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“We’re Still Learning as a Team”

Just outside the field of play in Stanford Stadium, a little history was made on Saturday.

Along the sidelines, Stanford head coach David Shaw faced off against Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell. With the hiring of Dorrell, the University of Colorado joined Stanford as the only Pac-12 coaches to have had three African-American head coaches (Stanford: Dennis Green; Tyrone Whittingham; David Shaw … Colorado: Jon Embree; Mel Tucker; Karl Dorrell).

Inside the lines, the Buffs made a little bit of history themselves, holding on for a 35-32 victory over the Cardinal.

It was on this same field in 2016 when the Buffs made a statement. The game was an ugly 10-5 slugfest, but it was CU’s first win over Stanford since joining the Pac-12 conference, and the win gave CU bowl-eligibility for the first time in a decade. The first three games the Buffs had played against Stanford as Pac-12 members were embarrassments, with CU being outscored by scores of 48-7, 48-0, and 42-10.

Last fall, the Buffs defeated the Cardinal 16-13, breaking a five-game in-season losing streak while posting the first November win for the program in three seasons. It was a physical game, punctuated by a Laviska Shenault highlight throw down on fourth down on the game’s final drive.

In 2020, the Buffs made it three in a row against the Cardinal, evening the series record 6-6. The win also gave Colorado a 3-3 record against Stanford head coach David Shaw. Under Shaw, Stanford won 98 games in the past decade, second in the Pac-12 and 10th nationally.

The Cardinal had won 12 straight home openers, and brought in a 53-12 record in home games over the past decade.

Yes, Stanford went 4-8 last season, and had lost its opener to Oregon, 35-14.

But Stanford is, well, Stanford, and Colorado is well, Colorado … at least in the eyes of the nation.

While the Buffs had a better record last season, and defeated the Cardinal during the 2019 campaign, Stanford was expected to bounce back, while Colorado was expected to step back. CBS Sports, which ranked Colorado as its No. 110 team in the nation before the Buffs’ first game, called CU “overrated”, despite having posted only 5-7 records each of the past three seasons.

Vegas had CU’s win total over/under at 1.5 for the anticipated seven game season.

Despite the fact that the Buffs won their opener, and the Cardinal lost its opener, Stanford was listed as a six-point favorite … bumped to nine points when the news broke that starting quarterback Davis Mills would be allowed to play.

You get the idea … not much respect for Colorado and its first year head coach, Karl Dorrell.

Perhaps now?

The Colorado defense played well in the first half, holding the Stanford offense to nine first downs and 164 total yards. The Cardinal went 1-for-8 on third down attempts, and had to settle for three field goals as the Buffs managed to build a 14-9 halftime advantage. Despite having only 12:34 of possession time (to 17:26 for Stanford), the Buffs used a 55-yard pass from Sam Noyer to Dimitri Stanley and a seven-yard Noyer run to post two touchdowns and retain the lead.

The third quarter was a thing of beauty, as the Colorado offense was clicking on all cylinders. The Buffs mounted drives of 75, 61, and 80 yards to score three touchdowns and take control of the game.

Now, if the game had ended at 35-16 … or, say, 38-24, the Buff Nation would be in High Heaven. Instead, we were treated to a second consecutive comeback by the opposition, and a second-straight nail-biter.

Last week, UCLA rallied from a 35-7 deficit to twice cut the lead to a touchdown (35-28 and 42-35) before the Buffs posted two fourth quarter field goals, holding on for a 48-42 victory.

Against Stanford, it was more of the same. The Buffs built a 35-16 advantage on the first play of the fourth quarter, only to watch the lead evaporate, as the Cardinal scored two touchdowns, to go with two two-point conversions, to make it a 35-32 game. Fortunately, as was the case with UCLA, the final score came too late for the Cardinal to be able to retake the ball with any realistic chance at a victory.

“It was a great win for our team,” Dorrell said. “If I had the choice, I would have orchestrated it a little bit better in the second half … We felt we built a pretty comfortable lead — and that’s the point of the matter, it wasn’t too comfortable, because they came back. But our players hung in there. That’s a good team that we played. I would have liked to have finished that game on our terms, but it’s a great win. We’re still learning as a team. I felt we played as well as we needed to to finish the game.”

I believe the operative phrase from Dorrell’s quote is, “We’re still learning as a team”. As soon as the final gun sounded, there were those in the Buff Nation who were already looking ahead. As CU’s game was ending the USC Trojans found themselves trailing against two-touchdown underdog Arizona. Visions of CU being the lone undefeated team in the Pac-12 South were dashed a few minutes later, however, when the Trojans, as they had done the week before against Arizona State, scored late to secure a victory.

The Buffs’ offense is better than almost anyone could have expected. Pundits – rightly – pointed out that CU’s starting quarterback played safety last year, and hadn’t started a game since his senior year in high school … in 2015. When CU’s leading rusher – Alex Fontenot – and leading receiver – K.D. Nixon – were unavailable for the first two games, it appeared that the Buffs would struggle on offense.

Instead, the Buffs are averaging 41.5 points per game, and over 470 yards of total offense per game. The offensive line, despite injuries, is doing well (one sack through two games; eight rushing touchdowns), while new receivers, especially Dimitri Stanley, are stepping up.

