine games to play, so it’s too early to give up on the season. But, something has to change in a hurry because CU hasn’t scored a point in their last 21 offensive possessions. They haven’t even picked up a first down in 13 of those 21 possessions. Only once in those 21 possessions have the Buffs gained as many as two first downs – and that was the last series against Minnesota when backup quarterback Drew Carter picked up two.
So, with Dorrell admitting he has to reevaluate “everything,” what are some of the options this week?
1. Fire offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini. This would be the boldest move Dorrell could make. We’ve certainly seen similar moves over the years by teams around the country, although I can’t remember the last time CU fired an assistant mid-season. Is it fair to put all the blame on Chiaverini? No, but he is the leader of the offense and this is an offense that hasn’t been very good in a while.
Over the last seven games, dating back to Week 3 of 2020, the Buffs have averaged 18.6 points and 318.9 yards. The only time they’ve scored more than 24 points in that time was against UNC – a bad FCS team.
In some respects, it’s tough to move on from Chiaverini because he bleeds black and gold. He was a good receiver for CU from 1995-98 (with Dorrell as his position coach) and this is his sixth season on staff. It’s also his third season as the play-caller. He called plays in 2018 under former head coach Mike MacIntyre. After being demoted to receivers coach under Mel Tucker in 2019, he got the OC and play-calling duties back last year from Dorrell.
Chiaverini brings energy to the table and he’s done a solid job in recruiting. His offense has had some big games, too. Unfortunately, those big games haven’t been often, and his offense has shown a tendency (before this year) to start hot and struggle late. This year, they’ve only struggled.
Going back to 2018, the Buffs have averaged 21.8 points in the last 16 games in which Chiaverini was the coordinator while posting a 5-11 record. The Buffs have been held to 24 points or less in 13 of those games. Coaching is a results-oriented business and the results haven’t been good lately, so parting ways with Chiaverini is a move that would be justifiable for Dorrell.
There are, of course, financial ramifications to moving on from Chiaverini, either now or after the season. He’s under contract through Feb. 14, 2023, and CU would owe him the remainder of his salary. Currently, that would be about $900,000. (The buyout would be about $650,000 to fire him after the season). That type of buyout is nothing to a lot of schools, but is CU – which lost about $20 million during the 2021 fiscal year because of the COVID-19 pandemic – willing to do that?
If the Buffs made that move, the natural follow-up would be to promote quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf to interim offensive coordinator. Quality control coach Reggie Moore – or Dorrell – could be an option for coaching receivers.
2. Give play-calling duties to someone else. Dorrell is a long-time offensive coach, as is Langsdorf. Both have a lot more experience calling plays than Chiaverini. It may not be ideal for Dorrell to take on the duty of calling plays himself, but there are plenty of head coaches who do it. In Dorrell’s mind, it might be the best option going forward. Or, does he turn the keys over to Langsdorf, the former offensive coordinator at Oregon State (2005-13) and Nebraska (2015-17)? Either option might be good for the offense, but that could also create a difficult dynamic within the staff with a demoted Chiaverini still on board.
3. Keep staff duties as is, but revamp the offense. We know the Buffs don’t have a lot of options at quarterback. With sophomore JT Shrout out for the season, this is Lewis’ offense – unless the Buffs decide to go even younger at the position (see the next option). What we’ve seen from Lewis so far is that he’s an athletic player who can run, but has trouble reading the defense and delivering the ball to receivers. He does, at least, have a good defense backing him up. Sorta sounds like the 2011 Denver Broncos doesn’t it? Those Broncos started 1-4 and were going absolutely nowhere when they decided to give Tim Tebow a chance to start at quarterback. For those who may have forgotten the legendary Tebow, he was a good runner who struggled when throwing the ball – but he at least had a good defense backing him up. In mid-season, the Broncos’ coaching staff completely changed the offense to fit Tebow’s limited skill set. It was ugly football, but he led them to a 7-1 record in his first eight starts and got the Broncos to the playoffs. Then, he actually led them to a playoff win. Lewis could eventually become a pretty good player for CU, but right now, he’s a bit like Tebow in that he’s limited in what he can do. But he CAN do some good things. It would be a difficult task, but can Dorrell and the staff revamp the offense to fit Lewis and the talented stable of running backs?
4. Make a change at quarterback. Throughout the offseason, Carter hasn’t received very many reps, if any, with the first-team offense. He was the clear No. 3 option all offseason before Shrout was injured. He’s been in the No. 2 role for about a month, but he’s a true freshman and Dorrell has made it clear there’s a long way for Carter to go. But, he also didn’t look that out of place when he got a chance – albeit in garbage time – on Saturday. He looked more comfortable throwing the ball than Lewis does. I’ve had people who watch practice tell me that Carter is a more talented passer than Lewis. And, Carter can run, too. While he’s even less experienced than Lewis, maybe giving Carter a shot is the spark this offense needs. “We’re still gonna turn over every stone and we’re gonna figure out what to do and it might mean he does get a chance to get some series in games now just because he might be able to create a spark,” Dorrell said of Carter. Dorrell talked of giving Carter some spot time, which might be good. Making him the starter seems less likely, but would be a bold move that CU might need right now.
5. Keep the staff as is, keep Lewis at quarterback and … just keep grinding. It’s possible the Buffs won’t make any big changes, although based on Dorrell’s demeanor after the game on Saturday, that seems unlikely. Maybe the choice will be to tweak the offense a bit and try to make Lewis more comfortable and hope for better results.
REASON FOR HOPE: Buffs can bounce back
While it seems like a hopeless situation for the Buffs after a performance like Saturday, keep in mind it’s one game. Yeah, it was a bad one, but it doesn’t mean CU can’t play good football this week or in the final nine games.
