Brady Russell will do his best to keep the Colorado Buffaloes engaged during the final two weeks of the season.
The junior tight end is one of the top players on the team and maybe the most positive person on the roster. He’s the football team’s Evan Battey – although with a quirkier personality than the Buffs’ basketball star.
Russell is the type who, when injured last season, wore shorts and short sleeves on a snowy day against Utah – while dancing on the sidelines. He did a fist bump with Benny Beaver, the Oregon State mascot, before warm-ups on Nov. 6. When the team enters the stadium at Folsom, Russell will sometimes sprint all the way to the far end zone and finish with a slide.
Russell is a good dude and win or lose, has remained upbeat through a difficult season.
“One thing I pride myself on is having a neutral mindset,” he said following the Buffs’ 44-20 loss at UCLA on Saturday. “I don’t care if we’re winning, if we’re losing, I think I’ve been a steady guy the entire year. I think staying the same as I have been, and harping on guys the same and pushing them the same way that I have been, is really important to keep us going in the right direction because when we have the highest of highs, I don’t want to be acting differently than when we’re all the way down here because it shouldn’t affect the way you’re acting. You need to come to work the same way every day.”
In this edition of the Rewind, we look at CU’s efforts to stay positive during the final two games after being eliminated from bowl eligibility. Also in this edition …
- MLC’s support system
- No D in the 2-minute D
- Buffs of the Week
- Notes and quotes
LEADING OFF: Keep fighting
CU doesn’t have a great history of winning in recent years, as we all know. But although they’ve played in just three bowls since 2005, they haven’t often played meaningless games in recent years.
In fact, when the Buffs (3-7, 2-5 Pac-12) host Washington (4-6, 3-4) on Saturday at Folsom Field, it will be the first time in six years they will play a game with no hope of the postseason.
OK, yes, I realize that’s a small consolation, but it’s interesting to note that since the start of 2016, CU is one of only five Pac-12 teams that has yet (until Saturday) to play in a game when there was no hope of a postseason. The others: Arizona State, Southern California, Utah and Washington.
CU’s last such game was the finale in 2015, when Cade Apsay was the starting quarterback and running back Phillip Lindsay was a sophomore who had yet to become a Buffs legend. CU finished 4-9 that season but wasn’t eliminated from bowl contention until a Week 12 loss at Washington State (they could have won the last two and been bowl eligible at 6-7).
Since then, the Buffs have been to two bowls (2016 and 2020) sandwiched around three consecutive 5-7 seasons in which they had postseason hopes all the way to the end.
That means that nobody on the current CU roster has ever played a game without at least some hope of a bowl bid – until now. How will they handle it? That will be interesting to see on Saturday against the Huskies. With more than 100 players on a roster, there are sure to be some that will check out, but a lot that will be motivated to play well.
Russell is one of those who said he’ll be motivated – and as a leader, he can bring others along.
“We’ve got some seasons to ruin still if we want to,” Russell said.
Washington’s season is already in shambles, to the point that the Huskies fired head coach Jimmy Lake on Sunday. But, that group still has a chance to reach bowl eligibility and that will serve as motivation for them. Washington had a 10-year run of bowl appearances come to an end last year, but only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a good bet that many of the Huskies will fight to keep their bowl hopes alive.
In the finale, the Buffs will face Utah, which could have a lot on the line. The Utes could wrap up the Pac-12 South division this week (with a win vs. No. 3 Oregon and an Arizona State loss at Oregon State). But, if the Utes lose to the Ducks and ASU wins, Utah will be fighting for a division title next week and CU could play spoiler that day.
For Russell – and surely many of his teammates – there’s something bigger at stake.
“Pride also,” he said. “That’s big, going out with some dignity. I know we don’t want to go out like we did (against UCLA) for the rest of the season. That’s embarrassing.”
RAISED RIGHT: Montana’s support
Walking out of the Champions Center on Monday, I ran into receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig, who was sitting on a cart, with a boot on his right leg. The freshman was obviously bummed, as an injury he sustained against UCLA will keep him out of the last two games. He was injured while blocking downfield and Russell tossed the defender he was blocking to the ground and inadvertently into Lemonious-Craig. (CU doesn’t give specifics on injuries, but Lemonious-Craig should be healthy in plenty of time for offseason workouts).
