The 2021 season has quickly derailed for the Colorado Buffaloes.
Three consecutive blowout losses, and four consecutive defeats overall, have left the Buffs scrambling to find one more win, let alone the five more required for bowl eligibility.
Certainly, there is blame to go around, but there’s nothing more glaring than the struggles at quarterback. And, that makes it even more puzzling that head coach Karl Dorrell hasn’t tried something different.
CU (1-4, 0-2 Pac-12) went into this week’s bye searching for answers. Near the top of the priority list – if not the top – is what do at quarterback.
Second-year freshman Brendon Lewis has struggled and that’s no secret, yet Dorrell continues to stick with him to the bitter end.
“It’s a fine line sometimes if you pull a guy,” Dorrell said. “Then what’s that going to do to his confidence, right? So it’s a fine line between trying to get him to get through this experience, which there’s no other way to do it, to be honest with you.”
No other way? Well, not necessarily.
While Lewis has struggled, true freshman Drew Carter has stood on the sidelines with a headset for the entirety of the last two blowout losses.
In recent days, I’ve talked with two former Power 5 coaches who separately said, “It makes no sense to me at all” that Carter hasn’t played.
In this edition of the Rewind, we look at the QB situation and why Dorrell hasn’t turned to Carter (or at least try to figure out why), as well as …
- Trying to maintain confidence
- Buffs of the Week
- Notes and quotes
LEADING OFF: NFL approach?
Just 52 seconds into the fourth quarter on Saturday, the Buffs trailed by 23 points – an insurmountable deficit for a team that has averaged 8.5 points the last four games. There really wasn’t much reason to keep Lewis in the game, but Dorrell did.
A week earlier, at Arizona State, the Buffs fell behind by 18 points when ASU scored a touchdown 44 seconds into the fourth quarter. With 8:30 to play, the deficit increased to 25 points. Lewis played and Carter sat.
After the ASU game, Dorrell said it “did cross my mind” to give Carter a chance to play in the final minutes.
After the USC game, Dorrell said of leaving Lewis in the game, “We don’t want him to lose confidence that he can play.”
Those comments are mind-boggling from a coach who has watched his offense score a grand total of 34 points in the last four games. And, Dorrell’s refusal to play Carter the last two weeks is even more surprising given what happened on Sept. 18, when the Buffs lost to Minnesota, 30-0.
Down 23-0 with 9:53 to play, Dorrell did put Carter in the game. The freshman didn’t light up the offense, but he looked comfortable in the pocket in going 4-for-8 for 27 yards, and he led the Buffs in rushing, albeit with only 9 yards on five carries.
Following that game, Dorrell said, “He did do some positive things out there. We’re still gonna turn over every stone and we’re gonna figure out what to do and it might mean does he get a chance to get some series in games now? Because he might be able to create a spark. We may have to do that.”
To Lewis’ credit, he’s been better since the loss to Minnesota, but not nearly good enough to give the Buffs a chance to win any of the last two games. And not nearly good enough to prove he is the clear-cut answer at QB.
Creating a spark isn’t the only reason to play Carter late in blowout losses, however. CU coaches have repeatedly said there is no substitute for the value gained from game reps, and they’ve done a nice working some freshmen into the mix this season at other positions, including receiver and defensive back.
Carter is one Lewis injury away from being the guy at QB for the Buffs, so it’s borderline irresponsible for CU’s coaching staff to throw away two great opportunities to expedite Carter’s progress and give him some experience for when they need him.
Or maybe it’s just what Dorrell knows in how to develop a young QB. Dorrell may have given some insight to his QB philosophy after the loss to USC.
After saying he’s trying to get Lewis through this experience, he added, “You can ask the highest level of football right now. All those starting rookie quarterbacks (in the NFL), they’ve got I think a 1-14 record between six of them right? They’re all going through this and part of it is there’s no shortcut for it.”
For years, many NFL teams have taken the approach of throwing their high-priced rookie QBs to the wolves and letting them figure it out while playing through the growing pains. This year, Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson (New York Jets) and Mac Jones (New England Patriots) are among the rookies taking their lumps but playing every snap.
Although he’s a college coach now, the 57-year-old Dorrell spent 11 of 12 seasons from 2008-2019 in the NFL, so it would make sense for Dorrell to take an NFL-type approach with Lewis.
The difference, of course, is that in the NFL, teams have made a significant multi-million dollar investment in that rookie quarterback and must find out quickly what type of return they’ll get on the investment. In college, the investment is in the head coach, and it’s up to the coach to do what’s best for the program.
Lewis may or may not be long-term answer at QB for the Buffs. He’s got a lot of talent but proving to have a long way to go. According to some BuffZone sources, Lewis might have been the backup this year had sophomore JT Shrout, a transfer from Tennessee, not suffered a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 14.
With Shrout down, there was no question that Lewis was not only the best option going into the season but one of few options. Carter is the only other healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster.
Now, however, the Buffs are on a four-game losing streak and have the lowest-scoring offense in the country, possibly forcing Dorrell into considering other options.
“We’re gonna move forward and keep progressing that position,” he said when asked if CU has missed opportunities to develop Carter the last two weeks. “Drew is doing some good things and we have to at this point really look at this week, giving even reps with both of those guys and getting a chance to assess what they’re both doing in terms of how they’re operating.
“If Drew has a great week and we feels like he’s ready for an opportunity to play, which is definitely where he’s trending to, that’s something we need to discuss next week. But we are at that point that we probably should, if that (lopsided score) scenario happens again, give someone else a chance to come in and make some plays and see if that gives us some life offensively.”
