E Pluribus Unum
Out of many, one.
One drive. One score. One victory.
Will the Colorado State game, more precisely, the fourth quarter of the Colorado State game, be a turning point for the Colorado football program and its long-suffering Buff Nation?
Since December 6, 2010, when Jon Embree was named the 24th permanent head coach in Colorado football history, Embree has been preaching that it was time for the Colorado program to return to its successful roots. In order to do that, the Buffs had to re-establish a power running game. “When this program has been at its best,” Embree said at his introductory press conference, “it’s had its [players] come out on this field or go somewhere else and just line up and run you over.”
The Buffs appeared primed to do just that. Colorado returned the majority of its offensive line, a senior returning starter at quarterback, and one Rodney Stewart. The senior running back posted 1,318 rushing yards in 2010, and opened the 2011 season within shouting distance (1,196 yards) of becoming the all-time leading rusher in Colorado history.
The pieces in place, Colorado traveled to Hawai’i to take on a Warrior team which had surrendered 106 yards rushing to Rodney Stewart in the 2010 game in Boulder – and another 109 yards rushing to Brian Lockridge.
In a 34-17 setback, Colorado as a team had 17 total yards rushing. Rodney Stewart, the only Buff to carry the ball, had 52 yards rushing on 18 carries.
Hardly the stuff of legend.
Up next was California. The Bears were decent against the rush in 2010 (132 yards per game), but returned only four starters on defense. The game in Berkeley in 2010 was an embarrassment, and the Buffs were ready to defend their home turf, showing Cal, the Pac-12, and the nation that the Buffs were back.
Not so much.
Colorado posted 582 yards of total offense, with quarterback Tyler Hansen and wide receiver Paul Richardson setting numerous records. Hansen set a new standard for passing, with 474 yards and three touchdowns, while Paul Richardson destroyed the all-time receiving yards record, besting the old record of 222 by 64 yards.
The power rushing game? Thirty-two carries for 108 yards. Rodney Stewart had 73 yards rushing on 24 carries, but, for the second week in a row, had more receiving yards than rushing yards.
After two games, the Colorado offense checked in at 114th in the nation in rushing. A paltry 62.5 yards per game; a pathetic 2.08 yards per carry average.
The offensive line, counted on to punch holes in opposing defenses, was in shambles. Both starting offensive tackles were injured. Sophomore David Bakhtiari, who started 11 games as a freshman in 2011, went down in the season opener. His replacement, junior Ryan Dannewitz, was injured in the second game. On the right side, sophomore Jack Harris broke his leg against Cal, and was lost for the remainder of the 2011 season.
An excuse? Perhaps. But even with the loss of the Buffs’ projected starters at tackle, Colorado was a disappointment when it came to running the ball.
Against Colorado State, the Buffs opened with a true freshman at left tackle, Alex Lewis. At right tackle, Dannewitz shared time with a senior who had never played an offensive snap before Cal game, Sione Tau. Starting center Daniel Munyer went down during the game, replaced by sophomore Gus Handler.
How did the patchwork line do?
Fair to middling.
The Buffs did post 145 yards rushing, more than the first two games combined. The average per carry improved significantly, from 2.08 in the first two games, to a 4.3 yards per carry against the Rams. Rodney Stewart rushed for 98 yards, with Tyler Hansen contributing 26 and freshman Tony Jones seeing his first action as a Buff, posting 23 yards on six carries.
The offensive line also contributed to the Buffs’ offensive frustrations as well. Senior right guard – and captain – Ryan Miller was called for a personal foul. Ryan Dannewitz was called for a holding penalty, while the freshman, Alex Lewis, was flagged twice for holding. Quarterback Tyler Hansen was sacked twice.
Even during the epic fourth quarter drive to put the game away, the offensive line was twice called for holding, contributing to the length – and duration – of the 85-yard drive.
Still, it says here that the 16-play, 85-yard, 10:03 drive helped turn the corner for the Colorado offense, and the Colorado offensive line.
When it came time to make a play, the Colorado offense made a play.
On third-and-seven at the Colorado 29-yard line, Tyler Hansen hit Rodney Stewart for 14 yards and a first down.
On third-and-two at the CSU 49-yard line, Rodney Stewart carried for three yards and a fresh set of downs.
On third-and-one at the CSU 32-yard line, Tyler Hansen kept the ball for two yards and a first down.
After the second holding call of the final drive, Tyler Hansen and Rodney Stewart turned a first-and-20 into a first down with a 26-yard swing pass.
On a third-and-two at the CSU six yard line, Rodney Stewart carried for four yards and a first-and-goal at the two.
A full two yards out from the goalline, the Buffs did not hesitate, with a quarterback sneak by Tyler Hansen for a touchdown.
Colorado entered the final drive of the game having converted four-of-11 third down opportunities. In the final drive, the Buffs went four-for-four on third down. The Buffs overcame their mistakes, and still made the plays when they needed to late in the game.
Twice, against Cal, the Buffs had the chance to put the game away. At the end of regulation, the Buffs were inside the Bear five yard line, but settled for a game-tying field goal instead of pushing the ball into the end zone. In overtime, the Buffs were inside the Bear five yard line, but again settled for a field goal.
Against Colorado State, the Colorado offense did not settle. The Buffs took care of business, dominating the fourth quarter with a near-record setting drive. “We finally had an opportunity where we had the ball, we had the lead, and it was up to us to finish it off,” said head coach Jon Embree. “The thing that I am proud about with these guys is I think we had two holding penalties in that drive, and yet we still found a way to overcome ourselves. We made smart plays, guys staying in bounds – understanding that it is our job to keep the clock running – and then finishing in the end.”
Does that mean a corner has been turned? Does it mean that Colorado will now produce a dominating, downhill running, punishing running game?
Not likely. The schedule remains daunting, many difficulties remain to be ironed out, including the elimination of mental mistakes (read: penalties).
But, in time, the 2011 Colorado/Colorado State game may be remembered for more than just being the first victory of the Jon Embree era. It may be remembered for being more than the game with the ten-minute fourth quarter drive.
It may be remembered for being the game when the Dan Hawkins’ era finally ended, and the Jon Embree era began.
One drive. One score. One victory.
Out of many, one.