There’s no doubt he’ll keep a positive attitude through it all. He’s already made an impression as one of the top young leaders on the team. Some of that is likely from his upbringing.
I had a chance to talk with Lemonious-Craig leading up to the UCLA game and we talked about the game in Pasadena being an opportunity to go home and see his family for a bit.
“It’ll be a pleasure to go home and get the opportunity to play in front of my family and friends,” he said while adding that it would be mostly a “business trip” for CU. “I’ll see my family at the game and stuff. It is cool to get the opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, so I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be a good experience.”
Lemonious-Craig, 19, was born in Inglewood, Calif., and raised by his mother, Daisy Lemonious and grandmother, Brenda Lemonious. He also has an older sister, so he was surrounded by women as a youth.
“I was kind of raised more so as the protector of the house,” he said. “Just them being able to see me grow up and help raise me, get me to the point where I’m at in my life, in terms of football, it’ll be good for them to come out and watch me play.”
Lemonious-Craig has been described as a “comfort piece” for the quarterbacks by head coach Karl Dorrell. That played out this season, with seven of Lemonious-Craig’s 10 catches going for either touchdowns or first downs. On third downs, he caught three passes for 33 yards and all three resulted in a first down or touchdown.
Being a comfort piece extends off the field, too, because of Lemonious-Craig’s upbringing.
“Honestly, it kind of made me more of a protector,” he said of being raised by his mom and grandmother. “So that’s probably really what drove me and how I’m protective in terms of my personality. That’s really kind of what saved me to do that.”
While the trip home didn’t end the way Lemonious-Craig wanted, he is one of the young players on the CU roster with a bright future and there’s no doubt he’ll return from this injury with confidence.
“I know how to prepare and put in the work to be able to go out there and handle business, so my confidence is always there,” he said.
TWO-MINUTE D: Rough stretch
I went through this last week, but it’s worth mentioning again because it was a problem again on Saturday in Pasadena. The Buffs have been remarkably generous in the final minutes of a half in recent games and UCLA was more than happy to join in the fun with a field goal on the last play of the first half. That cut CU’s lead to 20-10 and, in my opinion, changed the momentum for the second half, which the Bruins dominated.
“It probably was a big momentum changer for them,” head coach Karl Dorrell said. “I’m sure that was something that I would build on and talk about in our locker room if we were in that circumstance, so they did a nice job in the second half.”
Unfortunately for the Buffs, it has been the opponent in that circumstance a lot lately. In the last four games, CU has given up five last-play field goals to end a half:
1. Oct. 23 at Cal: After a CU punt, Cal took over at its 17-yard line with 58 seconds to go in the first half. The Bears covered 50 yards in 5 plays, spiked the ball with 2 seconds left and kicked a 51-yard field goal to take a 23-3 lead into halftime.
2. Oct. 30 at Oregon: CU scored a touchdown and the Ducks took over at their 25 with 2:06 to go in the first half. They went 66 yards in14 plays, including a pair of spikes, to set up a 27-yard field goal on the last play, extending the lead to 31-14 at the break.
3. Nov. 6 vs. Oregon State: The Buffs kicked a field goal 39 seconds before halftime to go up 13-7. OSU needed just four plays, including passes of 26 and 19 yards, to get to the CU 26. The Beavers called timeout with 2 seconds to go in the half and kicked a 45-yard field goal to cut the Buffs lead to 13-10 at the break.
4. Nov. 6 vs. Oregon State: Leading 27-24, CU punted with 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter. After a 26-yard punt return, the Beavers had just 5 seconds but connected on a quick 9-yard pass before kicking a 60-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
5. Last Saturday at UCLA: CU kicked a field goal with 57 seconds to play in the first half to go up 20-7. UCLA gained 35 yards on three quick passes, another 17 on a pair of runs and then kicked a 41-yard field goal on the last play of the half.
Combined in those five situations, the Buffs have given up 15 points and 226 yards on 35 plays (a whopping 6.46 yards per play) in only 4 minutes, 40 seconds.
