No matter how disappointed you may have been about CU's loss to Hawai'i, there was one overriding thought last Saturday for most CU fans including me: THANK GOD the CU football season has arrived again, and this time without Dan Hawkins! The five-year mistake-by-the-flake has passed, replaced by an old-fashioned return-to-the-roots revival, led by returning CU (& Cherry Creek H.S.) football alum Jon Embree. As much as the take-no-prisoners tone of fall practices and press conferences has yet to surface on game day, there is no mistaking that there is a new found optimism surrounding the CU football program. On paper, Head Coach Embree has put together a group of assistant coaches as talented and experienced as any CU has ever had, leading the team into the new world of the PAC-12, facing teams unfamiliar to many fans but extremely familiar to most of the coaching staff.
The Buffs were supposed to start out with a new professional attitude, including a smash mouth ground game and a run-stuffing defense. The Hiccup in Hawai'i came about because two things still stand in their way - the recent experience of their "old" players and the inexperience of their new coordinators. The sophomores, juniors and seniors have to unlearn losing ways they learned too well in the past 3-5 years, while first-time Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy and virtual first-time Defensive Coordinator Greg Brown must gain experience in their new roles as overall coordinators after many years spent as position coaches. Both players and coordinators looked excellent at times but lacked consistency, most of which can be expected in the first game.
more after the jump...
Many who coach football say the greatest strides are made between games one and two. CU must hope that the strides are great, because they will need great improvement against a team that made the Buffaloes look bad and bewildered last year in an embarrassing 52-7 road loss. Nobody appears to be panicking over the loss, particularly since it is nearly impossible to gauge the true strength of either participant in a 'first game of the season', with no other game against which to measure performance. It would make it easier for the Buffs if they could walk into Folsom Field and find a near-capacity crowd of fans behind them on Saturday, the lack of which Coach Embree lamented earlier in the week. It will be a beautiful, sunshiny home-opener with temperatures in the 70s on the most beautiful campus in the country, with CU celebrating its last conference champion football team from 2001. You know, the 62-36 team. True CU fans have no excuse for missing this one.
1. CU Weakness Turns into Strength as Vaunted Hawaii Passing Game Shut Down.
In case you hadn't heard before the game, the 2010 Hawai'i offense led the nation in passing yards with 394.3 yards/game, helping them to average 500 yds/game in total offense last year. With Maxwell/Manning/Camp/O'Brien Awards candidate Bryant Moniz returning as a senior, who would have thought that an "inexperienced" CU defense would have held Moniz to 178 passing yards. The Buffs' pass rush in the 1st quarter made Moniz look like a freshman QB, yielding few catchable balls out of the pocket. CU's defense stunted and blitzed their way to five sacks during the game, but they were caught off guard both by the Warriors' coaches willingness to have Moniz run by design and by Moniz' increased strength and speed compared to last year. Assuming they learn to handle the various versions of the zone-read option they can expect to see the rest of the year, and start producing more than one turnover a game, the Buff defense may turn out to be the strength of the team.
2. CU Freshmen Stand Tall.
No less than 11 CU freshmen saw their first action on Saturday. Six of those were true freshmen, four of whom stood out. Greg Henderson became the first true freshman to start at cornerback in over 30 years, and acquitted himself well with 3 tackles and excellent coverage that helped limit the Warriors to almost 220 fewer passing yards than they averaged last year. Wide receiver Tyler McCulloch was the 4th leading receiver for the Buffs with 2 catches for 25 yards. Will Oliver reminded us what its like to have a dependable kicker by converting both PATs and by making a 34- yard field goal look easy. And local hero Darragh O'Neill did something that Buff fans haven't seen in way too long by punting 7 times for a 45-yard average(officially 44.9), while still placing 4 of them inside the Hawai'i 20-yd line, and all without a single touchback. These icy first-time performances bode well for the future
3. Hidden Strengths and Stats
I'm not sure these stats and strengths from Saturday are really hidden so much as overlooked by many, but the first one that sticks out is that Rodney Stewart led both teams in all-purpose yards with 150. As tough a time as he had running the ball out of the backfield, Speedy led the team in receiving with 4 catches for 98 yards, one of which was a 52-yard scamper in the 3rd quarter that was the key play in CU's first touchdown drive. Four more catches were by tight ends and one was by a fullback. In an offense premised on the running game, this is exactly the formula for success: at least half of the passes thrown should be to backs out of the backfield and to tight ends. Those kind of plays are like long hand-offs which complement both a rushing game and the long ball. If execution can be improved upon, especially when the ball is actually handed off, hopefully to more backs than just Stewart, Colorado may find a 400-yard offense.