“Dimitri’s a great player,” Noyer said of Stanley, who has had six catches in each of his first two games, with his six catches going for 126 yards and a touchdown against Stanford. “You saw that last game and this game. Dimitri will make plays, whether it’s a 5-yard dump-off that he takes to the house or a long ball across the middle. Dimitri is fearless. He plays hard every game. All of our guys can do that. You saw that throughout the game.”

Now, of course, the defense is another story.

The Buffs forced field goals in the first half, allowing the offense to do just enough to keep CU in the game until the offense started making plays in the second half.

CU wanted to stop the Stanford rushing attack, and was successful, holding the Cardinal to 70 yards rushing on 21 attempts.

In the second half, particularly the fourth quarter, however, the deficiencies in the defensive backfield were evident.

“We need to play cleaner,” Dorrell said. “We need to continue to get better, but I’m very proud of these guys and the way they hung in there … We have a lot of work to complete and get better at in a lot of areas. But the thing about this team is they are resilient. They understand we have some struggles we need to work through and get better at.”

Thoughts of CU competing for a South Division title were beyond the wildest hopes of even the most ardent Buff fan a mere ten days ago … so let’s just leave them there.

As of this writing, we don’t know if Colorado will be able to face off against Arizona State next weekend. The Sun Devils had to scratch their game against Cal, and the chances of CU facing Arizona State do not look good. (One tweet from an insider: “The situation within the ASU football program is dire. The facility is closed. An entire side of the ball has it. 6-staff members are positive. And they’re just at the beginning of the outbreak. When asked to describe it I was told: “This is bad. Really, really bad.”).

If the Buffs don’t get to play the Sun Devils, their next game will be on the road against USC, with, potentially, the Pac-12 South Division on the line.

Try not to look at it that way.

Yes, there are a grand total of nine Power Five conference schools who have played at least two games who remain undefeated, and CU is one of them.

Whether the Buffs can sustain their success (or will be given the opportunity to do so), remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the 2-0 record is as good as any Colorado fan could have hoped for.

Will future opposing passers be able to exploit CU’s young secondary? Sure.

Will the Buffs be able to nurse three score leads in the second half of every game? Unlikely.

But those are debates and concerns for another day. For now, let’s enjoy the fact that CU now has a three-game winning streak against the likes of Stanford, one of the premier teams in the conference year-in and year-out. Let’s enjoy the fact that CU has a young roster which is, as coach Dorrell put it, “still learning as a team” … and will have almost everyone back in 2021.

Let’s enjoy the fact that Colorado is 2-0 (and, if you must, that the likes of Colorado State, Michigan, and Nebraska have suffered embarrassing losses already this season).

The Buffs wake up this morning undefeated, a reality that almost 90% of the Power Five can’t claim.

That’s more than enough for now …

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9 Replies to ““We’re Still Learning””

  1. “CBS Sports, which ranked Colorado as its No. 110 team in the nation before the Buffs’ first game, called CU “overrated”, despite having posted only 5-7 records each of the past three seasons.”

    And their only story on the win is on Jerry Rice’s son, they couldn’t do both? Then there is a story on overlooked teams to watch or something like that & they talked about Oregon???

    6.5 point underdogs w/ new starts at QB, RB & WR w/ starter out. Win.

    9 point underdogs, up from 6 after their QB was cleared to play, Win

    New coach who came in late, w/ no spring ball & limited eval time, maybe after the next win.

  2. Great win considering everything, thanks Stu.

    I think vs. Stanford the pass game opened up the run game in the third quarter. When they left the pass game (did they even throw a pass in the 4th quarter?) the run game obviously wasn’t enough. Glad to hear coach own up to game management, and the WE in We’re still learning. How refreshing.

  3. What a start for the Buffs! So proud of the entire program. Team is really playing like they are “well coached.” Very few mistakes. Great to see. That has not been the norm for quite some time now. Regarding the defense, we need to figure out a way to apply more pressure on the qb. Mills was far too comfortable in the pocket during the 4th quarter. A little more pressure from our D line and the secondary will start to look better. Go Buffs!

  4. Great win!! In years past we would have folded and give up a big play or made mental mistakes. Bend but don’t break was the philosophy and it is very easy to screw that up if you locked in. One question and two quick comments.

    -Why did Nixon not play this game? I must have missed it. Early in the game, there was a shot of the sideline with (I think) him standing there looking like he was waiting to get into the game. I thought he was going to play.
    – I think we need to review clock management a bit. Early in the 4th quarter, up by 19 and we were routinely leaving 20 seconds on the clock when we snapped the ball. Luckily their clock management was not great either late in the quarter.
    -We dropped two or three easy interceptions, which would have made the game much less nerve wracking. This could easily have been a very comfortable win.

    1. Excellent two points!

      Has anyone else wondered if Mangham looks like he has a bit of a gut? It didn’t hurt Bettis, But he was a freak. Maybe he’s growing out of the TB spot?

  5. I am the guy you are writing this for – I’m not comfortable unless we win in a blowout; probably PTSD from too many come groan ahead losses as a CU fan.

    But sometimes I have to look back at our 2016 season where we barely hung on for victories against some horrible teams – Oregon (4-8) and UCLA (4-8). But like you said above, a win is a win. And out guys are still young and learning.

  6. Good things happen when you can run the ball and stop the run……stopping makes the opposing team one dimensional….as scary as the secondary is at times I much rather know I’ve got throws coming than worrying about the run….being able to run just opens so much on O …..props to the guys up front…..Go BUFFS

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