Brooks: Can Buffs Ignore McElwain’s ‘Must-Win’ Edict?

BOULDER – Had Mike MacIntyre been any less impulsive, any more measured with his answer, he would have needed a yardstick running down each arm of his black long-sleeved T. You knew the question was coming and fairly early in MacIntyre’s Tuesday media conference there it was.

First, a bit of background: At Jim McElwain’s Monday media conference, the Colorado State head coach was asked his perception of the CU-CSU rivalry, which resumes for the 86th time on Friday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

McElwain’s answer: “I think it's getting to where it should be again. Coach MacIntyre has done a fantastic job there . . . . For them, it's a must-win game. It's a must-win game! For us, it's a must-win game, but you know what? We have to get ready to go play a game after it. But I know how it's looked on in the state. I kind of like it that way. Our little guys will show up, and we'll go play the game.”

MacIntyre’s response: “Jim’s really smart, he knows exactly what he’s doing . . . .”

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what CSU’s “Coach Mac” is up to. He’s hoping to plant the “must-win” seed in the very young minds – and very young are the operative words here – of the guys who play for CU’s “Coach Mac.”

Pile the pregame pressure on the Buffaloes and put his Rams in a light, loose, nothing-to-lose state of mind. It’s not a bad strategy if it works, and in this particular game you never know what will. So, hats off to McElwain for putting it out there – and shame on the Buffs if they are all ears.

My gut feeling is they won’t be. MacIntyre can’t be inside his players’ heads 24/7, but he’s trying awfully hard. A couple of weeks ago, when former CU coach Bill McCartney attended a morning workout, Mac II invited Mac I to address the team post practice.

McCartney’s first order of business before speaking: Clear everyone except full-time assistant coaches away from the team huddle. No trainers, managers, grounds keepers, donors, etc. allowed. Not even, not even Rick Neuheisel, who replaced McCartney at CU in 1995 and has since landed at the Pac-12 Network as a well-traveled and entertaining football analyst.

On that particular Thursday, Neuheisel and a Pac-12 crew were in Boulder taping the Buffs’ practice on the network’s school-by-school tour of August camps. Neuheisel and a handful of observers – including – were well away from the huddle but still within earshot of McCartney’s passionate (what else?) discourse on the CU-CSU game and its importance. McCartney was 6-1 against CSU, with the 23-7 loss in 1986 in Boulder among the most nightmarish of his career.

When McCartney finished, Neuheisel said something on the order of, “Vintage ‘Mac’ . . . the fire still burns, the magic’s still there.”

The essence of McCartney’s message: This game means the world to the Rams and it better mean as much or more to the guys in Black and Gold. An assistant coach told me afterward that what McCartney delivered was just what the Buffs needed to hear – an outside voice speaking with authenticity on an instate rivalry game that has lopsided numbers – CU leads 62-21-2 and has won eight of the 13 games played in Denver – but can never be considered a gimme.

MACINTYRE SAID AS MUCH Tuesday and also offered all the right things about the Rams – that McElwain “has done an excellent job;” that quarterback Garrett Grayson is “a phenomenal player;” that Grayson’s receivers are swift, “very talented and well-coached” and that CSU’s overall talent level “is excellent.”

Late last week and early this week, MacIntyre began stressing to his players the importance of respecting the Rams in interviews and in their preparation. Gone are the days when (at least publicly) there will be any reference by CU players to CSU being the Buffs’ “little brothers.” That comment, issued publicly for maybe the last time by a CU player during the Gary Barnett era, always gets considerable mileage on TV and radio sportscasts during CSU week.

I’m doubting that any of MacIntyre’s players will make such a slip over the next three days. Instead, CU players such as sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau and senior defensive lineman Juda Parker will meet the press in the manner they did Tuesday.

Liufau on CSU: “They’re good, they went to a bowl game last season and had more wins than us . . . . There’s no big brother-little brother thing. They went to a bowl game, we were on our couches watching. So you could consider them the better team (last season).”

Parker on the CU-CSU rivalry: “When you get here as a freshman, you hear the seniors talk about it, but you don’t really understand . . . . Now I can tell how much it means to both schools and the state. The gravity of the game is as big as it can get. It’s never a hate thing; it’s the first game of season and you want to get a win.”

CU won 41-27 last season, giving the Buffs victories in three of the last four meetings. But the 2013 game wasn’t won until the fourth quarter, when CU pushed a 26-24 lead to 33-24 on a 53-yard fumble return for a score by corner Greg Henderson.

The Buffs’ scoring began and ended with long touchdown passes from Connor Wood to Paul Richardson – neither of whom is back for Friday night’s opener. Wood, benched in favor of Liufau in week five, opted not to play his final season, while Richardson opted to give up his final season and enter the NFL Draft.

Richardson’s absence poses CU’s most imposing offensive question mark, but MacIntyre believes Troy Walters’ deeper but younger receiving corps will collaboratively compensate for Richardson. “They’ve grown well,” MacIntyre said. “Once our young guys get their feet wet they’ll be fine.”

Defensively, the Buffs will be missing a pair of projected starters – safety Jered Bell, end Tyler Henington – who are lost for the season with ACL injuries. Behind Bell, a senior, and Henington, a junior, are young players that MacIntyre says must grow up, step up and quickly play up to their capabilities.

BUT THERE’S HARDLY a spot on the CU roster that doesn’t show some shade of green. Of the 105 players in August camp, 71 were either freshmen (44) or sophomores (27). That makes the Buffs the Pac-12’s youngest team and the nation’s 11th youngest.

A reporter asked MacIntyre Tuesday if dealing with so much youth in an opener presents any special difficulties.

“I’m taking some diaper rash stuff to the game,” MacIntyre deadpanned. “I just hope they’re not peeing down their legs . . . at times (the preponderance of young players) will be exhilarating, at times it make us want to pull our hair out.”

Which leads to my biggest questions about Friday night: Are the Buffs so young that McCartney’s message was lost on them? MacIntyre and his staff have done their best to be convincing, but is there also enough solid senior leadership on hand to convince the young, out-of-state Buffs that the Rams view this as a blood rivalry?

McCartney has forever been fond of saying, “The mental is to the physical as four is to one.” With his “must-win” edict for the Buffs, McElwain is clearly working the mental side of the street. But if they’ve bought in to what Macs I and II have told them, whatever gamesmanship coming out of Fort Collins won’t be a problem.

“Must-win” might wind up as “must-see” for Buffs fans. But they shouldn’t count on it being easy, because it never is.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU 

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