Colorado was expected to lose to USC tonight. They lose every game to USC (0-13 all-time), they lose every game they wear all-black (0-6 all-time), and, despite having lost their past three games, don’t realize that you have to play to win if you want to win.
The Buffaloes spent the majority of the second half leading 24-21, 31-21 or 31-24. Between USC’s 59-second, 75-yard opening drive and their game-winning score, the Buffs had the lead for 53 minutes tonight. In that span they made the plays they needed to make, especially on the defensive side, but their second half strategy was the type of conservative “playing not to lose” that loses games like this.
With seven minutes left in the game, the Buffs were up 31-28. They moved into USC territory and faced 3rd-and-4 at the 38-yard. Steven Montez forced a pass to Tony Brown that fell incomplete, then Mel Tucker inexplicably opted to punt. The Buffs decided not run on 3rd and possibly 4th down, which is baffling considering they (a) averaged 5.8 yards per carry tonight, (b) have a mobile, 6’5, 230-lbs. quarterback, and (c) have Laviska f’ing Shenault there to run the wildcat. Let your players win the game.
As you probably saw, USC scored a touchdown on the following drive. The defense was aggressive to the ball and called numerous blitzes, but whatever good they conjured didn’t pan out. Mark Perry pressured Kedon Slovis into a foolish throwaway that was nearly picked, but USC converted the 3rd-and-10. Then Jamar Montgomery strip-sacked Slovis, but USC fell on it and got the first down after facing 2nd-and-20. (Quincy Jountti didn’t appear to get the first down on 3rd-and-1, but the refs gave it to him.)
After a string of misplays, it was fate that Michael Pittman would score his second long touchdown of the day. CU failed on their ensuing 2-minute drill. We’ve seen this before; the plot is trite.
What else is there to talk about? The defense was fairly good night, even if they did allow 35 points. They made critical plays — shoutout to K.J. Trujillo — but they were just unlucky. USC fumbled four times and recovered them all, three of them on scoring possessions. Slovis also had some very dangerous throwaways that were nearly picked off, but each fell harmlessly to the grass. It’s not controversial to say that the Buffs would have won if they had made one play more than they did, which is painful to see.
The offensive playmakers were outstanding tonight, but the offense was continually short-circuited by penalties. The Buffs had two false starts at the USC 2-yard-line on one drive, although they did score a touchdown on that drive. Just before halftime, CU was going for it on 4th-and-1 at the USC 36-yard-line, but an Arlington Hambright false start forced them into punting. After a 27-yard Blake Stenstrom keeper (!!), the Buffs were up 31-21 and poised for a long drive, but a holding call took away a long run and ruined the drive. That’s just the three worst moments that come to mind, not including the rest of CU’s 13 penalties.
Laviska Shenault, K.D. Nixon and Alex Fontenot all had terrific games. That shouldn’t be forgotten in this frustrating loss. Nixon caught two first half touchdowns on smart routes. Fontenot carried the load early, but the Buffs moved away from the run in the second half for whatever reason. Shenault, my goodness, was fantastic. He had 189 yards on 10 touches, which include a 33-yard catch to set up a touchdown, a crucial 4th-down run, and the most 71-yard touchdown I’ve ever seen. Viska is back, but again, he didn’t touch the ball in the fourth quarter.
The Buffs lost this game because they played to lose. The players themselves made winning plays on the both sides of the ball, which is why it’s so frustrating that penalties and conservative playcalling cost them the game. This should have been CU’s first-ever win over USC and it should have made a bowl game possible again. Instead, we’re running out of ways to stay positive.