BOULDER — So close…
When Colorado’s Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders told his Buffaloes that they were “so close … yet so far” after Saturday’s heartbreaking 34-31 loss to Arizona, he could have been describing CU’s entire season.
Now 4-6 with a four-game losing streak in hand, the Buffs have played seven one-score games this season and another that wasn’t decided until well into the fourth quarter. Those one-score games include wins over TCU, Colorado State and Arizona State; and losses to USC, Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona.
Three of those defeats were to ranked teams and while the loss to UCLA — another ranked squad — was ultimately a 12-point difference, that game was still anyone’s ballgame until late in the fourth quarter.
Certainly, with a different bounce here or there in a handful of games, Colorado could easily be 6-4 or 7-3. (The opposite side of that coin, of course, is that a couple more bad bounces could have added another loss or two to Colorado’s ledger.)
But the key point here is that the Buffs have been competitive all season long. Only once have they been “out” of a game by halftime.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s loss — a game in which the Buffs never trailed until the final play of the contest — Coach Prime reiterated a point he has been making over the last couple of weeks.
“We just simply don’t know how to win yet,” he said, “It’s not for lack of effort, not for lack of coaching with the staff or the support staff … Everybody around is doing a phenomenal job. We just can’ don’t get over that hump.”
Still, the Buffs’ progress in the span of a year is significant. The program is in much better shape than it was last season after 10 games and it is already becoming quite clear that Sanders and his staff are ready to address Colorado’s deficiencies as soon as possible.
“There’s tremendous progress,” Sanders said. “We have consistency in several positions that are phenomenal and I truly feel that there’s progress. We have inconsistencies in some positions that we can fix. We know the problem, we identified it, and we’re going to fix it. That’s progress because we know what the problem is and we have the aptitude to fix it.”
But those are matters for the offseason. The Buffs still have two games remaining — on the road at Washington State and Utah — and the opportunity to make themselves bowl eligible.
What did we learn from Saturday’s game?
1. Offense took a step in the right direction. After back-to-back weeks of not hitting the 20-point barrier, the Buffs’ offense regained some of its early season production.
Shedeur Sanders threw for 262 yards and a pair of scores, Xavier Weaver and Travis Hunter each caught five passes and CU yielded “only” three quarterback sacks (tying for the fewest in a game this year).
There were some hiccups. After putting up 24 points and 250 yards in the first half, Colorado managed just seven points and 102 yards in five possessions after the break. Had the Buffs managed one more score on any of those possessions, they would have been in a much better position to win down the stretch.
Still, it was an improvement — but also the latest example of an issue that has plagued Colorado for much of the season. That being …
2. Buffs are still looking for 60 minutes of complementary football. It could be argued that the Buffs have yet to put together four quarters of solid play from all three phases.
Saturday, CU’s special teams were outstanding (even with a field goal miss in the fourth quarter). The offense moved back in the right direction. But after two weeks of giving the Buffs plenty of opportunities to win, the defense took a step back, allowing more than 200 yards on the ground, including back-to-back runs of 21 and 24 yards on Arizona’s final possession.
The game was just the latest example of Coach Prime’s assessment of “so close … yet so far.” When the Buffs do get to that point of steady complementary football from all three phases, they will be more than just competitive.
3. Too much yellow linen on the field. Colorado is averaging nearly 10 penalties per game, the most in the Pac-12. Saturday, flags on CU extended a couple of Arizona scoring drives and helped cut short several Colorado possessions.
Most upsetting to Sanders was the fact that eight of the Buffs’ 11 penalties were basically unforced errors: three false starts, two roughing the passer and one each for an ineligible receiver downfield, illegal formation and unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Those costly little penalties, those little knucklehead plays, are going to cost you every time,” he said.
4. CU’s run game is still struggling. Strictly from a numbers standpoint, the Buffs’ rushing attack was slightly improved Saturday, with the Buffs tallying 77 yards on the ground.
But most of those came from QB Sanders on scrambles, not planned runs. Colorado’s running backs ran for just 48 yards on 17 attempts, leading to far too many third-and-long situations. Which brings us to …
5. Those third downs are critical. Colorado’s lack of a run game put the Buffs in trouble with the sticks far too often in the game.
Colorado ran the ball on third down six times and gained just 28 yards, with 10 coming on a Sanders scramble. CU successfully converted only one third down via a rush in the entire game, which is why the Buffs chose to throw on a third-and-1 on a critical series late in the game.
Most importantly, Colorado’s average distance on third down was 9.1 yards — which means CU came up short far too often on first and second down. As a result, the Buffs converted just 5 of 14 third-down attempts, including only 1 of 6 in the second half.
6. Perspective remains critical. CU fans are no doubt a little frustrated over four losses in a row — and six in the last seven games.
But some of that frustration is the result of a 3-0 start that put the Buffs in the top 25. That early run no doubt over-inflated expectations.
The truth is that given Colorado’s schedule — six of the Buffs’ 10 games so far have been against ranked opponents — many CU fans would have been satisfied with a 4-6 mark at this point. Given last year’s 1-11 finish, four wins after 10 games would have looked wonderful.
It’s understandable that CU fans are now wanting more. But guaranteed, their expectations are by no means any greater than those of Coach Prime and his staff.
They are also becoming a little frustrated with the “so close” refrain.
“I’m tired of how we could have won,” Sanders said Saturday. “I’m tired of that part. We should have won. There ain’t no losing in me. Losing doesn’t sit well with me. It doesn’t rock well with me and don’t lay down with me. We have some phenomenal men in that locker room that feel the same way. We just have to be a lot more disciplined, understand what’s at hand and stand up to the task on every darn play. And we’re going to get there. I promise you. I don’t know when, but we’re going to get there.”
Sanders’ outlook and approach has not changed. He began the year expecting to win and even though the last month has been a battle, his expectations haven’t wavered.
But through the recent struggles, it’s still worth remembering where Colorado’s program stood a year ago. If Sanders can create a similar jump over the next year, CU football will be in very good shape when the Buffaloes make their return to the Big 12.
Then, “so close” will be little more than a memory.