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Colorado non-conference play not only met, but exceeded, expectations

Incoming UCLA head coach Chip Kelly was asked in July at the Pac-12 Media Day about whether the Bruins would be undergoing a rebuilding year in 2018. The Bruins had finished 6-7 in 2017, and had fired their head coach, Jim Mora.

Kelly response stuck with me. “I don’t think it’s my job to temper or excite the fans,” said Kelly. “My job is to prepare our team as best we can … If there are expectations, that’s a good thing. I’d rather be in a place where there are expectations than in a place where they don’t care”.

Now, you would be hard pressed to find a fan base anywhere in the nation which declared, “We don’t care” (okay, with the possible exception of Kansas – at least until the past two weeks). Fans are passionate, and care deeply about their teams (if you don’t believe me, pause for a second and relive how you felt when Nebraska’s final pass to the end zone went wide on the final play of the game in Lincoln).

And yet … there are levels of passion. There are fan bases which care less about their teams success than do others. Fan bases at Alabama, Ohio State, and yes, Nebraska, are more fervent than the Buff Nation (case in point. Colorado sold 42,360 tickets for game against New Hampshire, but only 29,839 came through the turnstiles … and half of those left at halftime. Imagine that happening in Lincoln?).

The past decade or so, over a span of poor play unprecedented in the 125-year history of the program, Colorado fans have been worn down. We have been beaten up, and we have and beaten down. CU lost to Montana State and Sacramento State. The Buffs were embarrassed by the likes of Fresno State and Toledo.

For me, one of the best examples of how low my expectations had fallen came in 2012. After watching USC’s Matt Barkley throw for six touchdowns in a Trojan rout, the title of the essay for the game reflected my despair: “I feel bad that I don’t feel worse“.

This 2018 Colorado team, however, has rekindled my faith in the football program.

The ride to a 10-4 record in 2016 was a joyous one, but even as it was happening, it didn’t seem sustainable. The Buffs were loaded with talented seniors, a group which was just so fed up with losing that they didn’t want to take it anymore.

We knew there would be a drop off in 2017, but we didn’t know how bad it would get. The Buffs finished 5-7, and were unimpressive throughout the season.

True enough, Colorado opened up last season with a 3-0 record, but it was a mirage. A year after dominating Colorado State, 44-7, the Buffs limped to a 17-3 victory in the 2017 opener. Two more victories over out-manned opponents followed, but they were canaries in the coal mine (the final score of the game against Northern Colorado, for example, was 41-21, but the score was 28-21 late in the third quarter).

When the Buffs hit Pac-12 play, they were exposed as the pretenders that they were. A 37-10 rout by Washington in the first conference game gave the Buffs a reality check, with subsequent back-to-back frustrating losses to UCLA and Arizona putting the Buffs right back into the Pac-12 basement for the duration of the campaign.

The 2018 team may not have the senior leadership of the 2016 team, but it has something those Pac-12 South champions did not have … a bright future.

While the best players on the 2016 team were all seniors, the best players on the current roster will be around for awhile. The two best players on the team – wide receiver Laviska Shenault and linebacker Nate Landman – are sophomores, with a third sophomore, defensive end Mustafa Johnson, beginning to assert his presence. The offensive line is anchored by a red-shirt freshman, center Colby Pursell, who is likely to be a four year starter.

Wide receiver K.D. Nixon … outside linebacker Jacob Callier … defensive back Trey Udoffia … all sophomores.

These are not one-hit wonders. These are players who may well become the backbone of a program where a bowl bid is not a best-case scenario, but an expectation.

Was the 45-14 win over New Hampshire a thing of beauty?

Nope – far from it.

The defense allowed the Wildcat quarterback to escape the pocket far too often. The CU offensive line spent much of the first quarter being out-played by under-sized UNH defensive linemen. Steven Montez threw an ill-advised interception … as did Sam Noyer, whose pick-six ended CU’s bid for a shutout. Ronnie Blackmon continues his inexplicable habit of fielding opponents’ punts inside CU’s five yard line.

Yes, but here’s the thing …

Colorado was frustrating its fans in the first half … but the Buffs led 28-0 over a decent FCS school. The offense had produced an acceptable 234 yards of total offense by the break, while the defense had held New Hampshire to 76 total yards on 39 plays. The defense had also produced two turnovers, with both leading directly to CU touchdowns.

The Buffs are not only playing well, they have a great “team-first” attitude.

Some locker room quotes after the New Hampshire game:

— “I have been putting in a lot of hard work this offseason to try and have a really consistent year,” said transfer running back Travon McMillian, who had a career-high 162 yards rushing. “It is good that I have been consistent this year, but I am going to keep trying to get better throughout practice each and every day. I am going to remain humble and keep working.”

