The Colorado Buffaloes opened their season with a wild 48-42 win over the UCLA Bruins. It was the debut for head coach Karl Dorrell against his former team, a high-scoring affair that asks as many questions as it answered.
1. Sam Noyer and Jarek Broussard ball out
There were all sorts of questions for the Buffs’ offense heading into the season. They have a first-time starting quarterback, an injury replacement running back and just one veteran receiver. We didn’t know how Karl Dorrell’s offense would look 12 years removed from his last CFB experience, nor did we know how much influence Darrin Chiaverini would have as coordinator. All we really knew is that they were going run a lot behind an experienced offensive line.
Turns out the Buffs have quite an exciting passing game. Sam Noyer, the senior dual-threat QB, proved to be very accurate on the passes he was asked to make, which are mostly quick passes and play action throws to the middle of the field. He started the game with a hot hand, consistently got it to Dimitri Stanley over the middle, and later found Brady Russell in the end zone. He’s a smart player, quickly finds his open targets and doesn’t panic under duress.
Those were mostly safe and easy throws made possible by a dominant rushing attack. Led by William Sherman, the Buffs’ offensive line mowed over the UCLA front four. Colorado won the line of scrimmage on every play, allowed Noyer all the time he needed and nary made a major mistake. The main reason why everyone was so pissed about Dorrell calling for a 40-yard field goal on 4th-and-1 was because the line was so dominant.
With the big boys doing the dirty work, first-time starter Jarek Broussard had as impressive of a debut as any running back we’ve seen, totaling 187 yards and 3 touchdowns. He hid behind that line, quickly found space and played with a Lindsay-like tenacity against tacklers. He scored those three touchdowns in the first half, all in short-yardage situations in which he cut through slim openings. He even flashed big play potential on his 37-yard gasher to set up a Jaren Mangham touchdown.
Later in the game, the Buffs leaned on Noyer when they needed points. He showed steel nerves, consistently making the plays he needed to move the chains. He dropped an absolute dime to Brady Russell on a 3rd-and-19, a play wherein the drive should have ended, but it led to a clutch 45-yard Evan Price field goal. He threw another bomb to Daniel Arias when the Buffs needed a dagger while up 45-35 (they settled for a field goal, but still).
2. Big plays go both ways
Unlike the offense, the defense is mostly the same unit with the same strengths and weaknesses as they did in 2019. Defensive success is still fought in the trenches and won with playmaking linebackers, but the secondary remains sketchy.
UCLA spent most of the first half shooting themselves in the foot. They had four giveaways inside their own 40-yard-line (!), including three fumbles that were more mistakes than forced turnovers. The one interception Dorian Thompson-Robinson was a tremendous play by Carson Wells, but it was still a mistake by him. CU still jumped on those and made plays, but man, they were fortunate.
When they weren’t hurting themselves, they were quite efficient moving the ball. CU’s secondary gives up a ton of space in coverage and the Buffs linebackers aren’t great against side-to-side speed. The Bruins still found pockets of space, have playmakers to exploit that, and scored their first two touchdowns on busted plays.
The second half was even worse, because UCLA quit turning it over and started running every play to the edge. DTR had himself a 65-yard touchdown run because no one beat to the sideline. The next drive he dropped a 41-yard dime to set another score, then on the next found Keegan Jones in an ocean of space on a 26-yard screen pass touchdown. (The Buffs really needed the offense to perform like they did because they couldn’t stop the same screen pass that was called over and over.)
The Buffs finally made a big play on 4th-and-1 while up 45-35, with who else but Nate Landman making the stop. They got another 4th-and-11 stop on the next drive — after blowing a 1st-and-30 situation, but it’s whatever — thanks to Mustafa Johnson and Landman pressuring the QB on crucial plays.
It wasn’t a great defensive performance overall. Even with four turnovers, two turnovers on downs and a win in the bag, the Buffs allowed 7.4 yards per play, gave up 8 plays of 20+ yards and even committed three crucial pass interference penalties. They couldn’t effectively rush the passer, even with blitzes, and struggled badly with the disparity in team speed. Those blitzes also included just not covering the tight end, which cost them two scores. Even the turnovers weren’t really CU’s doing as much as they were sloppy plays by UCLA. There’s a lot of work to do, but a win is a win.
3. Karl Dorrell calls a brilliant game, mostly
This could not have been a better debut from the former UCLA head coach. He got the turnovers to go his favor, his offense looked sharp and played mistake-free football and his play-calling was on point. It’s clear he made the right decision in the QB and RB battles and put his players in a position to win.
That all said, there were two major decisions to learn from. The first was substituting Tyler Lytle in for Sam Noyer for two drives in the second quarter. Dorrell apparently wants to give Lytle playing time and game-planned around it, but with Noyer dealing like he was, it took the sails out of a high-flying CU offense. Colorado was winning 28-7 at the time and could have jumped to a massive lead with a score, but ended up going three-and-out. Lytle didn’t see the field after that second drive, so perhaps Dorrell realized his mistake.
The second poor decision was going for a 40-yard field goal on 4th-and-1 while leading 35-21. The Buffs had been dominating the line of scrimmage all game, James Stefanou had just missed a field goal (albeit from 51 yards) and settling felt cowardice. You have to be aggressive with the lead, lest a certain Mike MacIntyre remind you of complacency leading to blown leads. It worked out at the end of the day, so we can hope Dorrell takes it in stride and learns to keep rolling when ahead.