Resilience, Fire and Heart: those were the traits that the Colorado Buffaloes displayed on Saturday, all seemingly springing from deep-seated emotions that welled up to create the intensity necessary to bring victory. These traits revealed character missing too often this season, and all were needed to win out over a talented Aggie team that was much improved and fighting for a sixth win to make them bowl-eligible. As Coach Hawkins pointed out, the Buffs' backs were as against the wall as they could be. With no margin for error if they wanted to reach post-season play, Colorado came through this time to extend the relevance of this season for another week. There is still no margin for error, and their backs are still against the wall, but perhaps the hope instilled by a timely upset can follow them on the road for the next week, maybe two.
There are some games in which crucial moments occur, the weight of which can only truly be sensed by those who are there to experience them. I felt very fortunate to be present at Folsom Field on Saturday, not only because it was an unexpectedly magnificent day in November to be in Boulder, Colorado with good friends and family doing anything, but because I got to see a remarkable game, a razor-close CU victory filled with several momentum changes, during which I observed certain interactions between and among participants and fans that clearly influenced the eventual outcome of a football contest. Inspiration came from many sources, some intending to inspire, some not so much. Within my usual analysis below, I include three specific moments in the game in which interactions among players, fans, coaches and even referees changed the course of the game.
1. Offense Shows Up - 35 points, 2 players with over 100 yards rushing, 1 player with over 100 yards receiving, double-digit scoring in 3 of 4 quarters, 6 scoring drives of 50 yds or more. It was the most points scored by Colorado in a winning effort since last year's CU-CSU game. The Buffalo Offense woke up when they really needed to against one of the more prolific offenses in the Big XII, just nudging the Aggies at the wire. The big difference was a running game that went for 226 yds(remember, I don't count sack yards against the rushing game), and a passing game with four receptions of over 20 yards, two of which were over 40 yards. That's how you get to 437 yards of total offense and a victory in the Big XII.
2. Simas Grows Up - From the moment Markques Simas showed up on CU's practice field, he looked like the real deal at wide receiver, the big body that CU needed at the position to boost their passing game. Before he could see the field in a game, Simas went through many well-documented trials and tribulations. This season, few passes were thrown his way. While not all of that was his fault, he didn't seem quite ready for primetime. All of that changed on Saturday. There was one moment in particular that was a revelation. With about ten minutes to go in the second quarter, Hansen threw a beautiful 47-yard pass to Simas. As the pass sailed directly in front of me while I sat in my seat on the north 30-yard line, two doubts were firmly planted in my mind, and perhaps in the mind of Markques: 1) a defender was all over Simas, & 2) Simas usually is unable to find a way to catch the long ball. This was the first key moment appreciated best by those who went to the game. Simas leapt in the air, came down with the ball, stood up, and then fell to his knees. His body language said it all - he was overwhelmed, he was thankful, he was celebratory. It was self-realization and redemption all at once. In that moment, Markques Simas grew into the receiver he and we knew he could be.
3. CU Buffaloes Up - Despite the Stewart TD that followed Simas' great reception, the Buffs found themselves down 21-10 going into the locker room at halftime. Most of us will never know exactly what was said, due to the unwritten football rule that what is said in the locker room is for players and coaches only and stays in the locker room. This is as it should be, but former player (& Orange Bowl MVP) Charles Johnson, who hosts the post-game call-in show on KOA and is privy to those locker room talks, gave those of us listening to the radio on the way home from the game some insight into the team's mentality and emotion at that point. Senior tight end Patrick Devenny apparently lit up his teammates, arousing many of them out of their lethargy. He was the one player primarily responsible for firing up his teammates going into the second half. Whatever he said got the Buffs going; without a senior's prodding words, the Buffs don't get the ball rolling towards a victory.
The third key moment occurred with about 7 minutes left in the third quarter, Colorado trailing 13-21, and the stimulus came from an unlikely source. Tyler Hansen scrambled for a first down on a 10-yard run to the CU 32. As he stepped out of bounds on the near sideline, he was given a strong push by an Aggie defender right in front of the CU bench. The head linesman and a referee were right there to throw the flag, but nobody did. A clear personal foul, but no penalty. The bench and the crowd(including a very loud yours truly) erupted. Hawkins screamed at the refs, and continued to verbally jab at them for a good 2-3 minutes. The non-call fired up the crowd and the team, which proceeded to march down the field on a 79-yard drive culminating in a touchdown AND a gutsy 2-point conversion on a pass to, who else, Simas, to pull the Buffs into a tie at 21. This was CU's way of saying "It is ON!", and the resulting shootout produced a win for the Buffs.
