Survive and Advance

Colorado 20, San Diego State 10.

For Buff fans of a certain age, the score 20-10 conjures up some very pleasant memories.

Like the score 62-36, Buff fans have the 20-10 final score – the score of the 1986 win over No. 3 Nebraska – forever etched in their brain. Unlike 62-36, however, the score of 20-10 is not all that uncommon, with the Buffs winning by that same score in 2016 over UCLA.

Those three games have more in common than just the final tally. In each game, the CU offense struggled to score, the CU defense was stalwart, and the result of the game was significant to the program.

1986 … Colorado 20, Nebraska 10. I have written extensively about this game, so I’m not going into great detail here over the game which I listed as my No. 1 game of my “Top 40 of the Past 40 Seasons“. For our purposes today, we only need note:

  • That the Buff defense was magnificent, holding the Cornhuskers to ten points. Nebraska, undefeated and ranked third in the nation, came to Boulder that afternoon averaging 41.8 points per game, but was stymied by the CU defense;
  • That the Buff offense struggled to generate points, scoring its two touchdowns on two trick plays: a 39-yard reverse by Jeff Campbell and a 52-yard halfback option pass from O.C. Oliver to Lance Carl.

2016 … Colorado 20, UCLA 10. Another awesome display by the CU defense, while the Buff offense committed four turnovers and scored only one touchdown on four trips to the Bruin red zone:

  • The Buff defense was magnificent, holding the Bruins – who had scored 45 points in their most recent game (against a ranked Utah team) – to 210 yards of total offense;
  • The Buff offense struggled to generate points, with the two touchdowns coming on a 38-yard drive after an interception, and on a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown by Isaiah Oliver.

2020 … Colorado 20, San Diego State 10. The defense played exceptionally well against a middling Mountain West Conference offense, while the offense struggled against a Power-Five level defense which had knocked off Pac-12 opponents in each of the past four seasons:

  • The Buff defense was magnificent, holding the Aztecs to 155 yards of total offense, forcing eight punts, with seven three-and-outs during the game, and one four-and-out late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory;
  • The Buff offense struggled to generate points. The two CU touchdowns came on long drives, but it took a fourth-and-one run by Sam Noyer to (barely) get the first score, and five plays (thanks to an SDSU penalty) from inside the Aztec four yard line to get the second.

In addition to the scores, and how the games played out, the three games above also share another common thread in that, despite the “ugly” nature of the wins (my Essay for the UCLA game is actually entitled, “Even Ugly Wins Count“), they were significant for the CU program.

The 1986 win, the first for the Buffs over Nebraska in 19 years, propelled the then 2-4 Buffs to a winning season and a bowl bid. The program didn’t go without a winning season for the next 11 years, posting five ten-win seasons and a national championship.

The 2016 win, coming in the season of “The Rise”, kept the Buffs’ momentum going. The early November win propelled the Buffs to three more November wins, including wins over two ranked teams – Washington State and Utah – giving CU its first Pac-12 South title.

The 2020 win … well, we’ll see.

San Diego State came to Boulder on short notice. The Aztecs came with a 3-2 record, with wins over hapless teams like UNLV and Utah State, and close losses to undefeated squads from Nevada and San Jose State.

The Aztecs played with their opening game starter (but later benched) Carson Baker at quarterback, but without their leading rusher, Greg Bell. The SDSU defense, however, was first rate, coming in with a unit which has spent the past two seasons in the top ten nationally in both total defense and scoring defense.

No, I’m not trying to make the argument that San Diego State defense was comparable to the ’85 Chicago Bears, or that the 20-10 victory was an epic win, deserving of a special place in the annals of Colorado football.

I will argue, though, that the way the Buffs won this game, and indeed all three games this season, is with a grit and determination which has been missing for much of the past decade and a half.

The Buffs built big leads against UCLA and Stanford, only to see them be whittled away in the second half. Against San Diego State, the Buffs had a 14-0 lead, had completely dominated the Aztecs, and had the ball at midfield with just under five minutes remaining in the first half.

A perfect opportunity (especially considering that CU would receive the second half kickoff) to put the game out of reach.

Instead, quarterback Sam Noyer threw a pick-six, giving San Diego State new life. A three-and-out from the CU offense, followed by the only successful drive by the SDSU offense in the game, and what had the potential to be a CU rout was now a ballgame. Instead of being 17-0 or 21-0 at the break, it was 14-10, with the result of the game very much in doubt.

Not exactly the stuff of legends.

The thing is, in years past, the Buffs could have – would have – found ways to lose the first three games of the 2020 season. We’ve witnessed the Buffs lose insurmountable leads – Kansas in 2010; Oregon State in 2018 – in embarrassing fashion. We’ve seen the Buffs – in too many games to count – face adversity like a pick-six … and wilt under the pressure.

