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Rooney: Brief Owen McCown spark not nearly enough as CU Buffs stay true to form

BOULDER,CO-September 24: University of Colorado Boulder's ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Brady Russell goes airborne against UCLA’s Kenny Churchwell III during the game on September 24, 2022. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Owen McCown provided a spark.

It was brief, and fleeting. And, inevitably, the script unfolded the same as it has every week for the Colorado Buffaloes.

Colorado’s defense couldn’t stop anything. Colorado’s offense struggled, albeit with a touch more proficiency. And head coach Karl Dorrell was forced to swallow yet another lopsided loss, this time 45-17 at home against UCLA, as fans once again quickly exited Folsom Field to find something more constructive to do on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.

The big question coming out of the latest rout — CU now has been outscored 173-47 during its 0-4 start — is how much time McCown may have bought Dorrell.

If there was a bright spot amid the latest disaster, it was the play of McCown — a true freshman quarterback who probably isn’t quite ready for the big stage, but who nonetheless was essentially forced into action by the uninspired play of Brendon Lewis and JT Shrout in the first three games.

With McCown behind center the Buffs still didn’t light up the scoreboard. But such is the state of things that simply moving the ball becomes reason for encouragement. CU didn’t score on its first two possessions, but the combined 21 plays they ran on those two fruitless marches was only one fewer than the Buffs ran the entire first half last week at Minnesota.

For those hoping McCown gives long-suffering Buffs fans a reason to tune in the rest of the season, please consider tapping the breaks. No doubt, the young man deserves another shot at the job. Going 26-for-42 for 258 yards, with one touchdown pass another rushing score, is almost Manning-esque compared to the quarterback production the Buffs received previously.

For every plus McCown brought to the equation (he got rid of the ball quickly, and usually accurately) there were shortcomings that need to be improved (right now, McCown is a one-read passer). The Buffs were trailing just 21-10 at halftime, but on their first four drives of the second half McCown went 2-for-7 for 16 yards, with two sacks and a lost fumble.

That’s not meant as a knock on McCown. Play the guy as long as possible. But just remember the season-high 17 points came against one of the least talented defenses still on the Buffs’ schedule, and that the Buffs’ most productive part of any game is garbage time — the latest late, window dressing score on Saturday gives the Buffs two touchdowns during the competitive portion of games this year against three scored when nobody cared any longer.

The glimpses of promise delivered by McCown obscured what has turned into an even bigger problem for Dorrell and the Buffs on the other side of the ball. If McCown is able to at least give the Buffs’ offense some stability, and give CU a young talent to build with at quarterback, then problem No. 1 for the Buffs becomes the beleaguered defensive front.

Right now, the Buffs can’t score. And they can’t stop anybody, either.

If there was a perceived strength of the 2022 Buffs going into the season, it was a deep and experienced defensive front. But that group isn’t a strength, and it’s not even close. Watching last week’s game at Minnesota on TV, I thought safety Isaiah Lewis absorbed unfair criticism from the ESPN broadcasters for missing several tackles at the back end of long running plays. Yes, safeties are required to step up and make tough tackles when needed. But opposing runners often have burst into the CU secondary completely untouched. Such was the case again against UCLA, and defensive backs aren’t meant to tackle backs who get unchallenged, 20-yard heads of steam behind them.

As for Dorrell, one week from now likely will be the telling moment. If the Buffs come up on the wrong end of another lopsided decision at Arizona, the hand of athletic director Rick George might be forced. The chances of actually netting a win this season drop appreciably after next week’s tilt at Arizona, and the bye week that follows will offer a window in which the Buffs might be able to regroup.

“We just want to encourage everybody to hang in there,” Dorrell said following his 14th loss in the past 18 games. “Just hang in there and we’re going to keep battling.”

Hang in there, Buffs fans. This lost season already is one-third complete, and preseason basketball practice begins on Monday.