Saturday’s game was just the eighth time in school history the Buffs finished with less than 70 yards of offense. CU has a surprisingly good track record of bouncing back from those performances, however, going 4-2-1 the next week – and both losses were close.
Year, opponent, yards Next game
1939, at Kansas State, minus-13 yards Beat Colorado State, 13-0
1946, at Missouri, 30 yards Tied Denver, 13-13
2004, vs. Oklahoma, 46 yards Beat UTEP, 33-28*
1964, Nebraska, 51 yards Lost to Oklahoma, 14-11
1946, at Texas, 59 yards Beat Utah State, 6-0
2002, Southern Cal, 61 yards Beat UCLA, 31-17
1958, at Utah, 62 yards Lost to CSU, 15-14
2021, Minnesota, 63 yards TBD, at Arizona State
* – Houston Bowl
NEW SURROUNDINGS: Barnes enjoying new team
After four seasons at Oklahoma, Robert Barnes made a big life move in January when he chose to transfer to CU. A safety/inside linebacker, Barnes is striving to carve out his role on the Buffs’ defense, but he’s enjoying Boulder and being a Buff.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m coming from Norman, so it’s coming from flat to mountains. I’ve always enjoyed areas like this, outdoor areas, so when I leave this facility, I enjoy what I see for sure.”
In the facility, Barnes has brought leadership to the table and is made his first impact on the field on the Week 2 loss to Texas A&M (he missed the opener with an injury).
“That hurt,” he said of missing the opener. “I prepared so much over the summer, and to be out those few weeks during camp and then that first game, it hurt. At the same time, I think that in the past, I’ve been through soft tissue injuries and you’ve just kind of got to trust the process. I think mentally I’ve trained myself to just stay focused on what I can control. I was proud that I was able to come out there with little time with the team (this offseason) and be able to add into that chemistry and add in to what this defense is doing.”
Barnes played 26 snaps against A&M, with two tackles, and a pass breakup.
“It felt amazing,” he said. “I think the defense was flying around with so much energy and you could feel it. I mean, it was one of those arenas that you just step into, and you can feel the energy.”
On Saturday against Minnesota, Barnes played only nine snaps but recorded a tackle. From week to week, his role could change based on the opposition and he’s proven he can play in various spots.
“I like to be considered as like a Swiss Army Knife type of guy,” he said. “I can go play the middle of the field, I can come to cover a back, I can cover a receiver, I can play in the box. It was fun (against A&M); that’s the only word I can have to describe it. It was just fun that the coaches trust me to be able to go and line up in all these different positions, and just be that type of guy.”
BEST OF THE BUFFS
Here’s my take on the best of the Buffs against Minnesota:
CB Mekhi Blackmon: Another solid game in coverage, although he was flagged for pass interference, and he added four tackles.
LG Kary Kutsch: It wasn’t a great day for the offensive line, but Kutsch played well overall.
LB Nate Landman: Another great performance by Landman, who racked up 13 tackles, including three tackles for loss, and a forced fumble.
LB Quinn Perry: Put together the best game of his career to this point, with 10 tackles.
DL Na’im Rodman: He played well before going down with injury posting three tackles and a tackle for loss.
TE Brady Russell: He continues to have a solid season as a blocker. He also caught two passes for 10 yards.
OLB Guy Thomas: Backed up a great performance against Texas A&M with another strong effort. He had 10 tackles and a tackle for loss.
P Josh Watts: Continues to punt well for the Buffs and Saturday was his best game. He had a career-long 62-yard punt and averaged a career-best 51.9 yards. His first five punts went at least 53 yards, another went 49 and the other two landed inside the 25-yard line.
NOTES AND STATS
- Crazy that the Buffs are struggling to find answers at quarterback, while it’s possible that the first and second-team All-Pac-12 quarterbacks from a year ago could both be on the bench soon. Kedon Slovis has been sensational since becoming USC’s starting quarterback as a true freshman in 2019 and he was first-team All-Pac-12 a year ago. Now he’s got to battle for his job because a neck injury knocked him out of the Trojans’ game last weekend and true freshman Jaxson Dart was remarkable (391 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) off the bench. Dart is good enough to send Slovis to the bench. The second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback from last year was, of course, Sam Noyer of Colorado. He transferred to Oregon State over the summer and started the season opener, but was benched in that game. Chance Nolan has started the last two games for the Beavers and has played well.
- Since his hot start last year, running back Jarek Broussard has found yards tough to get. In Game 4 of the 2020 season, Broussard had 301 yards at Arizona on Dec. 5; it was his fourth consecutive 100-yard game. In the five games since then, he’s got a combined 315 yards, with no more than 94 in any game. He’s had 59 yards the last two weeks combined.
- Colorado opens Pac-12 play this week, at Arizona State. It’s a tough trip, but CU has won three consecutive conference openers, including 2018 at ASU.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Cornerback Christian Gonzalez on moving on from the loss: “Obviously we don’t like the outcome but we’ve just got to move on to next week and watch the film, be critical about ourselves and move on.”
Tight end Matt Lynch on what the offense can do to help Brendon Lewis: “It’s kind of everything: better pass protection, letting him be able to sit back there in the pocket and find the dudes he needs to get the ball to, being able to run the ball. That way, it takes the pressure off. So it kind of just starts with running the ball. That way the play-action opens up, different kinds of things and it gives him a little bit more time; gets him comfortable, set in. And when you start a drive out the way we did, it’s kind of hard to come back from a second-and-20. Next thing you know, they go down and score. That’s hard to come back from and then you’re playing from behind the whole game. Just giving time for B-Lew, keeping the confidence going in him not letting him hang his head and keep growing as a young quarterback.”
Hot one in Arizona. The Buffs visit ASU on Saturday night. The high temperature that day is forecasted at 99 degrees.