Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday Grab Bag: The Return of Optimism

Before I get to the football action from the weekend, it would be completely out of character if I didn't shout from the rooftop that BASKETBALL SEASON IS BACK!!!!!!!

No, it's not November, yet, but the first practices will start to be held around the nation this very week.  In fact, as the Daily Camera's Brian Howell pointed out, the assembled media will cover hardwood action at the CEC before the next football game.  So, yes, this week hoops does come first.

We're still some 32 days from November itself, and over 45 days away from opening night, but the start of practices is an important mile post on the close of the offseason.  We're getting there, BasketBuffs, we're getting there...


Today in the bag, I'm talking the offensive showcase in Berkeley, CU's Biletnikoff candidate, and the upcoming football schedule.

Click below for the bag...

Fans of lock-down defense: avert your eyes now - 

I called for a Saturday afternoon shootout between Colorado and Cal, and that's exactly what I got.  With no defenses worth mentioning taking the field in Berkeley, a pair of high flying passing attacks were free to air it out to the point of exhaustion.  For those impartials tuning in, I'm sure it made for enticing television.  For those in the opposing fanbases, however, it made for nerve-wracking viewing.  CU had plenty of opportunities to claim a vital road win against an opponent gaining a lot of regional recognition.  Instead, after forcing the game into overtime, they proved incapable of executing their offense at the goal line, and were unceremoniously booted out of NorCal with a 59-56 loss.
Defense, apparently, need not apply
The offensive numbers from the stat sheet are hypnotizing.  The Buffs and Bears combined for 115 points, 1,215 yards (913 of which came through the air), and 182 plays.  The competing quarterbacks, both sophomores and future banner-carriers for the conference, threw for scarily similar totals; each had seven touchdown tosses and over 450 yards passing.  In an era known for obscene offensive production, Saturday still stood out as an outlier.

Neither defense seemed capable of putting their foot down, which is probably why each program is where they are today.  Looking at the numbers, there are a few turnovers caused, and a grand total of six QB hurries recorded, but those are pitiful when compared to the total number of plays run.  Given that many opportunities to make an impact, you would've thought either of the defenses could luck into a big play. But, nope, the scoreboards kept rattling off numbers like a bingo caller.
The botched goal line play was the symptom, not the cause.
Putting up the points is fun and all, but, as the Buffs proved this weekend, it doesn't amount to much if you can't make a stop with the game on the line.  In reality, their defense continues to hold the team back.  It's easy to point to the 4th-and-goal call from the 2nd overtime as the defining moment, but the team had plenty of opportunities to seal the win on defense.  It was a lack of faith in the 'D' which had Coach MacIntyre going for it on 4th down twice on the final series, and which had me begging for a two-point try at the end of the 1st overtime.  It was a lack of production from the 'D' that left the squad scrambling for momentum in the 3rd quarter.  Seriously, one extra stop at any point in the second half wins the game for Colorado.  It's painful to see the team that close to a statement win, yet unable to reach out and grab it.

Imagine if this team could complete games.  Imagine if they had held their lead over CSU, finished the desperate comeback against ASU, and converted in overtime against the Golden Bears.  CU would be sitting here, about to enter October at 5-0 (or at least 4-1), and there'd be no ejaculate left in the entirety of BuffNation.  Instead, they're at 2-3, and a team that seems qualitatively capable of earning a bowl berth is on track to miss the post-season for the 7th consecutive year, if just barely.  The old adage that defense wins remains true to form (somewhere, Tad Boyle nods).
The prolific offense is entertaining, but Sefo et al. need some defensive help.
These frustratingly close performances, while not ending up in the win column, are at least accomplishing something: engendering hope.  There is a palpable sense of optimism around BuffNation that this program may be poking their heads out of the forest.  More than the forced optimism of the Hawkins era, and certainly more than the 'well, how bad could it be' delusionary optimism of the Embree era, the fanbase seems to be coming around to the fact that, not only are these guys playing an entertaining style of ball, but that they are competing their butts off week-in, week-out.  The problems on defense are not from a lack of effort.  A year from now, I expect games like Saturday's to finish differently, which will be the tipping point on the road to recovery.

