“I feel bad that I don’t feel worse”
This weekend, the University of Colorado football team played its fourth ranked team in five weeks in the first Friday night home game in school history. The Buffs were 21-point underdogs, and lived up to (or down to) expectations, falling 42-17 to No. 21 USC.
Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley threw for a school-record six touchdowns, and even took the time to lead the band in the school fight song after the game. The lead for the national publications after the game were predictable. The Buffs were an after-thought, with the stories recounting that the Trojans had “bounced back” after a heart-breaking loss to Stanford, and had “taken care of business” against the hapless Buffs.
Pretty damning stuff if you were dressed in black (and gold) for the game.
Yet the sentiment from the Buff Nation during the game in the stands, after the game at the tailgates, and on the radio on the drive home was that the Buffs had played one of the best games – if not the best game – of the season.
Has the Colorado program fallen so low that a 25-point loss, at home, before a national televisiont audience on ESPN, is considered making progress? Has the bar been set so low that the only way the Buffs can fail to clear it is if they trip?
What are the rationales, and what are the realities?
Rationale – The Buffs’ offense, with 384 yards of total offense against USC, is back on track. With Rodney Stewart back at full speed, and with Toney Clemons finally picking up the slack while Paul Richardson heals, Colorado finally showed a diverse attack not seen in at least a month.
Reality – Tyler Hansen passed for all of 250 yards against USC, a team ranked 102nd in the nation against the pass. It took Hansen 37 passes to hit 17, with any number of passes inexpliciably directed at the feet of his receivers. Rodney Stewart did have a successful return to play, rushing for 88 yards and collecting six passes for an additional 67 yards, but the Colorado offense was not successful where it counted – in the red zone and on the scoreboard. The Buffs came into the game against USC ranked 111th in the nation in scoring offense, at 18.7 points per game, and failed to even hit that mark.
Rationale – Colorado was tied at the end of the first quarter against USC, a significant step up from falling behind 29-0 and 21-0 in the first quarter the last two games.
Reality – The score was tied at the start of the second quarter, but was un-tied nine seconds later, as the Trojans scored on the first play after the change of field. The Buffs then trailed for the remaining 44:51 of the contest, continuing a long-standing pattern. The 2:34 of game time the Buffs led in the first quarter (before USC became the fifth consecutive team to score on their first possession of the game) represented the first time Colorado has held the lead in over a month (October 1st v. Washington State). Trailing for only three quarters of the game is no triumph.
Rationale – The Buffs have been decimated by injuries, leaving the defense impotent.
Reality – While there is no arguing the fact that the Colorado secondary has been hurt by injuries, the reality is that most teams have a long injury list by the time November rolls around. The Buffs list eight players who have sustained season-ending injuries … USC this week listed 14. Are the Buffs’ worse off by having so many injuries concentrated in one unit – a unit which was trying to replace two NFL-bound cornerbacks? Certainly. The reality, though, was that Colorado listed twenty defensive backs in its preseason roster. Twenty! And the Buffs were still unable to put four/five quality players on the field this fall.
Rationale – Colorado has a lineup of talent suited to play in the Western Athletic Conference, thanks to the “Hawkins who shall not be named”.
Reality – While the Buffs’ recruiting classes the past few years have not made a splash nationally, the Buff Nation embraced the “hidden gems” and “sleepers”. Each class was greeted with enthusiasm, as the Buffs were continuously adding more speed and depth … or so we thought. These are most of the same players who were a fourth quarter meltdown in Lawrence away from a bowl bid last year – and now they can’t stay in a game past halftime? The Buff Nation is excited about the possibilities for the recruiting Class of 2012. Will this Class be slammed four years from now for being a huge disappointment?
Rationale – It’s always hard with a new system. These Buffs just don’t fit into the vision of Jon Embree and his assistant coaches.
Reality – Colorado has 28 seniors, and you just can’t throw most of your starting lineup under the bus and hope to be successful. These coaches knew what they had to work with coming into this season, and yet have not been able to make the transition a workable proposition.
Rationale – Colorado will do much better with Connor Wood and/or Shane Dillon and/or Nick Hirschman at quarterback next fall.
Reality - No matter who is the starter, they will take on the Pac-12 with little (Hirschman) or no (Wood or Dillon) experience against big time competition. The reality is that teams covet having a senior starting quarterback. The Buffs have that this season, but have not been able to take advantage. The reality is that teams – especially young teams, which Colorado will be in 2012 – struggle with young quarterbacks. There will be no immediate change in the Buffs’ ability to stay with the elite teams in the conference.
The reality of the Colorado program, by the numbers:
Opponents have now scored in 28 of the last 29 quarters against the Colorado defense, dating back to the CSU game.
USC finished with 561 yards of total offense, marking the fifth straight games in which an opponent has gained over 500 yards. The last time that happened? Never. In fact, in the 121 years of Colorado football, it had never happened more than three games in succession before this year.
Colorado has allowed over 30 points a game for seven straight games, and over 40 points in five straight games, something which hasn’t happened since the abysmal 1980 season.
Colorado has lost seven straight games in the same season for the first time since 1980, with the losing streak the longest since the totally forgettable transition between Gary Barnett and Dan Hawkins, in which the Buffs lost ten straight games (including two of the most embarrassing losses in school history – 70-3 to Texas in the Big 12 championship game, then opening the 2006 season with a 19-10 loss to 1-AA Montana State).
All of the above should have the Buff Nation wearing bags on their heads.
Yet during and after the USC game there was little sense of shame amongst the Buff faithful. Buff fans chose to see the successful comeback of Rodney Stewart as a positive sign, the 7-0 lead as something to be celebrated, and the 7-7 first quarter score as something of a victory.
That’s how far the Colorado program has descended.
The Buffs are playing so poorly that even the moral victories are minimalistic.
We walked away from the USC game not feeling bad about a 25-point home loss, a loss in which it appeared that Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley had a below average game - when all Barkley did was set a standard for touchdown passes never before reached in the storied history of USC football.
It was about 11:00 p.m. when Brad and I said our final goodbyes, and trudged off to our car for the trip home. The night had been kind to the fans – cool, but clear, with little or no wind to make the experience even more difficult on the Buff faithful - so there was no reason not to linger while we let the traffic clear.
Alone with our thoughts as we walked away from the CU campus, I turned to Brad and said, “I feel bad that I don’t feel worse”. The Buffs had been dominated – humiliated – again, but there was no bad feeling about the game. Just a few juicy rationalizations about what the future might hold for the Colorado program.
Brad, who has been with me, and who has suffered and celebrated with me for over three decades of the good and the bad of Colorado football, had the perfect reply:
“I know exactly how you feel.”