Not so the 2020 Buffs.

These Buffs have found ways to win.

In the most unusual season college football has seen in generations, style points don’t count.

When there are limited chances to play, the March Madness rule applies: survive and advance.

In a world where a preseason Top Ten team didn’t win its first game until Thanksgiving weekend (Penn State this season became the first team in college football history to start as a Top Ten team – No. 7 – and lose its first five games), cheering a CU team which is 3-0 is extraordinary.

In a world where Florida State is 1-6, Michigan is 2-4, Nebraska is 1-4 (heh, heh), Oregon has already fallen, and defending national champion LSU is 3-4, seeing the Buffs head into December undefeated is just fine with me.

An ugly win is still a win.

On October 10th, Daily Camera writer Dan Rooney penned a column, “Karl Dorrell needs to build along the way in ‘redshirt’ year“, in which he opined: “Reasonable Buffs fans might have to grapple with the realization this team has a better chance at finishing 0-7 than 4-3”.

If the national rankings had anything to say about it – CBS Sports had CU 104th in the country before the Buffs played their first game – Rooney’s prediction would have come true.

Instead, the Buffs became bowl eligible with their third win. Now, with cancellations of several of the Pac-12’s bowl partners, including the Holiday Bowl and the RedBox Bowl, there are fewer bowl opportunities, and there remains a chance that CU could still be shut out of the post-season.

But with the win against San Diego State the Buffs, very quietly, ended an embarrassing streak of losses for the CU program with bowl eligibility on the line.

The 2017 team had a 5-4 record heading into November … and then lost its last three games.

The 2018 team had a 5-0 record and a national ranking … and then lost its last seven games.

The 2019 team had a 5-6 record heading into the finale against Utah … and lost.

For those scoring at home, that’s 11 games in the past three years with bowl eligibility on the line … with the Buffs coming up empty.

Karl Dorrell’s team didn’t come up empty.

In CU’s first opportunity to gain bowl eligibility under the new coaching staff, the Buffs took care of business. The defense dominated the Aztecs, holding the SDSU offense to 115 yards of total offense and only three points. It wasn’t pretty, but it was what was necessary to obtain a win over a team with a very good defense.

“I think good teams find a way to win”, said Dorrell. “(It’s) not always pretty and they’re not always (featuring) an explosive offense and a great defense. Sometimes you’ve got to win ugly.”

I’ll leave the debate over style points to the message boards.

I’m going to relish how this team – against all predictions and most reasonable expectations – managed to find ways to win their first three games.

Three teams in the Pac-12 South are still looking for their first wins of the 2020 season (Arizona State 0-1; Utah 0-2; Arizona 0-3). Those fans would give their eye teeth – and perhaps their least favorite child – to be 3-0 right now.

Will these victories carry over to the rest of the season? Will the Buffs be able to carry over this momentum to the 2021 season?

Will this season – will these wins – be watershed moments in the history of the program?

Time will tell …


11 Replies to “Survive and Advance”

  1. I liked your analogy but we came to very different conclusions….. I think that given 48 hours to prepare for any team is extremely difficult. So the fact that Noyer and Chiav seemed a little out of synch compared to the first weeks just seemed to reinforce that given time to truly prepare for an opponent they are really in synch all the way from a reading perspective to an execution perspective. I think the fact that they played against a 3-3-5 just added to the complexity.

  2. I was impressed with the SDSU defense, and Our Buffs gritting out a win while struggling at center and tight end. Hoping they can get healthy there soon, and looking forward to opening up some offense vs. the Wildcats.

  3. I recently finished watching “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix). I highly recommend it. It’s more than just about chess.
    It showed how chess and football are similar in that they are strategy games.
    In chess, the player looks at the board and sees how the defense is lined up, and, if prepared, acts correctly.
    In football the QB looks at the field to see how the defense is lined up. If the QB is not prepared (QB has limited experience and is confused about what to do with a 3-5-5), he throws a pick-6.
    In chess even the best players need expert advice. In football the OC is the expert. Chev has to prepare the QB with a strategy to beat a 3-5-5 defense. Until the Buffs figure this out, future opponents will always look to use this approach.

  4. Very happy about the win. Per my post before the game. I felt that this was a cultural/mindset game. Previous teams would have probably lost this one. I didn’t care about style points. The pick 6, though, was ridiculous situational play calling. CU has ball with 3 minutes to go in first half and run game is working so that play is called? Other than that, no complaints and great effort by D. Landman is one of a kind.

    1. The pick 6. Maybe it was just me, but I thought Noyer was forcing things to Nixon instead of going through the reads. He was hurried a heck of a lot, though.

