Daniel Arias was having a bad day. And that was after Colorado’s offense had run all of six plays.
On CU’s first play, following a Buffaloes’ interception, Arias dropped a bomb that would have sent Folsom Field into a frenzy. The Buffs’ second possession ended with a third down drop that would have extended the drive.
Then Mike Sanford, anointed as CU’s interim head coach less than two weeks earlier in place of Karl Dorrell after a listless 0-5 start, did something along the sideline Buffs fans haven’t seen in years. He, you know, coached.
After Arias’ second drop, Sanford was beside the senior receiver immediately. Only those two know what exactly was said, but based on body language it seemed Sanford’s message was less critical than it was encouraging. It was a small gesture, but perhaps one that perfectly encapsulated the shift in mojo at Folsom from the statuesque Dorrell to the exuberant Sanford.
That energy carried the Buffs through overtime and, for the first time this season, into the win column, as CU christened the interim Sanford era with a 20-13 overtime victory against California. Arias bounced back to make big catches on a pair of scoring drives during a day littered with CU heroes, from JT Shrout’s relief appearance at quarterback to Montana Lemonious-Craig’s incredible toe-grazing touchdown in overtime to Trevor Woods’ game-saving hit two plays later that exemplified the full 60 minute-plus effort of a defense that looked nothing like the generous sieve that led to the exit of defensive coordinator Chris Wilson alongside Dorrell.
“We just put the past behind us and it’s a credit to (this) team,” defensive lineman Terrance Lang said. “We were able to take in information. We’ve been through a lot of adversity and nobody ever phoned it. Nobody ever gave up. They bought into what coach Sanford and coach (Gerald) Chatman were trying to say. And the result showed on the field.”
One obvious question in the immediate aftermath is to wonder what exactly Wilson was trying to accomplish with this defense. The Buffs will face much tougher offenses than Cal (whose quarterback, Jack Plummer, made the duo of Shrout and Owen McCown look like the classic combo of Joe Montana and Steve Young), but the CU defense had been an equal opportunity benefactor for opposing offenses this season.
Just not this time.
CU entered the game dead last in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 294.2 yards per game. Talented Cal freshman running back Jaydn Ott was just two games removed from torching Arizona for 274 rushing yards, and he appeared ready to be next in line among backfield tormentors for CU’s defense when he reeled off a 12-yard gain on the game’s first play. Ott’s 15 carries the rest of the way netted just 35 yards, as the Buffs held the Bears to just 35 rushing yards overall on 22 attempts.
The change was as dramatic as it was unexpected. And it was a relief as much for a group of players that have been under-coached and deployed into the front lines ill-equipped to succeed as it was for a fan base eager for signs of life. What comes next for the program remains a huge unknown. Yet one thing that should be apparent to Rick George, Phil DiStefano, and any other CU brass that might stick their nose in the ongoing coaching search is that the support is there.
I don’t care if it was family weekend on campus, or if it was the sort of perfect autumn afternoon that makes Folsom one of the most picturesque venues in all of college football. Getting 50,000-plus fans in the stands to watch an 0-5 team that had been absolutely rolled in each defeat is a striking sign of support.
That’s why no one should scoff at the audacity of storming the field after squeaking past a team likely to be neighbors with the Buffs at the bottom of the Pac-12 standings. This was cathartic for players and fans alike.
Given the remaining schedule, it still will take a minor miracle for the Buffs to play their way into bowl contention. Yet Saturday showcased the difference inspired leadership can make.