COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 24: Rodney Stewart #5 of the Colorado Buffaloes fumbles the handoff from quarterback Tyler Hansen #9 of the Colorado Buffaloes in the first quarter against Ohio State at Ohio Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Let me ask you something: even after you found out that The Ohio State University was turned into just ohio state university after suspensions, defections, terminations and even revelations of a sort in Miami, did you really think a visit to the Horseshoe, filled with 105,096 fans clad almost exclusively in red, by a team that had lost 19 games in a row outside of Colorado, would result in a victory by the visitors? Really? I know, I know, you figured they would at least make a game of it. While some players did their best and almost made a game of it, as a team, they didn't come close. That's because a team is made up of offense, defense & special teams, of players, coaches & support staff, of seniors, freshmen & in-between-men. The team as a whole failed because parts of the team failed, even while other parts played well. In some cases, it's not the parts you think.
The Buffs may have some games like the one against OSU in them still, but only if some of the coaches don't wise up. A case in point is the special teams play. We've all heard or read the litany of bad plays on punts and kickoffs. Most of the blame has been placed on the players. Some may need to know that the two short rugby-style kicks were done at the instruction of the coaches, and that the shorter kick was purposely aimed at and struck the back of a Buckeye player. They were ordered, per Coach Embree, to minimize the potential damage that could be wrought by Jordan Hall. It turns out he was right about needing to keep the ball away from Hall. The mistake in the first place was relying too much on rugby-style kicks and not enough on sideline or coffin-corner kicks, and in the second place on not having the rest of the punting team ready to take advantage of O'Neill's accuracy on short, purposeful kicks. As for punt returns, it's easy to blame Rodney Stewart for mistakes in catching and not catching the ball, but he's not the first Buff to be catching punts behind the 10 this year. Rather we should be asking, where is the coaching that should be ingraining hardline rules about when to let the ball go, and when to stay away from the return man and the ball when you're not catching it. And on the subject of returns, how hard is it to recognize who knows how to run upfield once they catch the ball, or to recognize who knows how to block and sustain without clipping or holding. Also, why put your best running back and your best receiver back and risk injury to them? Would you put Hansen back if he was good at returns? I can tell just from watching the games that Clemons, Jones, Jaffee and maybe Lockridge should be returning punts and kickoffs, and Stewart and Richardson should not.
For those of you who think all is now lost this season based on CU's play against Ohio State, let's just say that the reports of CU football's death are highly exaggerated. CU's play in OSU's giant stadium is not indicative of how they will play the rest of the year. A team on an extended road losing streak is not going to get healthy in a place like Columbus, Ohio.The way the offense reacted on Saturday reminds me of the '94 Buffaloes when they walked into Memorial Stadium in Lincoln amd saw the new Jumbotron surrounded by a sea of crimson. The Buffs eyes got big and they barely saw straight the rest of the game. The midwest takes its football seriously. Their stadiums are like their fans: large, loud and mostly red-cheeked.(It seems as though half of the Big Ten teams sport red on their uniforms.) Nebraska has always belonged in the Big 10 because their fans, polite as they usually are, are dead-serious about rooting their team on to victory. As CU begins their tour through PAC-12 country, they can count on the fact that they wont see anything like they saw last Saturday. All but five PAC-12 stadiums are about half the size of the Horseshoe or smaller, though CU plays in three of the five bigger ones this year. Sun Devil(71,706) and Husky(72,500) Stadiums are big 70k plus stadiums, but they are filled with fans whose minds are filled as much with either partytime and teetime or lattes, mate's and yacht-tays(?) as they are with football. (And yes, many CU fans fit right in to the PAC-12, their minds filled with par-tay, or is it pot-tay, and recreating in the mountains as much as football.) As for the colors, a visiting team is likely to be stricken more with revulsion or pity than with fear staring at a stadium stained with fans adorned in colors also worn by the likes of Iowa State and Northwestern. And the giant Rose Bowl(91,500) will be lucky to be half-filled thanks to the last gasps of a mediocre Neuheisel-led, baby-blue-clad UCLA team. Two of those three are winnable. And of the nine games on Colorado's first PAC-12 schedule, four are at home. Three are winnable. Win the winnables, and that last game against the Utes will mean something more than winning the real Rocky Mountain Showdown.
1. Budding Stars on Defense.
Coach Brown's disruptive defense is earning notice in the PAC-12 before the Buffs have played their first official conference game. Colorado ranks first in the PAC-12 in sacks, with Josh Hartigan tied for 1st with 4 sacks, and both Doug Rippy and Chidera Uzo-Diribe coming in at 4th with 2.5 sacks. Along with Jon Major and Derrick Webb, Hartigan and Rippy help make a formidable foursome at linebacker. And Uzo-Diribe, or CHUD as I like to call him, helps strengthen an already solid line with Will Pericak and Conrad Obi. Now if the front seven can just figure out how to close up the middle against 20-yard quarterback sprints, their scoring defense numbers will improve dramatically. With slow-to-react safeties and newcomer corners, a dominant front seven is just what the Buffs need to succeed.
2. Hansen finding receiver options. Tyler Hansen didn't have his best performance Saturday, but he did find some other targets besides Stewart and Richardson. Though half of his 22 completions still went to running backs and P.Rich, he spread the other 11 amongst six other players. He also found Toney Clemons for as many completions as for Richardson, including Clemons' 2nd TD catch in 2 games. Continued success in spreading passes around will strengthen both the air and ground games.