  5. To borrow a phrase from HOF Coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.” Coach Dorrell and his Buffs have done something that hasn’t been done in Boulder since 1989, which is make it to December unbeaten. Apologize for nothing. The mantra is “we play today, we win today” – and that one is courtesy of former NY Yankee Mariano Duncan 2nd baseman.

  6. Yo Stuart,
    Nice analogy. Those who were not there in 1986, especially those who didn’t become Buff fans until 1989, don’t realize how dark the days of the early 1980s were for the CU program. The 20-10 win over Nebraska was indeed a watershed moment for the program under Bill McCartney. All the success that followed for the Buffs and McCartney was made possible by that “ugly” win.

    In ’85, the Buffs had made a drastic turn following the 1 won season in 1984. They had gone 7-4 during the regular season, with all four losses coming to teams ranked from #5 – #12. The Buffs had gone from being a team that everybody beat to one only perched just outside of the Top 20.

    That ’85 team started the tradition of great defense. It only gave up 30 points twice that year. It gave up 20 or less an amazing 10 times. Everyone of us there were very excited for 1986. We were expecting the Buffs to make the next jump… but the season started with four straight losses! Those losses were excruciating. The Buffs opened with a terrible thud at home against CSU! Then a two point loss at Oregon and three point loss at Ohio State. Then #10 Arizona came into Folsom and eked out a 3 point victory to leave the Buffs at 0-4.

    But Mac’s Buffs stuck to their defensive philosophy and turned the corner. Although they started 0-4, they ended up second in the conference to #3 Oklahoma with a 6-1 conference record. One of those wins was that ugly 20-10 win over Nebraska.

    A win is a win is a win, some like to say. But wins based on dominant defense help pave the way to greater things in the future. Some naysayers like to point out how many points and yards the Buffs gave up to UCLA and Stanford, but they are taking those games out of context. UCLA was DOWN 35-7 before they started risking everything to move the ball. Likewise, Stanford was down 28-9 before getting untracked.

    The point is that Colorado dominated both those teams to get well ahead. Both the Bruins and the Treeheads only started to come back after abandoning their original offensive game plans and after Colorado started trying to run out the clock instead of keeping the pedal to the metal.

    Before anyone starts discounting the win against San Diego State, they should know the Aztecs are a top notch defensive squad nationwide and have been for years. They were a good test for the CU offense. Granted, some of the play calling by DC was reminiscent of the years under the Carpetbagger and Lying Mel, but that conservative stuff will offer little to the coaching staffs at Arizona and Utah in the way of Buff tendencies.

    A win is a win is a win. Just win, baby. Our Buffs are 3-0. They’ve already exceeded everyone’s expectations… except their own. Karl Dorrell is a very smart man and an excellent football coach. I think he has been mulling over what he would do different as a power five head coach ever since he moved on to the NFL. His calm, cool and professional demeanor are going to pay huge dividends to the Colorado program in the coming years. Mark my words.

    Mark / Boulderdevil

    1. I was there for the 84-88 seasons (extra semester some say was to attend one more season in the student section). The progress was amazing to observe. I hope KD can do the same.

      The first thing is not beating yourself with stupid mistakes. So far the Buffs have been good at avoiding that. These Group of five teams achieve big upsets based partially on that; good fundamentals, good discipline and maintaining focus when things don’t go your way. A calm focused coach, like Dorrell seems to be, can make that happen.

  7. Question: If C.U. and USC win their two remaining games, and Oregon beats Washington, in the seventh week, couldn’t the PAC-12 arrange for an Apple Cup pairing of Washington and WSU, and a pairing of the only two undefeated conference schools (which would then be C.U. And USC). This would take away the initial conference goal of a North vs. South weekend, but these two quickly managed pairings would enable a rivalry game to take place AND also ensure an undefeated PAC-12 team. Just a thought.

  8. Anyone complaining about this game just needs a hug or something. What Karl Dorrell and his staff have done so far is nothing short of miraculous. I am so hyped about the future. Just win baby!

  9. Survive and advance! I love it. I think that is Dorrell’s mindset as well. And it seems to be playing out. I think it will be hard if both USC and CU end up perfect for the season and USC is ranked higher and will be declared South champs. But frankly, my expectations for this first year in the Dorrell era were low enough I will just enjoy my 5-0 and the chance to play against the loser of the Oregon Washington game. And play in a bowl! And who knows maybe USC stumbles, or Utah finally remembers how to play football and we drop a game. I just really like how this team is playing right now. I agree with Stuart. I think during the last coaches we would have lost this game. Macintyre and Mel would have screwed this up somehow….Dorrell sure looks like the guy we have been waiting for.

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