“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.”

13 Replies to ““I feel bad that I don’t feel worse””

  1. Stuart,

    Your read on things seems to be as spot on as ever.

    First, I have to admit that perhaps this season has been easier to take than others because I have not seen any games. They don’t play them much out here in Bahrain. So, I am relegated to reading about the games on Sunday mornings before work.

    I keep going back to the fact that it is not easy to change a team’s attitude or outlook. Even in the Navy, if a ship has low morale and is not performing at its potential, it is not an overnight fix. That’s even in a world where we give orders and expect them to be followed. Take that and realize that there is only so much “ordering” that Embree can do and the players can choose whether or not to follow the order. They may even try to follow it and be unable to in the long run. Losing habits are as hard to break as any other habit. When you come out of the gate and are following Ralphie down the field I am sure you feel like you can win any game. Then, as we have seen this season, the next thing you know you are down by 14 or 21 points, it is near impossible to show these young men that they can still win the game. Especially when they have no recent evidence to show it is possible. Pointing to how another team may have come back against a team does not scratch that itch. The players need to have proof that they have it within themselves to stop the other team and win a game even if they get down. This will not happen overnight and it was doubtful from the beginning that Embree would be able to change it in one season. I think that what most of us would have hoped for is that they wouldn’t be blown out in the the first quarter. That is a talent level issue in my humble opinion.

    I believe in what Embree is doing. From what the players say, they all believe in what he is doing as well. Is that truly how they feel or is just putting on the team face and being stoic for the media. I don’t know. Those that have been able to talk to them in person and truly judge could possibly shed light on this. I believe in Embree because he seems to want to embrace the history and tradition of Colorado Football instead of forsaking it. He seems to want to come out and smack the other team in the face and say “You are going to feel this game for the next week”. And he seems to truly be passionate about the state of the program and where it goes.

    Just my thoughts. I will wake up on Sunday, as I always do, and anxiously check Buffzone hoping to see those magical words “Buffs Win”. Don’t give up hope. We can overcome and the players need our support.


  2. Stuart,

    First, nice to meet you at the game.

    Your post was great as always, however I was troubled that you were so dissapointed. Not that your feelings aren’t completely valid and validated.

    Since I have found your site I have learned alot about the history of the Buffs. I was watching cartoons when Mac was struggling and really became football aware around 88. Needless to say I had taken our recent struggles (really since Mac left) pretty hard, since the team I loved had never been anything but great in my eyes. When I started reading your blog and the game history, I learned that their had been dark days before and that things can and will turn around. One thing that struck me was your seeming optimisim when you watched your Buffs get beat up in the early Mac years. That gave me some hope that things would turn around.

    Since you have seen the turn around firsthand I feel that maybe you have an eye for the intangibles, the signs of progress. After reading your post I was bummed to think that you have given up some hope or worse that you did not see those signs of a turn around.

    I for one felt OK with the game (and yes my standards are pretty low right now) and dare I say it I felt some hope for the first time since at least September, if not a decade. I haven’t watched a turn around so perhaps I am reading it wrong, but I feel like I am seeing the new beginning; and since you have helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel before, perhaps its my turn to say to you, “Its going to get better. GO BUFFS!”

  3. I guess I am just in a place where I understand how hard it will be to change the culture of the place, so I am not in a big rush. Being a lifetime Yankee fan, I remember the days when a quick fix was always promised, but the culture of winning stayed away for a very long time. Despite beloved stars like Winfield and Mattingly through the 80s, nothing really clicked until the mid-90s when homegrown talents like Jeter, Posada, Mariano Rivera, etc came along.

    What I am saying is that I will take a perennial contender 4 years from now over the shuffling along we’ve done since McCartney retired (esp the Hawkins era). We had some great wins along the way, and its been fun following the occasional talent into the NFL, but we need to be recruiting or developing NFL-level talent all the time (esp on the lines). I want to feel disappointed when we fall short in a game we’re supposed to win, not that momentary joy when we pop up for an upset against Georgia, WVU or Oklahoma.

