One for the Road
Never in the course of Colorado football endeavors have so many been made so happy over so little.
At the end of the day, the University of Colorado football program still ended its 2011 season with one of the worst records in school history. For only the fourth time in 122 years of football, the Buffs finished a season with ten losses.
The win, over a 7-4 Utah team, was hardly epic. The Buffs struggled on offense at times, and gave the Utes any number of chances in the fourth quarter to pull out the come-from-behind victory.
Yet the Buffs still won, 17-14.
And make no mistake about it … this win was huge.
Let me count the ways
- Removing “the stain”, adding the brick
Jon Embree was hired on December 8, 2010 – which means he has been living with “the streak” for almost a full year. Prior to the current streak, despite having any number of runs of poor play over 121 seasons, including three ten-loss campaigns, the University of Colorado had never lost more than ten games in a row on the road.
When Jon Embree returned to Boulder, the Streak he was left with already stood at 17 games. Not only that, Colorado was not even close in most of its road games. The Buffs were not getting consistently beat on the road, they were being embarrassed.
To make matters worse, the 2011 schedule did Embree no favors. Included in the 13-game schedule without a bye week were the first three road games – against perennial BCS-buster Hawai’i, defending Big Ten champion Ohio State, and against national championship contender Stanford. It was not a surprise, then, when Embree decreed that the Hawai’i game was a “brick” game. Rather than have the “stain” of the losing streak hang over the team all year, Embree went “all in” in his effort to beat Hawai’i in the opener.
Rather than come out inspired, though, the Buffs came out like the Buffs of old, falling behind 17-0 at halftime in a 34-17 loss.
After that, the Buffs never even got close to a victory on the road, surrendering quick double digit leads to Ohio State, Stanford, Washington, Arizona State and UCLA.
Which made Colorado taking – and keeping – the lead against Utah such a surprise. The final game of the 2011 season represented the first time Colorado ever even had the lead on the road – all year.
In the jubilant locker room after the game, head coach Jon Embree “told the kids thank you for taking the big stain off of our program”.
- The end of the Dan Hawkins’ era
Make no doubt about it, the consecutive losing season streak, now at six years, continues to haunt the program. The six season run since 2006 matches the longest such streak in school history (1979-84). There remains the very real possibility that the Buffs may set a new record of seven consecutive seasons next fall.
But the stigma will not hang over the Jon Embree coaching staff as did “the streak”.
With the victory over Utah, Colorado officially joined the Pac-12. With the win, the Buffs officially kicked off the Jon Embree era.
Just as importantly, the 17-14 final score officially ended the Dan Hawkins’ era in Boulder.
Dan Hawkins’ recruits will still make up about half of the team next fall. Dan Hawkins’ recruits will be counted on to be the leaders of the 2012 team.
But it is no longer Dan Hawkins’ team. With the streak at an end, the memories of some of the more infamous Dan Hawkins’ losses on the road – 58-0 to Missouri in 2008; 54-38 to Toledo in 2009; 52-7 to Cal, 26-0 to Missouri and, finally, 52-45 to Kansas last season – are now relegated to history.
They are no longer a part of what the Jon Embree Buffs have done … or will do … in the future.
- Nine months without discussing “The Streak”
This may not have been a huge issue for those within the walls of the Dal Ward Center, but it is huge for the Buff Nation.
Every internet trash talk session, every pre-season magazine, every press conference – indeed every conversation involving the 2012 University of Colorado football team would for the next nine months, in some form or manner, come back around to “the streak”.
How can the Buffs hope to go bowling in 2012, when they are guaranteed to lose every game on the road, and have to play Washington, Arizona State, and Stanford at home?
How much emphasis will the Buff coaching staff have to place upon the Fresno State game, the next best chance for Colorado to actually win a road game?
Now, the talk will not be about the streak, but about the Buffs carrying over the momentum from this November, building on the momentum into a much easier non-conference slate next September than what the Buffs faced this fall.
- The seniors
Colorado head coach Jon Embree was criticized in many circles for sticking with his seniors, and continuing to do so well after the season had turned south.
Bring in the freshmen! Let them get some reps! Prepare for the future!
The seniors had had their chances, and failed. Why not play Nick Hirschman at quarterback and Tony Jones at running back? Thank the seniors for their service, but put them on the bench. The end of the 2011 season should be used, the argument went, as auditions for the 2012 season.
If you are going to lose, why not at least get some film for the incoming players to review, in hopes of making a better run at a decent season in 2012?
Instead, Embree stuck with his seniors, challenging them to remove “the stain”.
And they finally did.
The stats sheet from the Utah game is littered with seniors making plays. Tyler Hansen, of course, managed the game the way you would hope he would. Rodney Stewart, before being injured, was again doing his thing. Toney Clemons continued his great second half, with a 100-yard effort, coming within a yard of scoring a touchdown in his fifth consecutive game (which would have tied a school record).
On defense, the name atop the tackle chart is one familiar to Buff fans … but he hasn’t been there in almost half a season. Senior safety Anthony Perkins was hurt in the Oregon game, and had not returned since, but he made it back for the Utah game. All Perkins did in his first game back was lead the team with ten tackles.
Also posting ten tackles was another senior – and former walk-on – Travis Sandersfeld. Hampered by injuries himself, Sandersfeld also had ten tackles, including a huge sack (which he shared with fellow senior Patrick Mahnke), late in the game. Speaking of Mahnke, the senior linebacker had nine tackles overall, including 2.5 tackles for loss.
What about another former walk-on, David Goldberg, who had seven tackles, including a sack? Or Josh Hartigan, who had a sack on Utah’s first offensive play to set the tone for the remainder of the game? Or even nose tackle Curtis Cunningham, hustling downfield to catch a fumble in midair?
Embree stuck with his seniors, well after many naysayers said it was time to move on. Embree’s loyalty was rewarded against Utah.
And don’t think for a moment that Embree’s decision wasn’t noticed by the returning players … and potential recruits.
- Hope for the future
Speaking of the future …
The dividends which the win over Utah will pay will be hard to quantify. But this much should be certain …
It will help in recruiting.
With the victory over Utah, the Buffs showed that they belonged in the Pac-12. They showed that the win over Arizona was not a fluke, and that the close losses to Cal and Washington State were both games which could have – should have – been won.
What’s more, the Buffs finished the 2011 season by winning two of its final three games.
The Buffs are trending upwards; the players are finally getting – and buying into – Jon Embree’s system.
All Colorado needs to get over the hump – the pitch will go - is a few quality players, players ready, willing, and able to take the field as true freshmen.
It’s quite a selling point.
One which the Colorado coaches – a staff hired, in large part, for its recruiting prowess – will be sure to point out.
In the grand scheme of things, Colorado’s upset of Utah in the final game of the 2011 season was hardly worthy of notice in the world of college football. Sure, it knocked both Utah and Arizona State out of contention for the Pac-12 title game, handing the first Pac-12 South title to UCLA. Otherwise, though, it was just the last game of the season for a team which had struggled all year to be competitive.
Colorado still finished 3-10, the fourth ten-game losing season in school history.
Colorado still finished tied for last in the Pac-12 South.
Colorado still will be considered a fifth or sixth place team in most of the 2012 preseason polls.
The Buff Nation, though, knows different.
The Buff Nation knows that the 17-14 victory to end “the streak” was one of most important victories for the program in years.