Watershed Moments – Will the Arizona game mark a new era in CU football?

“Watershed” is a geographical term describing the area from which water sources drain into a single river or a ridge, like that formed by a chain of mountains, which sends water to two different rivers on either side.

From that definition, the term “watershed” has come to mean a turning point or dividing line in life.

There are many examples of watershed moments in American history – The Declaration of Independence; D-Day; 9/11 – days which have defined generations.

In sports, there are watershed moments, but they aren’t always so easily identified. Often, it may take months, or even years (not to mention the benefit of hindsight) to make note of changes in the fortunes of a program.

Occasionally, the watershed moment is clear … but only to those who are prescient.

To someone like say, Bill McCartney.

On September 14, 1985, Colorado took on the Oregon Ducks at Folsom Field. The Buffs were a modest 1-0 on the season, which wasn’t bad, considering CU was coming off of a 1-10 campaign in 1984.

Oregon was not ranked, but was favored. When Mickey Pruitt sacked star quarterback Chris Miller on fourth-and-goal, the Buffs had a 21-17 victory and a 2-0 record.

Not exactly an earth-shattering moment in the world of college football, but Bill McCartney, knowing something we didn’t, said, “I think that could be a turning point for our program”.

In retrospect, it was.

The Buffs, which had suffered through a (then) school-record six straight losing seasons, went on to finish with a winning record in the fall of 1985, earning CU’s first bowl bid since 1978. The CU program then went on a run of unprecedented success … No losing seasons between 1985 to 1997 … six of CU’s eight all-time 10-win seasons … and a national championship.

The upset win over Oregon, along with the epic 20-10 win over Nebraska the following year, were watershed moments for the CU football program.

The door, of course, swings both ways.

Ask any longtime Nebraska fan.

If they are being honest, the 2001 loss to Colorado – you only need say “62-36” to any Buff or Cornhusker fan, and they will understand the reference – sent the proud Nebraska program into a spiral from which it has yet to recover.

And, there can be false positives.

In 2007, the Buffs were in Year Two of the Dan Hawkins’ era at Colorado. In his first season in Boulder, Hawkins took a program which had won four Big 12 North division titles in the past five seasons … and drove it off a cliff, posting a 2-10 record.

The Buffs opened the 2007 season with a 2-2 record, then hosted No. 3 Oklahoma in Game Five. A double-digit underdog, the Buffs pulled off a 27-24 upset. CU went on to finish the regular season with a 6-6 record and an Independence Bowl invitation.

The comparisons with 1984/85 were there … in both 1985 and 2007, the Buffs rose from a disastrous record the previous year to earn a bowl bid.

However, instead of using the win over Oklahoma 2007 as a step towards building a champion … the Buffs went into reverse, not posting a winning season again until 2016.

The 2007 Oklahoma win – CU’s last over a top five ranked team – could have been a watershed moment.

But it wasn’t.

Now, am I making the argument that the Buffs’ 24-13 win over Arizona should be considered a “watershed” moment in CU history. 

A win over a team which brought into the contest a program-worst ten-game losing streak? A team which, starting a backup quarterback, nonetheless raced out to a 13-0 lead over the favored Buffs?

Hardly the stuff of legend.

But hear me out.

Beating an 0-3 team which is going nowhere fast won’t – and shouldn’t – be used as a rush-the-field type of victory. But it is significant nonetheless.

First, we have to acknowledge that most Buff teams of the past 15 years, facing a 13-point deficit, on the road, would not have come back to win the game.

“It just tells me a lot about this team”, said head coach Karl Dorrell of the Buffs’ comeback. “There wasn’t any panic, there wasn’t any concern that we were in trouble or that look that you get on players faces when they seem to lose confidence or something like that. I didn’t sense that at all. There was more problem solving.”

“It was a four quarter game, it was our first time being down, and it was crazy to see how this team responded”, said star linebacker Nate Landman. “Our coach (Karl) Dorrell said at the end that he kept it quiet and let us handle it.  We try to be a player run team and we came out in the second half and dominated and dominated the second half.  That’s just a credit to the want and the heart of this team.”

The 2020 team has a different feel to it. While the Buff Nation was certainly chewing its nails and throwing (soft) objects at their televisions, the CU coaches and players didn’t panic.

That in an of itself represents a significant change from prior seasons.