In Week 2, the Buffs gave up a field goal drive to Texas A&M just before the half, as well, with the Aggies covering 57 yards in 1:25 to get a field goal with 25 seconds to play in the second quarter. (A&M, of course, then scored the game-winning touchdown with 2:41 to play in the fourth quarter).
BEST OF THE BUFFS
Here’s my take on the best of the Buffs against UCLA:
WR Daniel Arias: One of the best games of his career, with four catches for 70 yards.
RB Jarek Broussard: Posted his second consecutive 100-yard game, finishing with 108 yards on 16 carries (6.8 per carry).
RB Alex Fontenot: Finished with 52 yards on 11 carries and scored both of the Buffs’ touchdowns.
CB Christian Gonzalez: Solid game overall, with seven tackles and a pass breakup.
LG Kary Kutsch: Continues to play good football in the trenches. He was the Buffs’ highest-rated lineman on Pro Football Focus.
S Mark Perry: He has played well during the second half of the season and in this one he posted six tackles and an interception.
TE Brady Russell: Caught a team-high five passes for 60 yards and did a nice job as a blocker.
OLB Carson Wells: Finished with six tackles and, for the first time in four meetings against Bruins’ QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, got a sack. It was a shared sack with Terrance Lang, but Wells will take it.
NOTES AND STATS
- The last two quarters at UCLA were brutal, of course. The Buffs were outscored 34-0 by the Bruins after halftime and that, naturally, has left a bad taste in the mouths of the team and the fans. It should be noted, however, that the 9 quarters (plus 2 overtime periods) before that were pretty good for the Buffs (at least offensively). Beginning with the 2nd quarter at Oregon on Oct.30, the Buffs outscored the opposition 86-82 during those 9 quarters (and OT). So, if you’re looking for a silver lining going into the last two games, the Buffs offense has been pretty good in nine of the last 11 quarters!
- On the other hand, it’s been a really rough stretch for the defense. The defense shut down Cal during the second half on Oct. 23, holding the Bears to just three points. The three games since have been ugly, as CU has given up 130 points (43.3 per game) and 1,544 yards (514.7 per game).
- CU quarterback Brendon Lewis is among the national leaders in a couple of obscure categories. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis is tied for first nationally with 22 throwaways. That’s good and bad: Good in that he’s throwing the ball away instead of taking a sack or forcing an interception; bad in that it means he’s been under a lot of pressure. Lewis is also tied for fourth in the country with having 11 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. Three of those came last week against UCLA.
- Receiver Brenden Rice and tight end Brady Russell are in a race to lead the team in receptions (and yards) this season. Rice currently leads in both categories, with 21 catches for 299 yards. Russell is second in both, at 20 for 264. At his current pace, Rice would finish with 25 catches for 358.8 yards. Not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Rice (or Russell) are on pace for the lowest numbers by a Buffs’ leading receiver since 2006. That year, tight end Riar Geer led the Buffs with 24 catches for 261 yards. Alvin Barnett was the leading wide receiver in 2006, with 21 catches for 232 yards.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
Head coach Karl Dorrell on what is going on with the defense lately: “Well, part of is some injuries. Some guys are a little bit nicked. We don’t have Nate (Landman) in there; that’s a part of it too. There’s a number of things that we need to continue to work on. We have some young guys playing, new linebackers playing, so we’re playing with a number of guys but that’s not any excuse. We feel that whoever we line up on the field out there, we have confidence that they can make plays, that they can do the things that we put them in position to do. It’s just unfortunate that we haven’t shored those things up lately.”
Cornerback Christian Gonzalez on the secondary playing without Mekhi Blackmon the last two games: “I think (the young players) are ready. They’ve shown they’re ready. They’ve done what they needed to do and it’s been like playing the same. They get thrown out there, they know what to do and there’s no change.”
Tight end Brady Russell on his failed fourth-down run, with CU trailing 30-20 in the fourth quarter, being the most deflating play of the game: “Yeah, it might have been, which definitely sucks. As an older guy, a leader, I should be able to get that done. That’s on me for sure. I don’t know if I want to say momentum change, because they already had some going their way, but I think it could have switched momentum back to us and then I failed to get that done.”
Last one at home. CU hosts Washington on Saturday at Folsom Field.