1. The Offense Has Turned the Corner - Despite fine performances by Hansen, Simas, Stewart and Devenny, among others, the offense gave up eight sacks for the second game in a row, and committed seven of the ten penalties charged against Colorado in the game. They are still shooting themselves in the foot, and are going to be there in the emergency room with their quarterback if they don't turn things around with their pass blocking. Continued grit and determination must also come with improved focus and discipline if the Buffs are really going to turn things around yet this season.
2. Players Won't Want to Come To CU - One of the things that darkened the skies over Boulder last week was Darrell Scott's (somewhat) unexpected announcement that he was leaving CU at the end of the semester. This was perceived by most as a loss as big as any of the Ls on the schedule this season, one that would do permenent damage to CU's ability to recruit. Instead, CU picked up five strong recruits this week alone. Additionally, logic would tell you that many running back recruits would look at the loss of Scott as a hole in Colorado's backfield that needs to be filled. CU is already ahead of last year's pace in how many athletes have committed, and the success this week is confirmation of the fact that recruiting has always been a strength of Coach Hawkins and his staff. However, if they are to get the 4-5 star recruits they still need, they must continue to win.
3. Powder Blue Hurt the Team and the School - Thanks to a facebook campaign by a disappointed CU fan, some fans showed up in powder blue shirts reminiscent of the sky blue team colors of the Fairbanks era in CU football history. The protest numbers were small, perhaps 200-300 fans, but those few were visible enough to be a poke in the eyes of a few CU players and coaches. Post-game comments by Tyler Hansen and Coach Hawkins in particular indicate that the protest added fuel to a fire that has been missing for most of the season. While players and coaches ought to keep in mind not only that the protesters are less of a problem than the 6000 or so that didn't even show up, but that the other 99.4% of the fans present in gold and black were visible and vocal supporters, I see the protest as a positive action if it stimulated the team into an us-against-the-world mentality that produced a better result on the field. Considering the events of the previous two weeks, the Buffs had an unexpectedly sizeable crowd, producing noise they will miss in the next two weeks.
1. Defense "Ames" for a Shutout - This Iowa State game has stood out as a very winnable game on the schedule all season. Now that it is here, it is notable that the Cyclones have had great difficulty scoring recently. After allowing 34 points against the Aggies, CU's defense needs to take this game as a challenge to reproduce the results obtained in week three against Wyoming. Their goal should be a shutout against a team that never should have beat them two years ago in Ames. The Buff defense needs to play 60 game-minutes of great football to ensure that there will be no comeback this year, no close game that gives the zebras a chance to gyp them out of a victory like they did twice at the end of the 2007 game, a painful loss that ruined a great season. The defense and the team as a whole owe the Cyclones big time, and what better way to gain revenge than to shutout Iowa State on their home field.
2. Offensive Line Cleans It Up - All one needs to say is 16 sacks in two games. Part of those are the result of the O-line and a scrambling quarterback needing to work in tandem and get used to each other. And not all of the missed blocks that caused those sacks came from offensive linemen. Nevertheless, the sacks and the penalties must be dramatically reduced if the offense is going to be able to produce the kind of numbers they showed they're capable of for these last three games. Teams that commit double-digit penalties and allow eight sacks a game don't regularly win games. Not just the five offensive linemen but the tight ends, running backs and wide receivers need to sustain their blocks and continue them downfield for the passing and rushing games to succeed.
3. Return Teams Break One (or more) - It is time. The Buffs have had some great kickoff returns and some poor punt returns. None of them have gone the distance. Whether it's Brian Lockridge, Demetrius Sumler, Scotty McKnight or a new addition to the return game, it's time for someone to step up and break one loose. It will require three things: great blocking schemes from the coaches, tireless blocking from every player on the return team, and quick north/south sprinting by the returners. One direction change and GO, full speed! The defense has been the strength of the team most of the season, the offense matured tremendously last week, and now everyone on special teams needs to take Aric Goodman's lead and commit to their best while having fun at the same time. If the Buffs excel in all three phases of the game on Saturday, they will not only beat Iowa State, but they will lay the foundation for winning their last two games as well. GO BUFFS!!!