Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Monday, September 19, 2016

Monday Grab Bag: 'Special' Teams Cost Buffs in Michigan

I'm on a short week, due to an upcoming trip to New York.  That means, for the first time in a while, this weekly feature is actually dropping on a Monday!  Huzzah!  It also means that, with time crunched, I'm straight to the action...

Today in the bag, I'm talking the attrition-heavy effort in Ann Arbor, some Saturday success from the Soccer and Volleyball teams, and the how the upcoming schedule fared in football.

Click below for the bag...

Buffs start fast, but end up losing game, Liufau, McCartney, and Gonzalez - 

The buildup to the matchup between Colorado and the #4 Michigan Wolverines was some of the most intense I've seen in Boulder in ages.  After two-consecutive emphatic performances against lesser competition, the fanbase was eager to see the Buffs against a real team.  The assumption was that #TheRise was ready for prime time.  For two and a half quarters, at least, that assumption was 100% correct.

CU came out of the tunnel in Ann Arbor like a cannon blast.  They held on UofM's first drive, immediately found the endzone (thanks to a combination of a great punt return from Jay MacIntyre and a 37-yard touchdown pass from QB Sefo Liufau to Devin Ross), and produced a sack-six on the ensuing Michigan drive (all props to the great Chido Awuzie) to go up 14-0.  By the end of the first quarter, they were up 21-7, had out-gained the Wolverines 164-16, and had only really made one mistake -- a madcap blocked punt that gave Big Blue their opening points.  Through 15 minutes, the Buffs looked more than equal to a pre-season Playoff contender.
Special Teams SNAFU's wrecked what could've been a marquee date in CU history.  From:
Then the second quarter started, and some cracks began to show.  It started with another special teams headache, as Diego Gonzalez hooked a 36-yard field goal attempt wide from the left hash.  The special teams meltdown only continued after an exchange of possession lead to another punt attempt; this time, punter Alex Kinney booted the rugby-style kick right into the back of one of his blockers for a -7-yard effort.  These back-to-back failures from the third unit were all the spark Michigan would need with nine minutes remaining until halftime.  They would score on three of their next four possessions, only missing a 37-yard field goal, to take their first lead of the day, 24-21, headed into the break.

To Colorado's credit, they rallied at half, and came out looking competitive on their first drive.  A quick completion to Ross and a QB dive from Liufau gave them a first down out of the gate, but Sefo came up lame after the run for, giving everyone in BuffNation pause.  Liufau, ever the warrior, gritted his teeth and re-entered the huddle. On the very next play he dropped back, with his movement very limited, and heaved the ball down the left sideline.  Like something out of a damn movie, the hopeful pass hit a streaking Shay Fields for a 70-yard touchdown, suddenly giving CU back the lead, 28-24.  But, through the celebration, Sefo was back on the ground, writhing in pain.  The problem appeared to be with his ankle, and treatment was necessary.  As Michigan took the ball and started moving down the field, you could tell the entire team was shell-shocked from the sight of their leader, a third year captain, injured.  The Wolverines would score quickly, and a taped-up Sefo would re-take the field, but it was not to last.  Mid-way through the third quarter, the Colorado QB was walked to the locker room for good, and backup freshman Steve Montez was pushed into action.
Sefo's injury puts a heavy cost on the trip to Ann Arbor.  From: the Post.
From there, it was all downhill for the Buffs.  Montez failed to complete a pass on the next few drives before eventually being spelled by third-stringer Jordan Gehrke. BuffNation was even treated to the news that the kicker Gonzalez had tore his ACL, and would be out for the season. Meanwhile, the Wolverines were making adjustments and moving the football against the Buffs' defense.  They would go one to grind out 273 yards and three total touchdowns in the second half.  With the Colorado offense sputtering without a viable quarterback, this was definitive, leading to the 45-28 final.

There are a lot of positives to take from this performance, if you're into the moral victory narrative, but the negatives are glaring.  Special teams, now without a coordinator after years of neglect under the departed Toby Neinas, looked disastrous against one of the better, more organized units in the country.  Combined with the loss on the scoreboard, the season-ending loss of Diego Gonzalez, the revealed loss of Derek McCartney, and the potential long-term loss of Liufau, the team took a big hit for the $1.4 million payday.  Colorado will now turn to conference play with their new attitude, but, suddenly, with a lot of uncertainty.  The goal remains the same, make a damn bowl game, so we'll just have to wait and see how they respond to this first spate of true adversity.

The Bulle(i)t Points:
  • I said in my preview that special teams would be the area of 'definitive separation' between these two teams, and I was proven right.  Michigan got at least two touchdowns in the first half alone due to punting meltdowns (one blocked, one booted into the back of a lineman), and two more were scored thanks to low line drive punts giving Jabrill Peppers open return opportunities (one he brought back all the way himself).  All told, that's at least 28 points that came as a direct result of shit-ass punting and protection, which more than makes up the deficit on the scoreboard.  
  • In consideration of that fact, it still befuddles me why, after years of poor special teams, the reaction was to eliminate the position of special teams coordinator all together, rather than install someone worthy of the title.  The lack of attention to this crucial detail has cost Colorado again.
  • Liufau finished with 246 yards and three scores through two quarters and a pair of drives.  He was on his way to having a memorable day before the injury cut him short.  Seeing how shaky the team was when he went down, I hope he can get healthy in a hurry.  The Michigan defense gets a lot of credit for shutting the backups down, and CU may not see a group of their like the rest of the way, but the only way this team will go bowling is with #13 under center.
  • I had thought Colorado would have been able to run the ball on Big Blue, considering the success UCF had on them last week.  That wasn't the case, however, with the Buffs only earning a net 64 yards on the ground (an anemic 1.9 yards per attempt).  This was the emphasis to the Liufau injury; CU wasn't getting anything outside of Sefo's production.
  • I could watch the highlight of Chido's sack-fumble that lead to the second Colorado touchdown a thousand times.  It's an incredible play.
  • Still no word on Sefo's availability for Oregon.  I doubt we'll hear prior to gameday.

