For a team that was losing 34-7, things turned out quite alright for the Colorado Buffaloes. They didn’t beat the USC Trojans, but they came roaring back and damn near completed the comeback. They showed tremendous fight in this game, a few talented players broke out and Deion Sanders’ team has forward momentum despite an 0-2 start to Pac-12 play.
Pass Offense: B+
It’s tough to grade the Shedeur Sanders-led passing attack. The stats look great — 374 yards and four passing TDs for the Jackson State transfer — but it was more of a mixed bad for this offense against a flammable USC defense. Let’s start with the bad because that’s how the Buffs started.
The offense moved the ball well in the first half, but a lot of good they did was offset by a number of mistakes. Some of those were big mistakes like the offensive line falling apart on critical 3rd and 4th downs. Some were little mistakes, like the three players or so where Sanders either threw the wrong ball, or his receivers ran the wrong route. Those things can’t happen if you’re going to keep up with an offense as explosive as USC’s.
Now for the good — holy hell, Omarion Miller. The true freshman played 11 snaps total in the previous four games, then exploded for 7 catches, 196 yards and a touchdown. He had gains of 65, 44 and 28 yards, the last would have been a game-changing 80-yard score if Domani Jackson hadn’t made a last-ditch diving tackle. He looks like another stud in a ridiculous CU receiving corps.
While Miller shined brightest, Jimmy Horn Jr. and Michael Harrison both played great games themselves. Those two are just so reliable, so consistent and continue making big plays in clutch moments. Sanders played well too, even if he had issues with pressure and made some mistakes managing the clock (more on that soon). He might be the best pure passer in school history and we shouldn’t lose track of that.
Rush Offense: B
This one should be an A- relative to how the Buffs have run the game in the previous three games. Unfortunately their grade has to be docked because they run too much considering the situation they were in.
This was the first time all season the Buffs were able to consistently win at the line of scrimmage. Anthony Hankerson looked great because he had about three yards to run before any USC defenders could close in on him. He looked decisive and gashed Alex Grinch’s defense in the first half. Dylan Edwards looked good too, mostly pitches to the outside. They combined for 118 yards on 28 total carries, which isn’t great but it’s the first time all season the Buffs have looked capable of picking up a steady 4 yards at a time.
This was also the first Sanders has been used as a runner. We know he can do it. The issue has been protecting him from unnecessary hits because the Buffs won’t win a game without him. Grinch sold out to stop the pass and Sean Lewis responded with a steady diet of RPOs, many of which ended in Sanders runs. He also scrambled for a few long gains, including his 25-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. Hopefully we don’t see much of this for the sake of Shedeur’s health, but it’s good to know the coaches have it in their back pocket for big games.
The problem with the rushing game is that they ran way too much in the second half considering they were down two or three scores right up until the end. Fans were booing the offense during the 4th quarter and many have blamed Lewis for poor clock management. Shedeur, the leader he is, took some of that blame, saying that he often changed the play at line of scrimmage depending on the defense. Those runs didn’t win or lose the game, but they made it that much more difficult in the uphill battle.
Total Defense: C+
There isn’t much to be done against an offense led by Caleb Williams and Lincoln Riley. You can’t really scheme against them because they will solve whatever problems you pose, then beat you with sheer talent. They might have the best offense in college football.
The Buffs couldn’t blitz because the Trojans would counter into screen passes or slants. They couldn’t sit in a zone because Williams could pick them apart with his improvisation and accuracy. And you can’t really play man against receivers like Brendan Rice, Tahj Washington and Mario Williams, all of whom feast in one-on-one matchups.
When the Trojans scored their 48th point, the reigning Heisman winner had 6 touchdown passes and 6 incompletions. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what kind of defensive scheme you craft when you’re trying to stop an offense like that. (It also doesn’t help when the special teams make some mistakes and leave the defense out to dry.) (Or that the pass rush is non-existent.)
The only time CU found success was when they surprised USC, forced them into mistakes and capitalized on them. Charles Kelly made a tremendous call with that Omarion Cooper blitz that resulted in a sack and punt. Another big play was Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig’s 3rd quarter interception, in which Williams scrambled to avoid the pressure and launched that deep ball. It was a bad idea to throw it but Silmon-Craig still had to make the leaping catch.
Silmon-Craig looked great and has so much dawg in him. Cooper played well even if Rice burned him on a touchdown. The defensive line looked better as the game went on, which is a credit to their discipline and conditioning. And then Cormani McClain finally got onto the field and looked like the 5-star we all expected. Despite allowing 48 points, there are some real positives to take away from this.
Special Teams: D
This will be short because I don’t want to be too negative. It’s tough that Jace Feely missed a 41-yard field goal. The weather was perfect and nothing went wrong except the kick. It was also not the best for Mark Vassett to have his punt blocked in the first quarter. There was no pressure and he took too long to Aussie punt it away. Those two mistakes probably didn’t determine the game, but they sure made it tougher to pull off the upset. Hopefully this gets cleaned up and maybe Alejandro Mata becomes the full time kicker moving forward.
First off, the coordinators did well considering the circumstances. Lewis tore apart Grinch’s defense, which isn’t that hard to do, but it’s a credit to him that the Buffs outgained USC 564 to 498 and were only undone by a few mistakes. Kelly’s defense also got turn up, but it’s maybe the best offense in college football and he had a few great calls to get stops.
The real credit goes to Coach Prime. It would have been easy for this team to quit when they were down 34-7, especially after trailing 35-0 at halftime to Oregon last week. But they kept fighting, cut down the deficit before halftime and played with their hair on fire in their comeback attempt. Even in a loss, it should inspire everyone that they were able to battle back in what could have been a demoralizing blowout.
Deion was also brilliant in who to call on. He tried playing Javon Antonio in the Travis Hunter role on offense, but pivoted to Miller in the second half. He asked the true freshman to prove himself and was rewarded with the 8th most receiving yards in school history — all in two quarters of play. He also spent the last two weeks lighting a fire under McClain, calling him out for not putting in the work he expected from his star cornerback. But the freshman worked his way onto the field and looked great in his debut, not only proving himself but Deion’s coaching methods.
It’s one thing to recruit the players Coach Prime has brought to Boulder. It’s another to hold them accountable and demand the best out of them. Whatever he’s doing is clearly working. His team is playing hard and different guys are stepping up every week. The wins will come and Deion will keep building momentum through this season and beyond.