Rooney: Despite loss at No. 7 Oregon, maligned CU Buffs O-line shows spark

Early returns impressive on Karl Dorrell’s personnel move

Colorado running back Jarek Broussard runs up field on Saturday, Oct. 30 against Oregon in Eugene, Ore. (Casey Paul/University of Colorado)
Colorado running back Jarek Broussard runs up field on Saturday, Oct. 30 against Oregon in Eugene, Ore. (Casey Paul/University of Colorado)

After a surprising run to the Alamo Bowl only to get hammered by Texas, Colorado football coach Karl Dorrell didn’t want to discuss the moral victories of putting together a rare winning season in Boulder.

Dorrell repeated that message earlier this season after the Buffaloes’ near-miss against nationally-ranked Texas A&M. And once again on Saturday evening, as Dorrell met the media following CU’s 52-29 defeat at No. 7 Oregon, the phrase “moral victory” certainly wasn’t uttered.

Dorrell has made it clear he doesn’t want to hear about moral victories, which is a fair and even admirable stance. But hey, what a moral victory it was for the Buffs in Eugene.

The story of the game wasn’t that the Buffs lost. On the road against the nation’s No. 7-ranked team, and playing without their best defender, the result was expected. What wasn’t expected was four touchdowns and 29 points from an offense that hadn’t produced more than two touchdowns against any FBS-level foe this season, and was coming off a three-point dud at Cal that prompted the firing of now-former offensive line coach Mitch Rodrigue.

Watching the much-maligned offensive line open holes in the ground game (despite trailing the entire game, the Buffs gained 117 rushing yards after managing just 35 against Cal) and actually protect Brendon Lewis so the freshman quarterback wasn’t constantly running for his life was almost shocking to witness. Seeing the Buffs move the ball like a legitimate Pac-12 Conference-level offense made it easy to wonder anew what might have happened if Rodrigue had been let go at the outset of CU’s bye week nearly four weeks ago.

The Buffs certainly still would’ve handled Arizona similarly, but maybe that exercise in futility at Cal might have played out differently if the offensive line had regained its spark earlier.

There’s nothing that can be done about that historical fiction, though, and the challenge now will be to see if the Buffs can parlay this slight modicum of momentum through the final four games of the season. Game balls should be awarded to quality control coach William Vlachos and graduate assistant Donovan Williams, now the caretakers of the Buffs’ offensive line. Maybe Rodrigue’s dismissal proved to be a classic addition by subtraction. But turning what looked like the worst offensive line in the nation into a unit that seemed to know what it was doing over the course of a scant few days was a Herculean achievement.

As joyous as it was to watch their team actually move the ball down the field competently, Buffs fans would be wise to tap the breaks. One game doesn’t necessarily signify a turnaround. Although the offensive line clearly played much better, it’s also worth noting the Buffs didn’t really get moving until they trailed 21-0. And each of CU’s first two possessions were derailed by penalties along the line.

With Oregon State coming to town, keep in mind one of the few things the Buffs have been consistent about in recent seasons is their ability to be remarkably inconsistent from week to week. As encouragingly as the offense played, it was another matter on the other side of the ball. Playing without star linebacker Nate Landman, Oregon hit the CU defense for points on its first seven possessions and met little resistance from a unit that suffered a step backward.

Landman’s absence might explain the 34-yard touchdown run by Oregon’s Byron Cardwell right up the middle that still would have been a score in touch football. But no Landman doesn’t explain the four defensive penalties, including three offside calls, on Oregon’s first four possessions. And while the 11 penalties for 75 yards wasn’t all on the defense, you won’t win many road games, let alone at the seventh-ranked team in the nation, with those numbers.

Moral victories aside, if the Buffs play like that down the stretch they might pick up an actual win or two in November. Dorrell wanted a spark with his personnel move this past week. He got it. Now there is a chance to turn that spark into some semblance of a hot streak that might lay a better foundation for 2022.