Rooney: Downtrodden finish a fitting end to CU Buffs’ 2021 football season

Karl Dorrell with plenty of work ahead to rewrite future headlines

Head coach Karl Dorrell of the ...
Head coach Karl Dorrell of the Colorado Buffaloes walks off the field after the UCLA Bruins defeated the Colorado Buffaloes 44-20 during a NCAA Football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.

Brendon Lewis’ ragged physical state as he staggered off the turf at Rice-Eccles Stadium pretty much summed up things for Colorado’s 2021 football season.

For 60 minutes on Friday — or, rather, during the pedestrian 25 minutes, 53 seconds the Buffaloes held possession of the football — Lewis was harassed, beaten, and rendered ineffectual by the combination of a hungry defense and an overmatched offensive line helpless to slow it.

Sure, there were electric moments that stirred hope in Buffs fans. On Friday it was Mark Perry’s early interception, and Nikko Reed’s 100-yard touchdown on a kickoff return, that kept things close and gave Buffs fans just enough of an excuse to daydream. Alas, winning football remains just that in Boulder — an elusive daydream turning into a once-in-a-generation phenomenon.

The second season of the Karl Dorrell era limped to a close Friday in Salt Lake City, with the Buffs falling 28-13 at No. 16 Utah. The season ended much the way it began, with a struggling offense unable to protect Lewis or generate any sort of consistent threat. For a 4-8 season, CU still provided plenty of headlines, from tracking Lewis’ progression to the scrutiny of Dorrell’s working relationship with offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini to the midseason firing of former offensive line coach Mitch Rodrigue. There was no shortage of off-field news for a team that didn’t provide many headlines on it.

If Dorrell wants to change the narrative on those stories in his third season in 2021, that work begins now.

To his credit, Dorrell indicated as much after Friday’s defeat, telling reporters afterward he will be “starting that process quickly” in terms of evaluating his staff and getting the ball rolling on any changes. First and foremost on that list will be to address his relationship with Chiaverini.

Whether Dorrell has been too rigid in his play-calling expectations from Chiaverini, or whether the latter was too resistant to making adjustments, is a moot point now. The Buffs went through an entire season with a dysfunctional working relationship between two of the program’s leading figures. That’s how you produce a unit that failed to gain even 200 yards in four different games.

Buffs fans better hope Dorrell has better at-bats in his upcoming personnel maneuvers than he has displayed so far. The Rodrigue firing should have occurred two weeks earlier, during CU’s bye, instead of during the aftermath of an Oct. 23 loss at Cal. Dorrell explained at the time that certain standards were issued during that bye and, later, when the Buffs fell short at Cal, he made the move when those standards weren’t met. But the idea a few more practices might change the course of an offensive line erosion that hastened even after a full spring and preseason practice schedule doesn’t add up. Given how the Buffs briefly responded to the Rodrigue firing, it’s not merely speculation to wonder if that result at Cal might have been different had the move been made earlier.

One of the few bright spots to the season was the progression of Lewis who, after a slow start, showed he can produce at this level when he’s not running for his life. How the quarterback spot has been managed otherwise since Dorrell arrived is another story.

A preseason injury to a transfer that hadn’t yet played a down at his new school (JT Shrout) shouldn’t be that crippling to a team’s depth at the game’s most important position for any power conference school. Sam Noyer’s willingness to take an uncertain role with a league rival instead of competing for the starting job at CU is another comment on the state of CU’s offensive leadership. And the fact that backup Drew Carter didn’t get any meaningful experience, yet still burned a season of eligibility, was a colossal mismanagement of an asset. And a tremendous personal disservice to Carter.

Last week, during his postgame address to his team following a victory against Washington on senior day, Dorrell told his Buffs it was “a defining win.” If this was just Dorrell attempting to stir passion in those players soon to embark on a critical offseason, so be it. But since the program opted to amplify this thought to its approximate 88,700 followers on Twitter, Buffs fans better hope jubilation led to exaggeration from Dorrell.

A defining win isn’t gaining 183 total yards, getting gifted with a game-changing fumble return, and barely escaping with a win against a downtrodden opponent that fired its head coach days earlier. If it is, the headlines in year three for Dorrell won’t be much different than year two.