We’ll start with the good news: all the Buffs have to do to clinch a bowl game is win back-to-back road games in two extremely tough environments. And that’s not too much to ask from a team that’s lost six of their last seven, right? Saturday’s loss wasn’t as brutal as, say, the Oregon game – or as heartbreaking the Stanford one – but losing on Senior Day always stings a little bit more than usual, and this season is looking more and more like “just” a step in the right direction, and not the seismic leap that it looked like six weeks ago. Arizona is one of the better stories in the Pac-12 this year, not to mention one of the league’s toughest outs, but the Buffs let a very winnable game slip away, quite literally, in the dying seconds of their Folsom Field finale. Here’s what stood out:
1. The offense got really stale
31 points against one of the better defenses in the Pac-12 is nothing to be ashamed of, but it does feel like this offense consists of two plays: Shedeur Sanders taking a 5-step drop then chucking it up to Xavier Weaver, and Shedeur Sanders running for his life and then chucking it up to Travis Hunter. The big plays are still there – Sanders’ 20 yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Horn Jr. was a thing of beauty, and Hunter’s 47-yard reception was a game-high – but this team has really struggled with just about everything else. They may still be tough to defend, but they’ve also become fairly easy to predict: Sanders’ completion percentage has slowly but surely fallen since that 3-0 start, and he’s only thrown for over 300 yards once since the USC loss in late September. Turns out it’s way easier to study tape and gameplan when you only really have to worry about 2-3 players. Saturday’s performance (22-35, 262 yards, 2 TDs) was fine, but as the Buffs have learned more than a few times this year, they need him to be transcendent basically week in and week out.
2. Travis Hunter’s weird season continues
What a strange year it’s been for Hunter – every game feels like one of extremes with him. Saturday was no different: his second quarter end zone PBU was one of the more impressive individual plays that anyone made all day, and showcased his otherworldly ability to make insanely athletic plays on the ball. And then, like 30 minutes later, he got burned on a (admittedly impressive) touchdown grab. It was like the Stanford game all over again. The good news is that he had another typically Travis Hunter game (five solo tackles, one PBU, and five catches for 74 yards) and, outside of some sideline shots of him looking extremely out of breath, it doesn’t seem like playing on both sides of the ball is wearing him down the way everyone expected it to.
3. Special Teams played well, until they didn’t
The Xavier Weaver Return experience is a wild ride, but you can’t say it doesn’t get results. Weaver’s returns were a big part of the offense’s success: he averaged 15 yards per punt return, and gave the Buffs an average starting position at their own 37 yard line. (Arizona’s was their own 21.) On the other side, Buffs punter Mark Vassett had himself a DAY. Three of his six punts landed inside the 20, and he averaged over 45 yards per boot. The missed field goal is obviously the headliner on special teams and it’s a tough break for a kicker who’s been pretty good (8-9) for the Buffs this year. 44 yards would have been a season-long for Mata, but only by a yard, and he was 3-4 on kicks of 40+ yards heading into Saturday. Missing a very-makeable kick that late in the game is the lasting image from losses like this, but it was an overall good day for the Special Teams unit.
4. Things get REALLY ugly when the defense can’t force turnovers
A knack for the ball has been one of the few positive traits of this defense all year, and it’s saved them in more than a couple sticky moments. But Saturday’s loss was only the third game all year they didn’t have a turnover (the other two being Arizona State and Stanford), and without those plays, it became even more abundantly clear how far this group has to go. Arizona was as ruthlessly efficient as they were impressively balanced – their 421 total yards were split almost evenly down the middle (207 rushing, 214 passing), and they scored on 50% of their 12 drives. Their 11-play game-winning drive was by far their longest of the day (sigh), but they only went 3-and-out four times. They played even faster than the Buffs did, too: their average time of possession (2:19) was 20 seconds less than CU’s. None of this is a new development for the defense, but Saturday was a tough lesson in what happens when the turnover rate regresses back to the mean a bit.
5. We can sunset these all-gray jerseys, right?
The monochrome grays are such an underwhelming choice when you consider all the other uniform combos that the Buffs could go with. And on Senior Day, no less? Offseason priority #1 may be “replace everyone on both sides of the line,” but this should be priority #2.