Second, Arizona has been CU’s kryptonite for the past three seasons …

— In 2017, the Buffs brought a 3-2 record into the game. Phillip Lindsay had 41 carries for 281 yards and three touchdowns … and CU lost. Kahlil Tate came off the bench to run for an NCAA-record (for quarterbacks) 327 yards and four touchdowns, with Arizona defeating Colorado, 45-42. The Buffs went on to post a 5-7 record, missing out on a bowl bid;

— In 2018, the Buffs brought a 5-3 record into the game. Kahlil Tate took to the air, torching the CU secondary for 350 yards and five touchdowns, leading Arizona to a 42-34 victory. The Buffs went on to post a 5-7 record, missing out on a bowl bid;

— In 2019, the Buffs brought a 3-1 record into the game. Kahlil Tate was again a force, passing for 404 yards and three touchdowns, with Arizona coming away with a 35-30 win in Boulder. The Buffs went on to post a 5-7 record, missing out on a bowl bid.

Kahlil Tate’s Hall of Fame numbers notwithstanding, the point here is that Arizona has kept Colorado from being – and being considered – a competitive team in the Pac-12.

The first five years Colorado played in the Pac-12 – 2011-15 – were an unmitigated disaster. No argument.

The last five years Colorado has been a member of the Pac-12, however, the Buffs have been, well, average. But, because CU hasn’t been able to beat Arizona, and, because of those losses, hasn’t been able to qualify for a bowl game the past three seasons, the assumption nationally has been that it’s been the same ‘ol, same ‘ol for the Buffs in Boulder.

But check this out …

Here are the records for Pac-12 South since the start of the 2016 season (games through December 5th):

  • USC … 38-18
  • Utah … 37-20
  • Colorado … 29-25
  • Arizona State … 27-26
  • UCLA … 20-34
  • Arizona … 19-34

The Buffs have the third-best record in the division since 2016 (CU also has a better record than Cal and Oregon State from the North Division). Granted, a 29-25 record does not connotate a spectacular showing, but the Buffs have been much better than the nation’s pundits would have you believe.

Third, want more evidence that CU has turned a corner?

Wanna know how many times Colorado has played a Pac-12 conference game on the road as the favored team?

Including this year’s Arizona game, that total would be … three.

The Buffs won the previous two times: Oct. 14, 2017, at Oregon State (a 36-33 win); and Nov. 12, 2016, at Arizona (a 49-24 victory).

The other 42 Pac-12 road conference games the Buffs have played since joining the conference … not so much.

The point here is that there was nothing unusual, or even really noteworthy, about the Buffs being favored against the Wildcats. The only discussion point was the line itself, which moved from an opening line of 3.5-points to 8.0-points by kickoff. It wasn’t a story line that the Buffs were favored to win … it seemed perfectly natural.

Another marker in CU’s rise to being considered a player in the Pac-12.

And it all came about this year without anyone suspecting.

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, and have certainly enhanced their chances with a fourth win. Now, with cancellations of several of the Pac-12’s bowl partners, including the Holiday Bowl, Sun Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl and the RedBox Bowl (only partially offset with the addition of the Armed Forced Bowl), there are fewer bowl opportunities, and there remains a chance that CU could still be shut out of the postseason.

But there is no denying that, with the fourth win of the year, the 4-0 Buffs are now guaranteed a winning season. That’s only the second time we’ve been able to say that in the past 15 years.

Will these victories carry over to the rest of the season? Perhaps just as importantly: 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? Was the hiring of Karl Dorrell back in February, when he was no one’s first choice, actually prove to be the “watershed” moment for the CU football program?

Time will tell …


15 Replies to “Watershed Moments”

  1. I want to give a big shout out to the offensive line. There has been a huge improvement in my opinion. It’s hard to say what has been the difference but I think the coaching has to be a major factor. They now have some great trapping schemes that have been opening big holes. I noticed it right away in the UCLA game. Seems they are not pulling blockers quite as much right now but when they do, they open huge holes.

  2. Congratulations to the team and Coach Dorrell. Yes, hiring Coach Dorrell will quite possibly prove to be a watershed moment for the program. With this fourth win, he will continue his record of NEVER experiencing a losing season as a head coach. The organized and professional approach is appreciated by his players, their parents, snd fans. The classy way he characterized his emotional back-and-forth with Noyer speaks volumes about his fire, character, and class. He has a passion, along with high standards, and principles. He is a real keeper (and he is here for the long haul). C.U. has viable candidates for 2020 National Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, and Defensive Player of the Year. This current moment will be a special time to remember!! Great post, as usual!!

  3. Yeah Buffs! If KD can recruit like Midnight Mel F’er Tucker (sorry I can fill in all the bad words) then we are really trending up). We all though KD was the wrong choice and boy are we wrong!
    Question, what it the EH on the left side of the helmet. I am sure is is not for Eddie Haskel.