    I’m all for a coach that starts weak and finishes strong, a long time from now, like McCartney did. I’m tired of coaches that start quick, sputter along just well enough to keep their job, and leave the program worse off than they got it. Let’s hope Embree is the former, and not some new type who just blows start-to-finish.

  4. I am not convinced that the current coaching [head] staff is on par with the rest of the new conference. It is the head coach that is ultimately responsible. It is the coach to rally the spirit of the team and show the fans confidence that they/he can put together a competitive team, both offensively and defenseively. When I am asked who is my alma mater, I am proud. I am not proud of the total deflation and lack of spirit of the present football program. Maybe Embree was not the right choice for CU. Gone are the days of Bill McCartney and Crowder. We have become complacent with coaches such as Neuhisal, another that changed the school colors to sky blue [because he didn’t like gold & black], and the more recent departed head coach. I am still gold and Black but wish the rest of the staff would feel the same. I am a Buff and always will be. It is just hard to swallow.

  5. Stuart…once again, bravo. Passionate, first hand, contemplative, objective. Totally S2S account and perspective.

    Especially w/ regard to DCBuff’s comments:
    1. Recruiting can be overrated, I agree. Conversely, when will the Buffs field kick returners that are capable of taking it to the house? With the exception of a short-lived flirtation with overrated Josh Smith, why the heck can’t the Buffs find decent return specialists somewhere on the roster? Even during the darkest days, CU had talented weapons in the return game. MJ Nelson anyone? Walter Stanley? And of course Jeff Campbell and Ben Kelly, among others.

    2. About coaching. I have a lot of faith in the current Buff coaching staff. Especially with the current personnel, they’re patching it together game-by-game. I get that. But why not focus on areas where a difference can be made? I was on campus in the mid 80s. I knew several Buffs players pretty well. They told me that CU would OWN the kicking game in all aspects. They spent a lot of time on it in practice and had pride in it. It made a huge difference as McCartney built both confidence and momentum in the program. And in field position. Even with inferior talent and especially inferior speed, special teams play can measurably improve and make a huge difference. I think this is something for the staff to consider.

    3. Three mid-80s Buffs went to Tempe for the game; I was one of them. I can count 3 times with 3rd and short where the center was uncovered and a QB sneak had a great shot of moving the chains. We never tried it. I am by no means professing more coaching or game management prowess than our current staff. No way. However with the current state of the Buffs we need to take it where we can get it. That’s what McCartney did. Any tiny advantage was exploited. I don’t think we do that anymore.

    4. I am by no means pining for the days of Bill McCartney. Nope. But I witnessed first hand many over-matched Buff teams that hung in there and sometimes won by simply going on a quick count or something so elemental that never showed up in the agate type. Move the chains, chew the clock, flip the field…

    5. There is no complacency or resignation among true Buff faithful. We are simply not a very good football team, we lack speed, and we haven’t scared an opposing QB since probably Matt McChesny graduated. Yes Matt wasn’t a pass rusher, but at least he wasn’t afraid to declare he was going to (legally) hurt someone.

    I could go on and on. I doubt anyone will read this. I am a true Buff and so are my three best college friends from Libby Hall. S2S. GO BUFFS!

  6. I tend to disagree with the assessment. I did not feel as bad after this game either. It was not b/c of denial or depression or anything of the sort. Our injuries hurt more than programs like USC b/c they are 3 deep and we are 1 deep (quality wise not numbers) due to the recruiting foibles of our past regimes. I saw improvement on Friday regardless of the score. Our offense is a quarterback away from being much better and frankly I think Hansen can play way better than what he did. If he does we stand a chance of being in the next 3 games. It is up to the seniors on this team to lead them to victory. Hansen needs to step up and make plays. The O-line needs to protect him and the defense just needs to fly to the ball and make tackles. Oh and Logan Gray needs to figure out that a line drive over his head at the 8 yard line should not be fielded.

