The Colorado Buffaloes (3-2, 1-1) dropped a bad one. Against a mediocre opponent in the Arizona Wildcats, the Buffs played terrific football, but mistakes cost them time and time again. It was ultimately a 35-30 loss, a brutal game for CU’s bowl game chances in 2019.
From the very start, the Buffs looked sharp. They moved the ball easily with runs up the middle and quick passes out to the flanks. Arizona’s defense isn’t great, and they looked especially soft with Steven Montez sharp and the Buffs’ offensive line on a hot streak. This should have been a tone-setting first-possession touchdown drive, but the Buffs stalled out after the Wildcats blew up a run play. CU had to settle for a field goal that James Stefanou drilled. This would be the theme.
After a short Arizona drive, the Buffs got the ball back ready to build on their solid start. Montez hit Tony Brown and Alex Fontenot found a hole, but the goings got tough, however, as mistakes began to hurt CU. Casey Roddick was called for an usportsmanlike conduct penalty, pushing the Buffs back 15 yards. Montez found Brown for a 3rd-and-18 conversion, but it was called back on a William Sherman holding. No matter how sharp your skill players are, it doesn’t matter if there are mistakes like that holding you back.
After a booming 63-yarder by Ray Guy contender Alex Kinney, the Buffs continued making mistakes. Tayvian Cunningham caught a pass on a busted coverage then broke it for a 49-yard gain, plus 10 yards on a horsecollar tackle by Delrick Abrams. Colorado attempted a red zone stand, but on third-and-goal, Khalil Tate found a wide open Stanley Berryhill III on another blown coverage.
Colorado started moving the ball again, but stalled out again because of mistakes. CU had the ball in Zona territory and Jay Johnson called a deep shot. With single coverage and no safety help, Montez looked for Daniel Arias, the redshirt freshman starting in place of the injured Laviska Shenault. Montez threw a 40-yard strike that literally couldn’t have been better, but Arias dropped it and CU had to punt.
As the Buffs scuffled, the defense was sharp despite being ravaged by injuries. They made a few mistakes — and would make a few more — but they were mostly solid, especially on the interior. Arizona was consistently in 3rd-and-longs because they found nothing up the middle on early downs. Combined with excellent field position because of Kinney, the defense kept Arizona at bay long enough for the offense to get it together.
Following Arias’s drop, the Wildcats were pinned, then had to punt themselves. Colorado got the ball back in their own territory, which led another Stefanou field goal to put the game 7-6. Colorado then forced Arizona into another 3rd-and-long, Tate had to throw deep into coverage and Mikial Onu picked him off, his 6th turnover caused in five games.
Immediately after the turnover, Jay Johnson dialed up a perfect trick play. Montez tosses left to Alex Fontenot, who tossed it back to KD Nixon, who rolled right and threw a 40-yard dime to Dimitri Stanley for the touchdown. It was gutsy as hell, Nixon has all kind of arm talent none of us knew about, and Montez had a great block to save the play from getting blown up. That trick play touchdown was reminiscent of Colorado’s 96-yard flea flicker to Nebraska. So similar, in fact, that Arizona immediately scored on a 75-yard pass, just as Huskers did. The Cats took back the 14-13 lead. (Onu was injured on that scoring play and did not return.)
The Buffs were able to regain the lead with a well executed two-minute scoring drive to end the half. Montez was his best self — creative and confident, an improvisational genius. On one busted play, he faked like he was scrambling, drew the linebacker towards, then pitched it to Alex Fontenot for a 19-yard gain. Then after a Brady Russell catch-and-fight-for-10-yards, Montez crafted another beauty. On this play, he went through his progressions and found nothing, scrambled right, circled back to left, then lofted a floater to Russell for the go-ahead touchdown. The Buffs had the 20-13 lead at half, and it was because of superb plays like that from Montez.
Colorado fans surely expected more halftime adjustments, but the Wildcats got their offense back on track. They still struggled to run the ball, but the Buffs’ coverage was woeful. After injuries to Chris Miller (ACL), Aaron Maddox (laceration) and Mikial Onu (side injury), the Buffs were starting Delrick Abrams and backups, including former quarterback Sam Noyer at free safety. Arizona moved down the field and Tate eventually found Brian Casteel wide open for a touchdown for a 21-20 lead.
The Buffs were next to score, again because of Montez’s brilliance, although his second half was more up-and-down than his perfect first half. With Tony Brown in single coverage on the outside, Montez threw him a deep ball. It was an absolute dime. Brown had zero separation, but he didn’t need it because the ball hit him in the chest from 49 yards away. On the very next play, CU got a reverse run for Brown, who found the edge and stiff-armed a defender on his way to the end zone. The Buffs were back on top, 27-21.
Arizona scored very quickly, because of course they did. The defense was a skeleton crew, then those skeletons started breaking bones. With zero pressure without Mustafa Johnson (ankle), leaky coverage from inexperienced players, and no Mikial Onu to get takeaways, the Buffs couldn’t do much good.
The Buffs trailed 28-27 after that drive. Fontenot and Brown moved the chains down to the field, but they stalled out once they got inside the five. The first play was a loss of 2, then Fontenot ran into his lineman for no gain. On third down, Montez scrambled, found nothing, then dumped it for Mangham for one yard. CU would settle for another field goal to go up 30-28. In a game littered with mistakes, that was another killer in this shootout.
Field goals were never going to win this game. There was zero chance the Buffs would be able to stop Arizona once the injuries piled up. It was no surprise, then, that Arizona scored another touchdown. On this drive, it was mostly Tate adding to his career-high 404-yard passing day. Once they got done to the CU 5-yard line, it looked like Nathan Tilford fumbled, but he was called down (I have no idea if it was a fumble or not). Tilford scored on the next play to put Arizona up 35-30.
Colorado had seven minutes to score a touchdown. They were set up to have that long drive that ends in a back-breaking touchdown, but it was not to be. Colorado moved the ball well enough, but a false start moved them into a 2nd-and-7, then an incompletion and a two-yard scramble made it 4th-and-5. Montez was hit as he threw and the ball sailed over Stanley’s outstretched hand. Arizona got the ball back and ran out the final two minutes.
This was Colorado’s game to win. They were the better team in both halves, but mistakes cost them dearly. Those penalties stalled out scoring drive, a dropped touchdown pass cost them 7 points, and blown coverages were Arizona’s only successes until CU bodies started dropping. They now face an uphill battle as they vie for postseason eligibility. They must beat UCLA and Stanford, then pull off a win against one of Washington State (road), USC, Washington or Utah (road).