    1. Could be a “BH”, in which case it might be for Betty Hoover, one of the 95-year old twins who died this summer.
      If it’s an “EH” … I’m not sure …

      1. I think you are correct. Those two twins rocked Buffs beyond belief. One left that is great. I lost my dad this past week and he was as passionate as anyone (excepting the twins).

      2. Per the BuffZone on 11/7:
        “CU wore an “EH” decal on the helmets as a tribute to Elizabeth Hilton, the wife of CU equipment manager Christopher Dountas. Hilton passed away of cancer on Aug. 28 at the age of 34.”

    2. From Brian Howell’s notes from buffzone.com following the season opener vs. UCLA, “CU wore an “EH” decal on the helmets as a tribute to Elizabeth Hilton, the wife of CU equipment manager Christopher Dountas. Hilton passed away of cancer on Aug. 28 at the age of 34.”

      I remember being in the stadium for CU v. UO in 1985. My freshman year. I agree that it was a watershed moment for the Buffs. One year earlier, Sports Illustrated had named Folsom Field “the most beautiful place in the country to watch awful college football”. Within a few years, Coach Mac had us playing for national championships.

  4. Great article! I thought I saw our watershed moment in 2016 when the Buffs beat Oregon. What we came to find out was that was a player led team, and the players left in the program did not have the same leadership….. looking at this team we have heard it is a player led team as well. I think maybe the difference between a watershed moment is whether the players buy in to the process from top to bottom, whether they all realize nothing is ever given in this sport, everything is earned. I think maybe Mac gave a little too much (see how he treated Gilliam) and the team seemed to think they had arrived. We can watch Tucker at MS to see how that would have faired. But one thing I may be seeing in a Dorrell led team is that everything is earned. I don’t have any special knowledge but a few things have occurred since Dorrell took charge that make me believe this:
    – Alfano (before we knew he was sick) was the highest rated recruit and when he stopped doing what he was supposed to be doing was kicked off the team. He had to earn his way back on the team.
    – Dorrell went with Noyer at QB, a guy who played safety last year, becuase he earned it. Think about the guts it takes as a head coach in 2020 season in which you had basically been given a pass by everyone (but the team and yourself) to take a redshirt year but you gave the position to the kid who had earned it instead of the true freshman who might be the future of your program.
    – Broussard over Mangham. We see now why Broussard got the nod but that is difficult to know in training camp.
    – injuries and practice. Now I don’t know this for a fact but I believe that Dorrell has instituted a rule that if you do not practice all week you do not play….. you may suit up and be called if we have a depth problem, but only in that case. Look at KD. I suspect he could have gone that second week as he had started practicing but my bet is he missed a practice or two that week and so while he got to suit up he did not get on the field. I think that is why we are seeing people take longer to recover from injuries than in the past. I have thought about it a bit and I have to say I like this. 1. It is better for the players. Injuries need rest to heal. If you are injured you need to let it heal not try and go on it becuase the team is counting on you. 2. Practice is there for a reason. You can take all the mental reps you want but the timing and cohesiveness on the field matters. 3. It rewards the players putting in the work. How disappointing is it to put in all the work during the week and then told that someone who has not practiced gets to play and you need to wait your turn. My bet is this makes the next level practice harder, stay more focused and truly be ready for the next man up.
    – competition. Those who put in the work are rewarded. Those who don’t will get passed up. You better be lifting, watching film, listening in practice and executing the little things otherwise you are going to get passed up.

    Just my thoughts. I am concerned that this is another player led team, but I think Dorrell may be fostering an environment where it is player led but he is still holding them accountable.

  5. Great win!! Pretty convincing argument. While I originally thought it was a bit hyperbolic, we now have the talent where if we win all the games we should win (especially on the road) in a given year that will be enough to be bowl eligible. The success of a season would then hinge on the ability to pick up an upset or two. This game encapsulated that idea given how it played out, and so it might very well be a watershed moment.

    I will, however, bring up the same quibble I made for the SDS game. Can we please learn to use the ENTIRE PLAYCLOCK when we have the ball with the lead in the 4th quarter!?! Our success running the ball only makes this more appropriate.

  6. I too am already thinking of next year…and then saw what Arizona did when Landman was not on the field and got a bit concerned lol…Van Diest looked LOST and missed tackles. Get our ILBs square for next year and we are ready to roll again.
    Back to this year…Noyer needs to face zone coverages every practice session, the two picks he never saw the zone squatter and we are getting close to just telling him to run if the D is in Zone.

    1. I saw your concerns as well. Replacing Landman will be nigh impossible. That said the d line will likely continue to get better, van diest ham, and perry will get better as well as the safety and star.

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