Kickoff was nine days away when Karl Dorrell had his lunch interrupted by a throng of local reporters at the Front Range Media Huddle in Denver.
Colorado’s head coach set his meal aside and offered a forthright and thoughtful interview for more than 20 minutes. Going into his third season in Boulder, with a revamped staff and overhauled roster, Dorrell expounded on a number of subjects regarding why his program was in a far more competitive space than when he arrived.
There was that shuffled staff, finally full of Dorrell’s own hand-picked assistants sharing his schematic ideologies. There was the quarterback room, in Dorrell’s opinion the measuring stick of a team’s overall strength, now more crowded and talented. And there was the overall team depth, which Dorrell believes has improved across the board.
All of the above may be true. Yet none of it has changed the fortunes of Dorrell’s downtrodden Buffaloes.
As always the preseason overflowed with optimism. Then Buffs hit Folsom Field for the first time in 2022 on a beautiful if somewhat ominous Friday night (lightning delayed Ralphie and kickoff by 45 minutes) backed by a raucous, jam-packed student section. The good vibes lasted until halftime.
Abruptly it dissolved in a morass of puzzling personnel decisions, passive schematic calls, and eyebrow-raising postgame comments by team captains more akin to a team limping to the finish line through November than one ready to raise the bar. Even a bar as moderately set as the one by CU football.
CU’s sudden and stunning second-half collapse in a 38-13 in a loss against TCU — a team with its own quarterback questions playing its first game on the road under new coach Sonny Dykes — exposed a team in crisis. Overdramatic for game one? Usually, yes. But for Dorrell and the Buffs, this was the same stuff, different season. And if nothing changed over the course of an entire offseason, there is no reason for Buffs fans to have faith anything will change before next week’s daunting challenge at Air Force. Or beyond.
It wasn’t a pretty first half against TCU, but who thought it was going to be picturesque football from either side? This was supposed to be a brawl and, indeed, it was a one-point game at halftime. Yet it might as well have been game over.
“Some dudes mentally checked out at halftime,” CU linebacker Quinn Perry said. When that one-point deficit soon ballooned to a very surmountable 17-6 TCU lead, tight end Brady Russell observed, “too many heads drop. I saw way too much defeat when we were still very, very much part of the game.”
This is an indictment of Dorrell far beyond the indefensible decision to send quarterback Brendon Lewis back on the field to start the second half, or the decision to punt on fourth-and-five in TCU territory late in the third quarter that all but waved the white flag. It was opening night with a vibrant home crowd against a very beatable foe. If guys were checking out already, it will be a long season by the end of September.
Certainly CU’s play after halftime did little to contradict the observations of Russell and Perry. Dorrell’s decisions didn’t improve morale, either. While finding the end zone on the opening drive of the second half, TCU overcame three flags on the sort of penalties — a false start, delay of game and holding — that proved so crippling to the Buffs. Lewis then completed two passes for one yard and threw another at Alex Fontenot’s feet. A TCU field goal made it 17-6, apparently breaking the Buffs’ back with 3 minutes, 45 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Shrout wasn’t flawless when he took over late in the second quarter. But he did move the ball, made one sideline completion to Chase Penry on a throw Lewis doesn’t have in his quiver, and if not for a holding call Shrout may very well have pushed the Buffs into a halftime lead. Still, for CU’s second drive of the third quarter it again was Lewis behind center, but the last gasp was snuffed by Dorrell’s play-not-to-lose mentality.
Facing fourth-and-five from the TCU 41-yard line, Dorrell opted to punt, giving TCU the ball with 18 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Down 11, CU needed, at minimum, a touchdown with a two-point conversion plus a field goal to tie. Dorrell’s decision reflected a belief his defense could make consecutive stops, relatively quickly, despite getting shredded on TCU’s first two drives of the third. It also means he believed his Lewis-led offense had at least 11 fourth-quarter points in it, despite managing just two field goals through three quarters.
The Buffs’ best opportunity was the one in front of them. And they punted it away.
If a defeatist attitude already was permeating the sideline with a (home, season-opening) game still in the balance, Dorrell’s challenge going forward is far more precarious than changing quarterbacks or finding a way to stop the run. If there is any shred of optimism for Buffs fans to cling to, it might be the logic that the Buffs can’t possibly be this bad through 11 more games.