3. Kicking game still strong.. Freshman Will Oliver kicked another long field goal, this one a 47-yarder, and made both extra points. And while many maligned freshman Darragh O'Neill for his short rugby kicks(20 and 33 yards), only one of them was a mistake, both of them were ordered by the coaches, and he averaged 44.5 yards on his other four punts. O'Neill leads the PAC-12 in number of punts and total yards, always dubious distinctions because they are the marks of unsuccessful offensive play. Yet despite all of the rugby punts he's been asked to kick, O'Neill is 5th in the conference in punting average at 43.8 yds/punt. Folks, they'll only get better.
1. With Stewart injured, CU's ineffective running game will only get worse.
It seems like each week, we hear or read that CU's o-line can't block to create an effective running game. Now we find out that Rodney Stewart's shoulder is injured and his time will be limited. The truth is not that the ground game is ineffective, but that it is underutilized. Against a very good defense, Stewart and Tony Jones averaged over 5.6 yards per carry. The problem is, they combined for only 13 carries. Even when you fall behind early, you can't abandon the running game early. The Ten-Minute March against CSU proved not only that a fatigued, inferior opponent can be beaten down with a good ground game, it also showed that an offensive line can gain momentum and confidence if given the chance to "go downhill" for a while. Stewart has been playing injured for a while, and while he will continue to play a lot, his injury has forced the offensive coaches to find out that Tony Jones is an excellent alternative with probably as much speed but perhaps a better north-south game than Stewart. If you use it enough, the running game will only get better. There's no better time to find out than against a league with very few good rushing defenses.
2. It's time to do away with rugby-style kicks. This is almost right. It is time to significantly limit them, and then to use them much more strategically. The better special-teams coaches out there will notice when an opponent's punt-return team turns their back on the punter too soon. That's when you fake a punt and run or pass for a first down. CU has a unique talent in Darragh O' Neill; he has an ability to place kicks precisely enough to bounce off of opposing players and knows when to do it. The coaches need to get the rest of the punting team on the same page. And while they're at it, let's see some fake punts now and then. Better yet, I bet Darragh can probably do the same kind of pinpoint kicking on onside kicks with a little practice. In the meantime, give Darragh a shot at coffin-corner and sideline kicks and you wont need rugby kicks to avoid a good return man.
3. Wash.State's passing game is too much for CU's secondary to handle. First, look at who Wazoo has amassed all of those passing yards against: Idaho State(FCS team), UNLV(#110 out of 120 per Phil Steele pre-season power rank), San Diego State(#60 per Phil Steele pre-season power rank). The Cougars first road game of the season produced their first loss, going down 42-24 to the Aztecs. Nevertheless, CU's corners and linebackers will have to keep an eye on the Cougars' Marquess Wilson, who currently leads the nation in receiving yards. Wazoo likes to use him in a play CU's defense is familiar with from practice - the bubble screen. The Buffs' defensive backfield just has to be good enough, if their front seven plays to their usual level. Add pressure up the middle over a second-string center to their usual outside pressure and CU's defense may get the turnovers they've been mostly missing so far.
1. Change the immediate pre-game routine for the offense.
Whatever Embree and his coaches have been doing to get the offense ready for the first quarter hasn't been working. Try something different. My suggestions: after running some line of scrimmage plays at full speed, have them run four plays against the first-string defense with full-contact but no tackling just before they head into the locker room before the game starts, then have Bieniemy scream and shout and pump them up right before they run on the field, and finish by having the offense run IN FRONT OF Ralphie onto the field instead of behind him. OK, you can't do that last one, but maybe make them run the whole length of the field behind Ralphie before coming back to the sidelines. Do something. Enough of the 1st quarter naps.
2. Step up, Seniors! Of all the players that were most disappointing last week, the seniors on the team were the most noticeable, and especially the captains. Hansen needs to be the leader and find his targets on the first series. He needs to get the ball out faster so it reaches the receiver early in his route, run when 10+ open yards are in front of him, and urge his teammates to step up instead of trying to do it all himself. Ryan Miller needs to eliminate the personal fouls(no more stupid moves like sitting on an opponent as he did against CSU) and as the o-line leader make sure nobody else does either. On defense, Jon Major needs to make sure he and his 'backers hold their positions to seal in the QB and any screens, and Anthony Perkins has got to see to it that he and especially Ray Polk are quicker to the ball, whether it be a receiver or a rusher. All of the defense needs to focus on using arms to wrap up tackles and hands to force the ball out. After last week, its time to return the focus to sound fundamentals.
3. Change everything about kickoffs and kickoff returns. These units have been the biggest disappointment so far this year. On kickoffs, STOP trying for the side of the field. Don't ever kick another kickoff out of bounds unless Devin Hester finds he still has a year of college eligibility and shows up on the other team. Kick squib kicks if you must, or have Darragh O' Neill bounce an onside kick off of a Cougar player if you have to, but don't kick it out of bounds. And get people who love to tackle on the kickoff team, too. On the kickoff return team, remove pushers who wont block and wafflers who wont run, and get blockers who keep blocking and sprinters who make one move and then run straight up the field. Find some old tapes of Cliff Branch and the wall he ran behind. Or DVDs of Jeff Campbell and the walls and wedges he ran around. If you don't know special teams, coaches, learn from your predecessors who did. Come on, Buffs. It's time to take the "special" out of special teams and make them SPECIAL! You're back home, so act like it! Make the Cougars look less like wildcats and more like middle-aged women. Buffalo Up the Wazoo! Pound Wash State and push them back to Pullman with their tails between their legs. GO BUFFS!!!