... Meanwhile, back in Boulder - 

With whole swaths of the fanbase in Michigan on Saturday, including the majority of usual watch party group, I decided to venture forth to catch a couple of Colorado's women's programs in action.

I started at noon up at Prentup Field, as the Women's Soccer Team was hosting DU in the final game of the 2016 Colorado Cup.  For 90 minutes, little could separate the sides.  Denver was strong up the middle in defense, limiting Colorado's options to make concise passes forward.  The only avenues left open were out wide or over the top, neither of which the Buffs were capable of capitalizing on.  Oh, CU got their chances (17 shots through regulation), many of them of some good quality, but nothing really tested the Pioneer defense all that much.

Probably the most interesting moment of regulation, to be honest, was when the Denver coach earned a yellow card for yelling at the ref and 4th official.  He seemed to think Taylor Kornieck had 'punched' someone while setting up in the box for a 1st half corner kick, and was remonstrating at the top of his lungs for anyone who would listen.  Kornieck did nothing of the sort, of course, and the dude was some 200 feet from the play when it happened, so he couldn't have seen anything anyways.  Just bizarre.
Evans tees up the winner.  From:
Anyways, into overtime the game went.  This was right about the time the football team was kicking off in Ann Arbor, so I was eyeing the exit in order to find a television.  The Buffs obliged with quick work in the extra period.  Just nine minutes in, a free kick bounced around in the box before eventually finding the feet of forward Danica Evans, just yards from the mouth of goal.  She dispatched the opportunity with efficiency, giving CU the win and the Cup, 1-0.  I was on the Creek Path and headed home before they had even finished the dog-pile.

After the disappointing result in Michigan had been finalized, I capped the evening in the Coors Evens Center, watching the #18 Buffs take on little sister in volleyball.  The Rams have traditionally dominated the series in this sport; in fact they had won the previous seven meetings, including the 2014 matchup in the NCAA Tournament.  CU, however, has been a program on the rise for some time now, and came in to the evening looking to upturn the apple cart.

The game drew a pretty nice crowd to Boulder (2,446), including a big number of Rams.  It makes sense, as the CSU program had been nationally strong over the last decade, but their presence still annoyed the hell out of me walking into the CEC.  Thankfully, the Buffs jumped out to big leads in both the first (7-2) and second (13-3) sets, keeping the visiting crowds out of it, and letting the C-Unit have their say.
Buffs celebrate a big win over CSU.  From:
Colorado was driven by the play of sophomore Alexa Smith.  She was, by far, the most consistent hitter on the evening (21 kills, 39% hitting), and the only one consistently capable of hitting past Ram Kristie Hillyer in the early going.  Hillyer finished with nine blocks, keeping her team from getting completely routed.  The Buffs, though, took advantage of a number of CSU errors and sloppy play, claiming big wins in the first two sets.  The Rams would respond, staving off the sweep in set three, but that only delayed the inevitable.  In the fourth, CU held them to just 9% hitting, and easily claimed the set and the match.

With the win, Colorado is now 3-0 against teams from up north across all sports this fall.  Clearing the traditionally toughest hurdle, volleyball, CU athletics will have a very good opportunity to sweep the yearly head-to-head competition as attention turns to hardwood.  That'd be fun.

Around the world of Pac-12 football - 

- Nebraska 35 - Oregon 32 - 

I don't ask much from our conference brethren.  I understand life in the Pac-12 comes with some sporting difficulty, like habitually awful officiating and the occasional out-of-conference embarrassment. What I absolutely cannot abide, however, is losing to fucking Nebraska.  You're better than this, Oregon.  What the hell?
I'm not angry, Oregon, just disappointed.  From:
The Ducks, in all of their Duck-ness, decided to go for two after all five of their touchdowns, failing on each of their last four.  In a three-point game, they sure could've used a little conventional wisdom and the four extra points.  As a result, the door was left open for Nebraska to score a late touchdown to secure the win.  It'd be nice, with the Buffs heading to Eugene this week, if the team could explain how disappointed BuffNation is with their play in Lincoln by hanging a home loss on UO, to boot.

- Oregon State 37 - Idaho State 7 - 

Looking to rebound from their throttling in Boulder, the ISU Bengals headed west to take on the Beavers.  The results, though, weren't much better than they were in the Rockies.  OSU forced five turnovers and didn't allow a point until the third quarter en route to ending their 10-game losing streak. The result, however, doesn't dissuade me from thinking that Oregon State will be the bottom of the Pac-12 barrel for the second-straight season.

- Stanford 27 - USC 10 -  

The Trojan coaching staff could be in some trouble after getting blown out of their second game against top-10 competition this season.   The loss makes for their seventh in nine meetings with Stanford, and puts them behind the eight ball of a road-heavy schedule that doesn't bode well for attractive bowl eligibility.  With a trip to feisty Utah on tap for this week, head coach Clay Helton has to be sweating a bit.
McCaffrey continues to shine for the Cardinal.  From: SI
Stanford lead throughout, thanks to another big game from all-world running back Christian McCaffrey (260 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns), and never looked all that threatened. The one constant in this league is the Cardinal's utter domination of the line and methodical play, and it continues to be a winning formula in Palo Alto.

Happy Tuesday!

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