  7. I’m not ready to lay this all at the feet of the coaching staff. I strongly believe we’re seeing the difference in the quality of athletes.

    At least these kids are showing a much improved attitude over the Hawkins’ teams, and in the first three or four games were actually fun to watch. I get upset when we’re behind and the sidelines are joking, laughing, and screwing around.

    We’re not going to compete until we’re fielding teams heavy with 4 and 5 star rated recruits. They don’t all turn out, and some lower rated players become stars. What worries me is that the recruits we’re getting are not 4 and 5 stars. More of the same level or capability that Hawkins was recruiting. Richardson should be the average – not the exception.

  8. I am surprised by how much I still love these Buffs!

    I am even more surprised by how many other fans are finding ways to feel the same.

    I want to win and see championships as much as anybody but the Hawk years taught me that the only thing that I can’t stand, is cheering for a team that doesn’t want to win as much as I do.

    This team is bad but they give it everything they have. They can’t change what god gave them but they can control how much effort they put in. As long as they don’t quit I won’t either!

  9. Can’t necessarily argue any of the points posted.

    Or, perhaps better described – a certain numbness has descended.

    Will say this – n/w/st the points in the article and posts, I can’t help but LIKE the players. Which may largely be attributable to the fact that they’re Buffs.

    It seems there is always a certain charisma surrounding the Buffaloes.

    And, f/w/i/w, having finally negotiated the last five, the final three show real promise – with some high stakes.

    D-Day … @NSD

    GO BUFFS!!

  10. It’s an embarrassment. Buffs thumped again. I’m not convinced Embree and Co. know what they are doing…. I have lost all confidence in this coaching stuff.

  11. Yeah, call it a defense mechanism, or denial or just being so tired of losing that you have burned out the anger, it is just hard to be too upset. Even when the Buffs were close there was no sense that this team this year could hold on. The Hawkins years ate most of our optimism. Hope came with the new staff but Hawaii and Cal and Washington State killed some of that. Then repeated beat downs as the easy team on the schedule finished off most the rest. Next year should be better, must be better because it cannot be worse. But right now it is not worth spending the energy to care. A win in the next two weeks, (unlikely but more possible than the last 5) would help, but right now we need the season to be over.

  12. You win with really good players in the offensive and defensive lines. The present offensive line pushes no-one forward. The front four on defense rarely put pressure on the opposing QB. Embree once said he does not want players who are “gentle giants”. Well, that’s what they have now.

    I will watch with interest to see who they are able to recruit to play in the trenches. The “big uglies”. If they don’t get the good guys, they will never turn it around.

  13. I think the reaction of not being too down is a defense mechanism to not get totally depressed, and I admit I’ve been doing the same thing. But the fact is, you are spot on in each of your “realities” above. This is perhaps the worst CU team in history, certainly since 1980. I really didn’t think that I would see a team as bad as the 2006 team again, and yet here we are.
    I’ve seen folks talking about winning out. I don’t think we’ve seen anything from this team to give any real optimism that they can win even one of the remaining games. I sure hope they do, but I wouldn’t bet on this team against *anyone* right now.
    As for excuses, yes, there have been a lot of injuries in the defensive backfield, but that doesn’t explain the abysmal defensive line and linebacker play that leads to multiple 15+ yard gashes every game by average opposing running backs. It doesn’t explain an offensive line that can’t run block and gets pushed backwards more than they move the other team, or a quarterback that seems incapable of inspiring or leading his team. As easy as it is to blame the talent and hang hope on recruiting, I don’t really buy the argument that college football is all about recruiting. I think it is a lot more about coaching. If it weren’t, Notre Dame would always be a top 10 team, and Boise St. would never be.
    I really can’t wait for this season to end so I can follow the recruiting and comfort myself that perhaps I’m wrong about what I’ve just written, maybe it really is all about recruiting, and maybe this next recruiting class will be the one to finally turn it around.

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