The Colorado Buffaloes came into the game as the Pac-12’s only unbeaten team at 5-0. After Washington’s loss at Oregon earlier in the night, the conference’s College Football Playoff hopes rested solely on CU. After Saturday’s beatdown in the City of Angels, let’s just say we can focus on more manageable goals.
Opposite Colorado, USC was a preseason top 15 despite losing numerous contributors from last season’s Cotton Bowl squad. They were rated that highly because they’re ungodly talented. They’ve disappointed thus far on the season because of inconsistent play by both their young defense and their true freshman QB J.T. Daniels. In this game, both came together, which combined with dominant play from their wide receivers, meant the Buffs were in trouble.
Daniels didn’t find his groove until after making his patented early mistakes. On the very first play of the game, Daniels was picked off by Drew Lewis. Colorado could have started hot and put pressure on USC with a score, but instead went three-and-out while losing 12 yards on sideways plays and sacks — telling of the night they would endure. USC’s offense continued to scuffle early on, including another Daniels pass that was intercepted by Evan Worthington, but the Buffs refused to do anything with their chances.
Laviska Shenault Jr. came into the game with the nation’s eyes fixated on him. He also had the USC defense locked in on his every movement. The Buffs’ ineptitude early came partly because they were force-feeding him despite the Trojans having literally four guys around him on every play. Shenault did break free for a 49-yard touchdown run out of the wildcat formation, but that proved to be his (and Colorado’s) only big play. Shenault was triple-teamed and had a couple drops (albeit on tough plays), but he still managed 118 yards and a touchdown in just three quarters before leaving with a minor injury. That appears to be the floor for what Viska can do, and that in itself is scary to think about.
Colorado's Laviska Shenault 49-yard touchdown run.— RalphieReport (@RalphieReport) October 14, 2018
Colorado 7, USC 0 11:58 2nd quarter pic.twitter.com/6XxG8wsqd3
Colorado’s early 7-0 lead proved to be a mirage of good things to come. USC answered with a Tyler Vaughns 27-yard touchdown. The Trojans realized on this drive that even with CU blitzing every other play, Daniels could just toss it up to his freakish receivers and let them make a play. The Buffs’ corners struggled a bit too, especially freshman Chris Miller, who on this drive was baptized by fire. This drive was a turning point for the Trojans with a sudden flurry of firepower against Colorado’s vulnerable secondary.
Steven Montez, meanwhile, looked rattled in the opening 30 minutes as we saw the vintage “deer in headlights” version of him. He spent much of the first half running for his life, throwing screens that were swallowed whole, and throwing into microscopic windows on 3rd-and-long. You can throw blame whoever you want — the o-line for being dominated, Montez for being shaken by the pressure, or the coaching staff for sticking with what clearly wasn’t working — but the struggles were certainly a team effort. This offense was going nowhere and they had no plan besides begging Viska to save them. Viska needed some help and it wasn’t there.
USC scored twice again in the first half, both drives taking less than a minute of game time. The first came when Daniels threw it up to Michael Pittman and let him work. The Buffs dialed up another blitz, which left linebacker Davion Taylor in single coverage on Pittman with no safety help. Taylor never knew where the ball was, then slipped when trying to locate it. Pittman just had to slow down, secure the catch and jog in for the 65-yard score.
USC's JT Daniels 65-yard touchdown to Michael Pittman— RalphieReport (@RalphieReport) October 14, 2018
USC 14, Colorado 7 3:33 2nd quarter pic.twitter.com/eNGVK3wnVw
Their next drive was another show of Pittman’s elite jump ball ability. The Buffs didn’t even play poor defense on him; he simply made indefensible catches. After a superb play on a tightly defensed jump ball, he scored again on a 9-yard reception. Delrick Abrams expected him to fade towards the back corner — where he would be practically unstoppable — but he instead slanted in for an uncontested play. That touchdown gave Daniels 255 passing yards in the first half, 222 of which in the second quarter alone.