Dorrell made similar comments after the Minnesota game and Carter hasn’t played since, so we’ll see how the Buffs approach the QB situation when Arizona comes to Boulder on Oct. 16.
HANGING ON: Buffs keeping heads up
Despite the struggles of the past four weeks, especially the last three, several players have maintained that the Buffs aren’t deflated.
“I think the morale is still pretty high,” receiver Dimitri Stanley said. “We kind of know what we’ve got in the locker room, and we have a whole bunch of talent on this team. It’s kind of just breaking the film down and seeing what we’re doing wrong in order to fix it for next week. So going into this bye week, we have a lot to focus on and lots of work on to get ready to play Arizona.”
Scoring a couple of touchdowns after falling into a 20-0 hole against USC suggests CU isn’t giving up, and outside linebacker Guy Thomas said that fight is still there.
“The guys, we love each other, so I don’t see any of us like giving up on each other,” Thomas said. “I feel like going into next week if there are guys who are not a part of the program that don’t want to be here, then they’ll leave, but the guys that want to be here will come back Monday getting ready to go to work.”
Tight end Brady Russell said that even when the Buffs fell behind by multiple scores there didn’t seem to be a lack of belief on the sidelines.
“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that want to fight and they want to be great,” he said. “It’s just mistakes here and there that are holding us back. I don’t think there’s any sort of once we get down we think we’re losing.”
Safety Isaiah Lewis said he expected the Buffs to rally during the bye.
“We’re shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “We’re a very tight team. It’s just putting the full picture together is what we need to get to.”
BEST OF THE BUFFS
Here’s my take on the best of the Buffs against USC:
RB Jarek Broussard: Had a solid day running the ball, with 68 yards on 16 carries, including a 19-yard run.
DL Mustafa Johnson: Had just one tackle, but had a solid debut, helping out particularly with the run defense.
LB Nate Landman: It wasn’t his best game of the year, but he was still very good, recording nine tackles.
WR Chase Penry: Played just eight snaps, but made the most of them, including a 7-yard touchdown reception – the first of his career.
S Mark Perry: Finished with a career-high nine tackles and also recovered a USC fumble.
WR Brenden Rice: Despite not getting the ball much, he’s done a good job as a blocker. He also had a 17-yard reception, getting half of that on his own after the catch.
RG Casey Roddick: It’s been a rough road for the line, but Roddick had a solid performance up front.
TE Brady Russell: He had a great day as a receiver, with three catches for 87 yards, including a 65-yard catch. He was also good as a blocker.
OLB Guy Thomas: Continues to play very well and finished this game with three tackles, one tackle for loss and a forced fumble.
P Josh Watts: Another great game for Watts, who averaged 49.6 yards and had four punts over 50 yards.
OLB Carson Wells: Maybe his best game of the year so far, with three tackles and two tackles for loss, as well as a QB hurry.
NOTES AND STATS
- This certainly isn’t the only time that a CU coach has leaned almost exclusively on the starting quarterback – although in recent years, the Buffs at least had veteran quarterbacks as starters. CU hasn’t had more than one player start at quarterback in a season since 2016. Since the start of the 2019 season, the backup quarterbacks have thrown a total of only 19 passes. From 2017-19, Steven Montez started all 36 games for the Buffs, while his backups (Sam Noyer, Tyler Lytle, Blake Stenstrom and Casey Marksberry) threw a total of 53 passes in those three years. Last year, Noyer was the starter during the five-game regular season with Lytle throwing just seven passes.
- Tight end Brady Russell leads the Buffs in catches (nine) and receiving yards (124). With seven games to play a lot could change, but Russell being on top is unique at CU. The last time a tight end led CU in catches or yards was in 2006 when Riar Geer led both categories. He had 24 catches for 261 yards that season.
- CU has lost by 30, 22 and 23 points the last three games. It’s the first time the Buffs have had three consecutive 20-point losses since Weeks 7-9 of the 2013 season. The last time with more than three in a row was 2012 when the Buffs suffered three seven consecutive blowouts.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Head coach Karl Dorrell on game pressure contributing to Brendon Lewis’ delays in throwing passes at times: “It’s probably a little bit of the pressure of the game, I would say, because in practice I thought he cut it loose (last) week. He was so much better. For some young players, the game’s a different element right? It’s a different stage than in practice and we’ve got to try to continue to build that growth about, ‘Treat the game like practice; just like what you’ve done on the practice field.’ He’s still a little gun shy. He’s definitely that but we feel he’s gonna break through this at some point and we’ve got to bring Drew along too. We’ve got to bring both those guys along. They’re both freshmen anyway and we just have to keep progressing through the year.”
Tight end Brady Russell on seeing growth in the passing game against USC: “Yeah there’s a lot of growth. I mean both the first play of the game and then the real long one, both of those I was the check down. I was the last person for (Lewis) to look at, so he’s progressing through and he’s finding people and he’s keeping his eyes downfield when he’s moving around in the pocket. That was a big plus to see from him and I think he played really well when he had time.”
Safety Mark Perry on having a bye this week: “We’ve got to fix a lot of the little things. Just communication, being able to do your job, being consistent. At the same time we’ve got to focus on freshening up our bodies because I think this week ‘rest’ will be big for us, and just fixing a lot of little details that we wouldn’t be able to do during the regular game week through the game plan and focusing on someone (else). I think this will be beneficial for us.”
The Buffs are on a bye, of course, so the next game will be Oct. 16 at Folsom Field against Arizona. With no game this week, there will be no Rewind next week.