1. CU Offensive Playbook passed from one coaching regime to another.
The first words out of my brother's mouth in the traditional post-CU-game phone call Saturday night was, "Is there some CU Offensive Playbook that is passed on from one CU coach to another every time there is a coaching change, because that offense looked awfully familiar?" Sometimes it seemed like it. What is all to familiar is a stubbornness on the part of nearly every CU coach since Eddie Crowder to start every offensive series with a basic running play. The Buffs called for a running play on the first down of an offensive series 11-12 times in a row, resulting in an average gain somewhere around 1 yard. Instead of "keeping 'em honest", it just ends up throwing away first down because the opponent's defense knows what to expect. Now we know you're not using the same playbook as Hawkins & Co. did, but Coaches Embree and Bieniemy, it will help a smashmouth offense to run plays that keep the defense guessing now and then. Pro-style offenses thrive on the play-action pass, so try one every so often on the first play of a series, and aim for five yards plus every first down.
2. Ghosts Exorcised when Hawkins was fired.
As much as Fall Camp seems to have physically prepared the Buffs for a long tough season, the first half of the Hawaii game showed that, mostly for the offense, there are still scars that may be preventing the mental and emotional toughness which the new coaching staff has tried to instill from penetrating and attaching to the Colorado team psyche. The mental mistakes and hesitancy that hindered execution may have simply come from Opening Game jitters. It may also be the slightest hint of doubt in the minds of a few that makes them fall back into repeating past mistakes. It does seem odd that for two years in a row, the offense was unable to score any first-half points against Hawai'i. I still feel like this year's team acts and plays with more maturity and awareness than any teams we saw under Hawkins, but until individual players learn to play their positions without mistakes, believing that they can rely on each of their teammates to do the same, a lack of confidence will linger. It probably will take a resounding victory or upset to heal wounds and restore confidence that five years of frustration wore away.
3. PAC-12 too strong for Colorado.
It was pretty clear during the preseason that all of the learned prognosticators thought the old PAC10 teams would just be too strong for the likes of Colorado and Utah. They ranked CU "13th in the PAC-12" as Coach Embree likes to put it, and few gave the perennial BCS-busting Utes a chance of even competing for the first PAC-12 South crown. It seemed amusing then that the sports media would think the PAC-12 to be such a big step up from the Big Twelve for Colorado. Yes, Oregon and Stanford are among the elite teams, but what about the likes of Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska. Certainly USC and Washington have had their glory years, but do they compare favorably to Missouri and Kansas State respectively? Does the way Arizona and A. State underachieve year in and year out remind you of Texas Tech and Baylor. When you see the level of mediocrity that Iowa State and Kansas have sunk to, does it make you think of UCLA and WSU in the same way? Now that we have a week and a half of PAC-12 games to examine, is there really any reason for CU to be shaking in their boots? Oregon and Arizona failed to rise to the occasion against LSU & Okie State. UCLA & Oregon State lost to the likes of Houston & Sac State. Washington & USC struggled to edge East.Wash. & Minnesota. While the Buffs were no great shakes against the Warriors, I have to say that I like their chances in this new PAC-12. And there's a good chance you might see the Utes in the first PAC-12 Championship game.
1. Emphasize the Running Game, Really.
After hearing the term "smashmouth football" bandied about this summer, I expected that in the first game of the season I would see a running game designed to allow a running back who carried for over 1300 yards in 2010 the chance to gain at least 100 yards in every game this year. What I didn't expect to see was an offense featuring 30 pass attempts to go with only 18 rushing attempts. I wouldn't have thought I'd see all 18 designed running plays going to only one running back. I might've expected no designed running plays for our mobile quarterback, but I wouldn't have expected no designed roll-out plays for him. And I wouldn't have expected our fullbacks to touch the ball only once, and that on a pass play. If you really want a running game, you've got to commit to it. There should be 30 rushing plays and 18-20 pass plays, and at least five of those passes should be to a running back. Tony Jones and Josh Ford need to get in on the action. Hand off to the fullback now and then. All of this gives the O-Line a chance to attack and be aggressive just like the defense, to literally move forward. If you emphasize it, you will really have a running game that most of the PAC-12 can't handle.
2. Don't be predictable.
Now when I say emphasize the ground game, I don't mean send it up the middle every first down. If you really don't think you have the best players but you do think you have the best team, then don't take teams head-on and only do what they are expecting you to do. Use deception and trickery now and then. Throw the long ball on first down. Fake some punts. Run a reverse off a stretch play or bootleg. Keep them guessing.
3. Get MEDIEVAL with the Bears!
I'm hoping more than anything that the Buffaloes come out this Saturday with fire and a modicum of anger. They're playing in Folsom, and it will be loud. They need to look at the game like this: California is the enemy. They are invading the Buffs' home, so they need to be attacked and repelled. On the last encounter, the Bears took no prisoners and slaughtered the Buffaloes. Many Buffaloes have not returned, but those who are left have been hardened like steel by new leaders who refuse to go into battle without a fight. It is now the time to attack the Bears unrelentingly, to punish them for last year and for last week, to make then reel and gasp for air, then see them wail and gnash their teeth. When the Buffaloes have finished, the Cal Bears will find that their foray into the Flatirons Fortress that is Folsom Field was futile. Colorado will rise victorious! California will be punished, judged, and found wanting.