The Bulle(i)t points:
  • Spruce, Nelson - (See below)
  • When CU needs to get a yard or two on the ground, they aren't able to get it, at the moment. It would be nice to see the offensive line get a better push in short-yardage situations.  Until then, I would much rather see the ball in Sefo Liufau's hands on the goal line.
  • Speaking of Sefo, he threw at a 69% clip for 455 yards and seven scores against only one interception.  It took him 67 throws to get there, but damn is that a nice line.  His 75-yard two-minute drill, culminating in a 30-yard strike for the game-tying touchdown, was a thing of beauty.
  • Darragh O'Neill had his first shaky day of the season, scuffing a few, and only averaging 37 yards a kick.  Possibly, given the fireworks, he was simply stunned that he had to take the field, at all.
  • Will Oliver didn't exactly cover himself in glory, either, shanking all three of his attempts from the field. Generally, another shaky day from the special teams unit.

On Nelson Spruce - 

It has come to the point that THE Nelson Spruce deserves his own section.  I pondered recently what it would take for him to get serious Biletnikoff Award consideration.  At this point, I think we're about to find out.
Nellie's ball!
He continued his assault on the Pac-12 record books and common decency this weekend when he put up a nonsensical 19-173-3 line on the Golden Bears.  Not like Cal hadn't been warned, as those numbers bring his year-to-date totals up to 56-694-10 after only five games, but the Bears just didn't have an answer for him.  That means Spruce leads all of college football in the only three categories that matter for a receiver. A Triple Crown watch is on!

At some point, the rest of the football world is going to notice.  The junior from Westlake is putting up numbers too gaudy not to draw attention.  After five games, however, I wonder if it's going to matter. The big test will be against the USC Trojans in a few weeks.  They've yet to allow a touchdown pass this season, and may be the last line of defense between Spruce and a dark horse award campaign.

Upcoming schedule update - 

USC 35 - Oregon State 10 -

In a matchup of CU's next two opponents, the Trojans got the better of the Beavers, thanks to a stifling defensive performance that seems so out-of-place when compared to what the Buffs engaged in over the weekend.  In total, USC only allowed 181 total yards on the day, a clip of only 3.2 per play.  To put that in perspective, Colorado had that by the end of the first quarter in Berkeley.
Mannion struggled to break free from the clutches of the Trojans.
The big shock was how out-of-sync senior Beaver OSU QB Sean Mannion was.  He finished under 50% passing on the day, only throwing for 123 yards and gifting two interceptions.  It's completely out of character for the NFL prospect, who is normally as consistent as any.  It was, by far, the worst statistical performance of his career.

Of course, the reason for his struggles was the USC defense.  As mentioned, the group has yet to allow a passing touchdown this year, and are 6th nationally in pass efficiency defense.  CU's passing game will face a stern test in a few weeks when they visit the Coliseum.

UCLA 62 - ASU - 27 -

Across the City of Angels, Westwood is buzzing about the thrashing the Bruins unleashed on Arizona State. From the opening minute of the second quarter through the 8:27 mark of the third, UCLA went on a 42-3 run, blitzing the shell-shocked Sun Devils, who had been leading 17-6 prior.  The result was a statement win for the Bruins in the Pac-12 South, and ensures that the road to the conference title game goes through the Rose Bowl.
Ishmael Adams and the Bruins ran away from ASU
The big star of the game was UCLA's Ishmael Adams, who out-shone even the great Brett Hundley with two back-breaking returns for touchdown.  The first, and most humbling, was a pick-six on the final meaningful play before halftime.  ASU got a little too greedy in their pursuit of a momentum-saving score, allowing Adams to jump the route.  After he crossed the opposite goal line 95-yards later, the ball game was effectively over.  For good measure, he added a ridiculous 100-yard kickoff return after the Sun Devils dared to put their own points on the board.  Troll on, Ishmael.

As someone who looks at Arizona State with continuous contempt and disdain, I couldn't have been happier to see touchdown after touchdown leveled against Todd Graham's team.  Everything went wrong for them in a game played without star QB Taylor Kelly.  Their season isn't done after only their first loss, but you can see serious cracks in the foundation.

Happy MondayTuesday!

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