For at least one day, the good vibes returned to Folsom Field on a sunny afternoon that belied the gray clouds that have marked the bulk of Colorado’s football season.
Whether it was a momentary respite from the misery or, indeed, the start of some sort of turnaround might be answered on Saturday.
After dispatching an Arizona team that showed Buffaloes fans that football woes are all relative, the Buffs have momentum on their side for the first time all season as they get set to visit Cal. The matchup against the Bears offers an interesting midseason measuring stick for a CU program that, at the very least, will look to build momentum over the final half of the 2021 season.
The biggest revelation from the 34-0 drubbing of Arizona last week was the rekindling of hope that Brendon Lewis indeed will work through his growing pains to become an effective Pac-12 starter. Hopefully the CU coaching staff continues to take the restraints off Lewis moving forward.
The final tally against the Wildcats obscured two-plus quarters worth of the same mind-numbing, ineffective offense that has marked the Buffs’ play throughout the season. Outside of a few flashes during CU’s two first half drives that ended in field goals — both of which were aided by Arizona defensive penalties — CU’s offense once again struggled to get going against the worst team in the Pac-12.
With the Buffs clinging to that 6-0 halftime lead, CU opened the second half with a seven-yard run from Jarek Broussard. They went nowhere on second down, had an incomplete pass, and punted. On the following Buffs possession, Broussard gained eight yards on first down. They lost a yard on second down, had an incomplete pass, and punted.
By the time the offense got its hands on the ball again it was a much different game, thanks to huge plays from Trevor Woods, who blocked a punt he returned for a touchdown, and Carson Wells, who returned an interception for a touchdown. All of the sudden, with a 20-point lead providing cushion and perhaps confidence, head coach Karl Dorrell and offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini finally let Lewis loose.
The first play after the newfound scoreboard riches? The first career offensive touch for freshman receiver Chris Carpenter, who took a jet sweep (officially a pass) 19 yards. Lewis then overcame a second-down sack during which two CU receivers ran routes to the same spot to hit Brenden Rice for a beautiful 62-yard touchdown. Two possessions later, Lewis launched an equally impressive throw to find Dmitri Stanley for a score that gave the Buffs nearly as many offensive touchdowns in the second half (two) as they produced in the previous three games (three).
Dorrell has been criticized for keeping Lewis in the huddle late in games already decided under the guise of massaging the young quarterback’s confidence, even as backup Drew Carter stands around in dire need of experience. But the second half against Arizona was the first time the Buffs put Lewis in a position to succeed — and, in turn, build confidence — in those late-game situations. The line protected Lewis so he wasn’t running for his life as soon as he planted his back foot. And the play-calling gave Lewis a rare opportunity to get the ball downfield.
Confidence is a two-way thing. Not only are the Buffs trying to build it within Lewis, but the freshman quarterback also has to gain the trust of the coaching staff that he can deliver regardless of the situation. Although the problems of CU’s offense have been numerous, and certainly there has to be confidence that the O-line can protect adequately before attempting downfield strikes, Lewis hadn’t held up his part of the bargain until that 20-point lead fell into the Buffs’ lap.
But Lewis delivered, even if it was lowly Arizona on the other side of the ball. And it’s past time to see if he can deliver again.
We’ll see if the sudden burst of offensive competency leads to a more diverse attack in Berkeley. Despite a slow start, Cal can play a little defense. In three league games — admittedly not a huge sample size, but one that includes two road games with a near-miss at Oregon — the Bears have held their foes to 367.3 yards per game, which ranks third in Pac-12 games. It will be a Cal team playing at home and desperate for a win.
In terms of stakes, there isn’t a ton riding on a matchup between two teams entrenched at (or near) the bottom of their divisions. But if the Buffs want to move this program forward over the final half of the season, Berkeley would be a great place to start.