— “I would give myself a B‐, maybe a C+,” said quarterback Steven Montez, who completed 14-of-19 passes for 166 yards, with a touchdown and an interception in one half of work. “It needs to get better. We still have a lot of things to improve on. I think going into this bye week, we are going to fix a lot of things that we have messed up on in the past. We will come out better for it.”

— “Oh definitely, I think this year we’re really playing together more,” said star linebacker Nate Landman, when asked if this year’s 3-0 start felt better than last season’s 3-0 start. “Last year we were still a team, still a great team but we didn’t have that brotherhood that we have this year. We’re all out there making plays”.

These are not quotes from players who are satisfied with a 3-0 start. These are players who remember starting 3-0 last season … only to miss out on a bowl game by going 2-7 in Pac-12 conference play.

These are players that understand that they have not yet accomplished anything – except exceeding expectations.

When the season opened, Colorado was picked to finish 5th in the Pac-12 South. The Colorado State game would be – as always – a challenge. The Buffs would then go on to face the rejuvenated Nebraska Cornhuskers, with local hero Scott Frost restoring order in the heartland.

Instead of looking like the CU team which was last seen being embarrassed in the 2017 season-ending loss to Utah (a 34-13 debacle – 28-0 at halftime – with a bowl bid on the line), the 2018 team has shown grit – and heart.

“I like the resiliency of our football team,” said Mike Macintyre. “I like our fight and our effort. I like our closeness. I like our mental toughness. I like our physical toughness. We’re going to get punched some but we’re going to get back up and punch back. You can’t count these guys out ever.”

You also cannot grade the 2018 CU team in a vacuum … the Pac-12 South may be there for the taking.

USC, a preseason Top 15 team, scored three points in a loss to Stanford before being humbled this weekend by Texas, 37-14. Arizona, a media darling this past off-season, is 1-2. Utah, a dark horse candidate for the title, has two offensive touchdowns in two games against FBS competition, falling Saturday at home to Washington, 21-7. Arizona State, the No. 6 pick in the South, rose to the Top 25 on the heels of a win over Michigan State, but will fall right back out of the polls after falling to San Diego State, 28-21.

Which leaves CU’s next opponent, UCLA.

The Bruins were expected to have some rough patches in their first campaign under Chip Kelly, but UCLA is 0-3, and hasn’t looked particularly competitive. Last night, as some in the Buff Nation were finding ways to find fault with CU’s 45-14 victory over New Hampshire, the Bruins were falling, at home, 38-14, to Fresno State.

Colorado has emerged from non-conference play as the only undefeated team in the Pac-12 South.

In each victory, the Buffs have had their lapses. They have been far from perfect.

But they have also met – and exceeded – their preseason expectations.

And, with so many young talented players already making names for themselves, future expectations will only be greater …

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4 Replies to “Meeting – and Exceeding – Expectations”

  1. Great article Stu. I’m with you and Coach Mac on this team – the Nebraska win was very 2016-like, they overcame incredible adversity (last year’s team would have folded on 1 missed short field goal, much less 2, late in the game) to get that win on the road with a huge crowd with a team fired up for their hometown hero coming back to coach. And you’re right, it’s being led by a team with some young stars. Add to that we’ve got another year of Montez, then what seems like some talent behind him at QB. I think you have to be very impressed with Coach Mac and Staff’s recruiting. I’m in Southern Calif. and the pipeline they’ve got working at some of the big high school programs, St. John Bosco, Mater Dei, etc. is really impressive. There’s buzz out here for the Buffs. Also hitting Texas really well, and then supplementing with good JC guys. If all of that keeps up, this program’s path seems really sustainable. Hopefully they can start getting success on the OL and DL players to match what they’re doing with the WR’s and DB’s. We’re not always getting 4 star guys (getting more though!), but this staff seems to have a great eye for talent on guys that will fit their schemes.

  2. CU is a good team but to in order achieve greatness we’ll need to dominate in the trenches. So far we are lacking this on both sides of the ball. Coach MacIntyre and his staff have done a great job of recruiting skill players but now we need some “big uglies”.

  3. Good essay, Stu. The pac 12 slate will still be a slog. They may even drop one that they shouldn’t. But as you pointed out, this team is young and the way they are winning provides plenty of teaching moments along with more motivation.

    Although they may drop one they shouldn’t, there is also no game left that I feel is an automatic loss. Even in Seattle.

    And the best part? If the do get to 8-4, 9-3 or better? Maybe, just maybe they will get the equivalent of a mate Landman or Laviska Shenault on the offensive and defensive lines. Either way, Mac and Co have the Buffs trending up.

    Go Buffs.

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