BOULDER, CO - October 15, 2021: University of Colorado, Boulder's head coach, Karl Dorrell, before the Arizona NCAA football game on October 16, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER, CO – October 15, 2021: University of Colorado, Boulder’s head coach, Karl Dorrell, before the Arizona NCAA football game on October 16, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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To go or not to go. That is a question that often faces football coaches in the middle of games when critical situations arise.

Fans, of course, often want the offense to go for a first down and keep pushing toward the end zone. For Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell, however, the choice is different in each situation.

“It’s just the feel,” he said. “It’s weekly, how I feel in the course of a game; how the week went in preparation; how we’re coming off the football; how we’re protecting; how we’re doing some positive things from that standpoint.”

During Saturday’s 34-0 win against Arizona, there were two key fourth-down decisions on the 1-yard line that proved to be important for the Buffs. One was a decision by Dorrell, while the other was from his counterpart, Arizona’s Jedd Fisch.

Dorrell heard the boos from the Folsom Field crowd when he sent the field goal unit out in the first quarter. It was fourth-and-goal from the Arizona 1-yard line and the fans wanted the Buffs to get that yard and six points. Dorrell, however, sent Cole Becker to the field to put three points on the board.

“I know there were people that weren’t happy with me taking the field goal on the first fourth down when we’re down there inside the tight red zone,” Dorrell said Monday as the Buffs (2-4, 1-2 Pac-12) prepare to face California (1-5, 0-3) on Saturday.

For Dorrell, that choice was fairly simple. The Buffs’ offense has struggled all season and needed points on the board. The benefit of getting three points — and the Buffs’ first lead of any kind in four games — outweighed the negative of potentially coming up empty.

“To me, it was not worth the risk of not getting any points after having your first drive of the game and you go down the field and you’re in scoring position,” Dorrell said. “We felt that was a positive step for our offense to get some points out of that first drive and then to build off that as they continue to get going.”

Dorrell later noted, with a smile, “It worked out OK.”

Although it took a while to get some points on the board offensively, the Buffs never did trail after that first drive and wound up with its most productive day on offense since the season opener.

The decision to go for a first down is never an easy one, though. Later in the first quarter, the Buffs had fourth-and-1 at the Arizona 30. Dorrell elected to go for it, running back Alex Fontenot was stopped and the Buffs turned the ball over on downs.

“I don’t have a magic formula as to why and when I do that,” he said. “But, I do want to be more aggressive and that’s usually my nature.”

On the flip side, Fisch was aggressive late in the first half and it backfired on the Wildcats. With CU leading 6-0, Arizona marched down the field and faced first-and-goal at the CU 1-yard line.

Quarterback Gunner Cruz was stuffed as he tried to lunge for the end zone on first down. Then, running back Jalen John was tackled for no gain on back-to-back runs. Instead of choosing to pull within 6-3 by kicking a field goal on fourth down, Fisch went for the touchdown and a possible halftime lead, but Cruz’s pass fell incomplete.

CU took possession with 2:41 to play in the half and ran out the clock, preserving a 6-0 lead into halftime.

“That was huge,” Dorrell said of CU’s goal-line stand. “I’m gonna tell you that, to me, in my opinion, was the breaking point of the game.

“You’re still deep in your territory. You’re really not in a two-minute mode because the field wasn’t in your advantage at that time. But to be able to finish the half with them not getting any points and we’re in possession of the football and plus we get it at the start of the third, that’s exactly what I wanted.”

Getting the ball back with 2:41 left is plenty of time to score for a lot of offenses, but Dorrell took into consideration the struggles of his own offense. He knew that wasn’t the time to put the ball in the air and take shots downfield. In a way, the “conservative” approach — five consecutive Alex Fontenot runs — was an aggressive approach to prevent another possession for Arizona.

“Those are scenarios that, believe me, I’ve been through a lot and understanding that possession of the ball is just as important, even though you don’t get any points,” Dorrell said. “But having possession of the ball, that takes it away from the opponent to score points; that’s a win. That’s a win.”

Ultimately, those were two decisions that worked out for the Buffs. Both gave them confidence and momentum, which they carried through to get their first win in over a month.