Midway through the third quarter on Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., the Colorado Buffaloes faced a third-and-11 situation at their own 46-yard line.
Oregon led by 24 and we know the Ducks wound up winning 52-29. Yes, it was another humbling defeat for the Buffaloes, whose season is all but over, in terms of any hopes for playing in the postseason. (At 2-6, the Buffs would need to win the last four to reach bowl eligibility).
This was an important game for quarterback Brendon Lewis, though, because the freshman grew up a bit.
That third down play likely isn’t one that fans will remember, because it didn’t result in much and it didn’t lead to points, but I thought it epitomized the growth we saw in Lewis.
Lewis took the shotgun snap and when his first read wasn’t there, the pocket collapsed behind him and he ran forward, to the right of the right hash marks, keeping his eyes downfield. He still didn’t see anything he liked, so he cut left. That move bought him some time and Lewis kept looking downfield as he shuffled left, about five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Now a couple of yards to the left of the left hash marks, Lewis had an Oregon defender zeroing in and he cocked his arm to throw – but instead, he faked the throw as the defender flew by. Lewis tucked the ball and ran forward for a 6-yard gain.
That left CU with a fourth-and-5 and the Buffs punted, so the play didn’t have a remarkable finish or help the Buffs score any points, but it was still a nice play. That was the type of play that for much of this season would have resulted in a sack or a quick throwaway from Lewis, followed by a punt on fourth-and-long.
What Lewis did on that play, and on several others on Saturday, was scramble while keeping his eyes downfield and waiting for receivers to get open before delivering a pass or giving up on the play.
“How about that?” head coach Karl Dorrell said when asked about that aspect of Lewis’ game. “Those are the steps of progress that you’re starting to see. He’s making really good progress. He’s getting better.”
In this edition of the Rewind, we look at Lewis’ performance in the loss to Oregon, as well as …
- Rice’s touchdown
- The D without Landman
- Buffs of the Week
- Notes and quotes
LEADING OFF: Lewis’ growth
Brendon Lewis is still far from being a polished quarterback, and the freshman was just one week removed from the Buffs’ dreadful offensive performance at Cal. But, he deserves credit for displaying some attributes of a player who is developing his game during a difficult season.
“He came out just ready to go,” receiver Brenden Rice said. “He was calm. He was composed. He was fluid in the pocket. That’s also a big shout-out to our O-line because they did their thing, so B-Lew was able to do those things. He made plays, and I’m super proud of him. I don’t think B-Lew had a pressure in the first half, so that’s a big step. I’m proud of everybody on the offense.”
There’s no question that a better performance from the offensive line played a role in Lewis’ improved play, but even when he was flushed from the pocket, he made more plays than usual. And, he was sacked just one time.
A few times he scrambled and found tight end Brady Russell for a completion. In the fourth quarter, he was chased from the pocket and found Deion Smith for a short pass that Smith turned into a 10-yard gain – a play that helped set up the Buffs’ final touchdown.
Throughout the game, Lewis hit running backs on screens, he hit tight ends for passes and he connected with multiple receivers. He often delivered the ball on time and wound up with a really nice statistical line: 25-of-33 for 224 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
“I think he’s always had the confidence,” running back Alex Fontenot said. “He just hadn’t put it together fully. This game definitely proved what he can do in the passing game.”
Credit goes to offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini and the coaching staff, too, who put together a different type of game plan for Lewis, giving him opportunities to succeed. They drew up a plan that allowed Lewis to get rid of the ball quicker and two numbers from Pro Football Focus show CU’s emphasis on those short, quick passes:
- On average, Lewis’ receiving targets were 4.2 yards downfield – the lowest number of the season. The previous low was 5.8, and his average is 6.9.
- Also, Lewis’ average time to throw was 2.91 seconds. The only other time this season he was under 3 seconds was against Texas A&M (2.65).
The Buffs threw some new wrinkles into the plan, including some creative ways to open space for receivers. A couple of times, Lewis connected with Rice on slip screens that turned into big gains. There was also more utilization of backs and tight ends. Through the first seven games, CU’s running backs caught a total of 14 passes. On Saturday, they caught eight – the most in a game for CU backs since Oct. 5, 2019, against Arizona. More than half of Lewis’ completions (13 of 25) went to running backs or tight ends.
“It’s never a bad thing,” Fontenot said of the backs catching passes. “We do it all, so yeah. We just had a bunch of new plays installed just to get the ball the right people in space and just work off of that.”
Fontenot had a big day and so did Rice. Russell played well and the offensive line had perhaps its best collective performance of the season. A big difference on Saturday, however, was the moxie displayed by Lewis, who looked much more comfortable in his role than he has most of the season and kept his composure.