The Buffaloes desperately had to get back some points, but curious clock management killed whatever chance they had of gaining momentum going into the half. Montez looked poised as he completed a series of quick passes, but Colorado never used any of its three timeouts until too late. The Buffs used their first stoppage with 13 seconds left in the half, only to set up a failed Hail Mary attempt. Had they been more prudent, they should have had the time to get into field goal range at the very least.
After the break, the game was in jeopardy of being out of hand unless something drastic happened. Colorado’s fate was all but cemented when Montez had an errant screen that was tipped by Shenault and picked off by Ajene Harris. Once Harris hauled in the interception, he had just had to jog 6 yards for the defensive score. After that fluky play gave USC the 28-7 lead, the Buffs made their revered second half adjustments, but it was too little, too late.
Colorado's S. Montez throws a 6-yard pick six to USC's A. Harris— RalphieReport (@RalphieReport) October 14, 2018
USC 28, Colorado 7 5:16 3rd Quarter pic.twitter.com/3xTfGbBMx9
Perhaps the Trojans offense took their foot off the pedal, but the CU defense actually looked good in the second half. They weren’t gashed by any big plays and they more or less stifled the USC rushing attack. The only score the defense gave up was a late fourth quarter field goal. (The defense has allowed 6 fourth quarter points all season, best in the nation, for what it’s worth.) You could say that this strong play gave the Buffs a chance to come back to challenge USC, but really they just made us stick around to watch a game that was basically over.
The night worsened when Shenault was injured in the third quarter after a series of brutal hits. The first hit, which occurred before the pick-6 and didn’t result in injury to Viska, was a clear targeting by USC middle linebacker Palaie Gaoteote, but it wasn’t called. Gaoteote should have been ejected, but it ultimately didn’t matter because the sheer force of hitting Shenault knocked the linebacker unconscious. It was a scary head-to-head play involving two great athletes who combine to weigh over 470-lbs., so there absolutely should have been a call made to prevent such violence. Shenault was OK, thankfully, but he did hurt his toe later in the quarter. It didn’t look bad, but the Buffs held him out for precautionary reasons. Hopefully he’s alright and will soon continue his incredible season.
With injuries to Shenault, MacIntyre (concussion) and later Travon McMillian (leg bruise), the Buffs were forced to spread the ball around the field. Unexpectedly, this is when they finally found success. Montez stood tall in the pocket and found Tony Brown, Kabion Ento and others, then Kyle Evans rushed in a 2-yard score to bring it to 28-14. The only complaint about the drive was that it took all of 7 minutes off the clock, potentially killing any real shot they had of coming back.
After a USC field goal, the Buffs marched down the field again. Many a yard came on USC penalties, but Montez did well to find Jaylon Jackson in his freshman debut. The drive culminated in Montez diving into the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown run, his fourth of the season.
Best story from tonight for #CUBuffs was Jaylon Jackson catching back-to-back passes. Two torn ACLs and a severe lower leg injury... three seasons missed due to injury. He kept a positive attitude and is back in the mix.— Adam Munsterteiger (@adamcm777) October 14, 2018
After failing the two-point conversion, the Buffs trailed 31-20 with 3:23 left in the game. Then they recovered the onside kick and gave us all hope that they could pull off the impossible and cover the 7-point spread. Those hopes, however, fell flat as the Buffs were unable to gain a single yard on this final drive. The Trojans took over on downs and ran out of the clock.
We have now seen what a bad game looks like for Colorado. They struggled all night moving the ball as they couldn’t outrun the speedy USC defense on sideways plays and the offensive line didn’t hold up enough for Montez to attack deep (not that CU tried to). The defense was great against the run and caused turnovers, but after the offense couldn’t capitalize on those breaks, it was only a matter of time before USC’s freakish receivers brutalized CU’s inexperienced cornerbacks. This doesn’t indicate that CU can only beat middling teams, but it does show that in order to get a quality win, especially on the road, they have to play aggressively and with confidence. They’re not good enough to play uninspired football.
Next up for the Buffs is an away game at Washington. The Huskies just dropped a heartbreaker at Oregon, and though they were bit by the injury bug in that physical contest, they will look to take out their anger on Colorado. It’s going to be a critical week of rehabilitation and refocusing for the Buffs.