“That was the Brendon Lewis I have expected to see the last three weeks,” Dorrell said. “He’s had really good weeks of practice. I’ve told you guys time before that we’ve had really good weeks, and all of a sudden that didn’t show up on Saturday.
“When you have a young quarterback, it’s still a confidence-building kind of progression that he needs to continue to make. And he made a big step today in a tough environment with a really good team. I felt he made some really good decisions with the football, I think he protected the ball. And, I think the players are really gravitating to him, too, with how well he’s playing.”
The next step for Lewis, of course, is to do it two weeks in a row.
BIG-TIME: Rice’s touchdown
One of Lewis’ best throws of the game Saturday came on his 16-yard touchdown pass to Rice in the fourth quarter. It was a bit of a risky throw, but Lewis took a chance and gave his best receiver a shot to make a play – and it worked.
Rice leaped and caught the wobbling pass as Oregon’s Bryan Addison reached for the ball from one side and Jamal Hill reached from the other. Both defenders flew right by Rice, who came down with the pass and basically walked the final two yards into the end zone.
“I was trying to slip, I believe it was a nickel (Hill) and I’m just trying to sit down and find a hole on that,” Rice said. “It’d be like a curl route and out of nowhere B-Lew just looks at me. I’m like right in the middle of a hole and he killed it in there, a bullet ball. And that’s the thing we need from a quarterback. I’m happy to even see him do that. That was a confidence builder right there for me and him. That’s a chemistry builder because that was in between two guys and both guys missed and that was great.”
Rice actually seemed surprised he was alone and untouched when he came down with the ball.
“I was very surprised actually,” he said. “I was anticipating the hit.”
CONCERNS ON D: Struggling without Landman
For four years, Nate Landman’s tackle numbers have been off the charts. The Buffs’ inside linebacker has been a tackle machine and he ranks fifth in CU history in that category (409).
Landman is aiming to become the first player in CU history to lead the team in tackles four years in a row, although that streak is in jeopardy with him currently out with an injury. He’s got a 71-54 lead on safety Isaiah Lewis (with Mark Perry at 52), but it’s unclear if Landman will return this season. He likely won’t play this week against Oregon State.
It’s not just the tackles that CU misses, however. It’s the impact plays, the instincts, the communication and the leadership. Landman is just one player, but his absence leaves a massive hole.
Landman missed the last six quarters of the 2020 season with a torn Achilles’ and he missed last Saturday’s Oregon game. In those 10 quarters, here’s what the defense has given up: 135 points and 1,467 yards. That averages out to 54 points and 587 yards per game.
CU’s opponents in those games (Utah, Texas and Oregon) have been especially dominant with the run game, racking up 704 yards while averaging 7.2 yards per carry with Landman out.
Defensive coordinator Chris Wilson and the players will say it’s not all on one player, and they’re right to an extent. But there’s no denying that the Buffs are a different defense without Landman.
“Nate’s a natural leader,” Dorrell said. “He talks on every play, on every adjustment, even hints to, ‘Oh they’re running the ball here.’ He does a lot of stuff just instinctively.”
Those are qualities that come from experience, but they don’t come to every player. Those are special qualities and CU doesn’t have anyone at that level right now.
“We just need more communication,” Dorrell said. “That doesn’t need to be like what Nate communicates but just making sure they’re seeing the adjustments. They’re getting clues from the offense about, ‘Hey, watch this or watch that.’”
Getting the clues and recognizing them is different and for the Buffs to play better defense without Landman, they need someone (or multiple people) to do that.
“That’s a natural thing that Nate does,” Dorrell said. “It’s probably not as natural for everyone else.”
Isaiah Lewis said it helped the Buffs to have Landman on the sidelines against Oregon, adding, “He’s keeping guys heads up. He’s making sure guys are doing their assignments.”
There’s only so much Landman can do from the sidelines, however, as Saturday’s results showed. Oregon had 52 points, 568 yards and 256 rushing yards.
Several different linebackers played for the Buffs on Saturday, including Robert Barnes (46 snaps), Quinn Perry (42), Marvin Ham (30) and Jack Lamb (26). For all but Perry, it was a season-high for snaps and the group combined for 21 tackles – but just one tackle for loss. Oregon had seven runs of 10 yards or more.
This week, the Buffs face the Pac-12’s top rushing team, Oregon State (231.0 yards per game), and they hope for a quick turnaround. At inside linebacker, the Buffs need Perry and others to learn from Landman.
“Quinn Perry, who has played more extensively this year, is starting to grow into doing some of that role too, in terms of leadership and having that communication,” Dorrell said while naming others around the defense who need to step up as well.
BEST OF THE BUFFS
Here’s my take on the best of the Buffs against Oregon:
Offensive line: The whole group deserves some credit after rebounding from the Cal game with a good performance. Jake Wiley, Kary Kutsch, Colby Pursell, Casey Roddick and Frank Fillip played well as a unit.
RB Alex Fontenot: Ran for 42 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for seven yards and another touchdown. It’s the first two-TD game for a Buff this season.
DL Mustafa Johnson: Has given the Buff a nice lift since his return. Against the Ducks, he had two tackles and a QB hurry.
QB Brendon Lewis: Completed 25-of-33 passes for 224 yards and a career-high three TD passes. His QB rating of 162.8 was his second-best of the season.
S Isaiah Lewis: Finished with seven tackles, his first career interception and a pair of third-down stops.
LB Quinn Perry: Filling the lead role at inside linebacker for the first time, Perry had a team-high nine tackles.
WR Brenden Rice: Maybe the best all-around game he’s played as a Buff, racking up 281 all-purpose yards. He caught five passes for 102 yards and a touchdown, had 162 yards in kickoff returns and had a 17-yard run.
WR Ty Robinson: Caught two passes for 21 yards, including his first career touchdown.
TE Brady Russell: He caught three passes for 42 yards, including a 28-yarder. He also had a nice game as a blocker.
S Trevor Woods: The freshman is starting to make some plays for the Buffs and becoming a bigger part of the defense lately. He finished with seven tackles.
NOTES AND STATS
- Going into the Oregon game, CU was last in the country in fourth-down conversion rate, at 12.5 percent (1-for-8). Against the Ducks, they went 4-for-4.
- Brenden Rice had a huge game against Oregon, but the Buffs have a somewhat surprising leader in receptions over the past two games: Jarek Broussard. The Buffs’ running back has seven catches for 48 yards in the last two games. During that time, Rice has six catches and Brady Russell five.
- CU’s offense has had its share of struggles this season, but give the Buffs credit for this: When they get in the red zone, they usually score. The Buffs rank second in the Pac-12 and sixth nationally with a success rate of 94.74 percent in the red zone. The Buffs are 18-for-19 in those situations, with 14 touchdowns. They were 4-for-4 with four touchdowns against Oregon. The bad part of this stat? CU is one of only three teams in the country that have made fewer than 20 trips to the red zone, along with Louisiana-Monroe (19) and Southern Mississippi (14).
- Punter Josh Watts is having an exceptional season for the Buffs and currently ranks sixth in the country in average yards per punt, at 48.26.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Head coach Karl Dorrell on feeling better (albeit not great) about the Buffs after the Oregon loss than after a 26-3 loss to Cal a week earlier: “I do feel better. The things that we did over the course of the week, we actually did a great deal of execution on those things and it worked for us. … That’s what they’re buying into right now is that they know that when we put together a good week of practice this is what we can be when we do those things. I think they’re starting to understand that process too.”
Receiver Brenden Rice on what was different about the offense last week: “A lot of accountability because everybody’s tired of losing. I mean, we want to change the narrative, honestly. You saw when passes were dropped (in practice), you wouldn’t even have to tell the guy to do his push-ups. He would just get down and drop down. If there was a missed block, you wouldn’t have to tell him. The guy’s gonna go do it himself. All these things, it was more accountability at practice.”
Safety Isaiah Lewis on his first career interception, which helped set up a touchdown that pulled CU within 45-29 in the fourth: “We were like, man, before we hit this field, if we get this ball back we can make this a game. So that was a mindset from that point on. And that’s the mindset every down but we knew if we got the ball back, we could make a difference in the game. We definitely were able to execute that plan.”
Running back Alex Fontenot and getting some much-needed production on offense: “It’s definitely good, just sticking to our rules and keeping our head down and just keep grinding no matter what. We know we’re gonna bust something like that any time, so we just got to keep on the right track.”
Center Colby Pursell on the offensive line coming together as a group last week: “You have to come together, no matter what is the struggle. Come together is kind of like a weird term to use with O-line because you’re always together. All five of you guys that play have to be on the same page, and the other 10 that we travel have to be on the same page. We have to be together all the time. We have to be a unit at all times, not individuals.”
Pursell on William Vlachos, who took over as lead line coach last week: “We’re always gonna listen to our coach’s voice. It’s something we’ve got to respond to at all times because coaches coach, players play. We’ve got to be able to take the coaching and move forward. But his personality, his loud personality, gets guys’ attention, certainly.”
Welcome back, Sam. The Buffs will host Oregon State – and former CU quarterback Sam Noyer – on Saturday at Folsom Field. Kickoff is slated for 5 p.m.