Brooks: Buffs’ Goal – Keep On Pushing, Punch Through
BOULDER – From their past experiences of being beaten down early, late and at most stops in between, older Colorado Buffaloes like Tyler McCulloch see the improvement. As for first-year Buffs like Ahkello Witherspoon, they feel it.
Last weekend, the Buffs reached the midway point of their 2014 football season – and lost again. They’ve lost four of their first six games and all three of this season’s Pac-12 Conference games.
But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed it’s not the same old losing story.
CU’s loss to Oregon State followed scripts similar to the previous weeks’ Pac-12 defeats. It’s not the theme they want, but nevertheless it’s the one running through all of the Buffs’ four losses this season, and it’s even traceable to last year’s season-ending loss at Utah.
The Buffs appear to be done with their early rollovers. They’re now pushing games into the fourth quarter. The next step is to keep on pushing and finally punch through.
“For guys who have been here, this is the most fun we’ve had,” said McCulloch, a senior receiver. “You want to compete in every game; that’s what football is all about – competing the whole game. We’re not getting drubbed in the second half and just trying to get out of there.”
Entering the fourth quarter of their four losses, the Buffs led Colorado State 17-14 (a 31-17 loss), trailed Arizona State 38-17 (a 38-24 loss), were tied with Cal 35-35 (a 59-56 double OT loss), and trailed Oregon State 23-21 (a 36-31 loss).
“It’s been a lot of fun being able to compete, but obviously we haven’t gotten the results we’ve wanted so far,” McCulloch said. “But there’s a whole other attitude with this team when we can compete late in games. Ask any older guy and you can tell the difference in this team . . . there’s a whole different vibe about this team that I’ve just noticed since the summer.”
For Witherspoon, a junior college transfer who last weekend saw his most significant amount of playing time, and his younger teammates, maybe it’s fortunate that there’s no reservoir of past humiliations to reference.
“All of us young guys came in understanding that this program hasn’t been very successful,” Witherspoon said. “But there are no moral victories for this team; that’s one thing we’ve always stressed. But when we see that we’re in football games, we say the old program – and I say ‘old’ because that’s not who we are now – the old program wasn’t in games and that’s a bit of an accomplishment. We do understand it.”
In his team’s bye week, coach Mike MacIntyre is strongly emphasizing “don’t give in.” He believes his players have embraced that because of “the way they practice, fight and their intensity throughout the game . . . they don’t ever think they’re out,” he said.
He sees a team “not playing just to finish the game, to keep fighting – the old ‘give it a good try’ – they’re actually fighting to win it. There’s a whole different mentality there. I think everybody sees it; I know I see it and our players see it.”
Where the Buffs are now might be the toughest spot for a team of their status – fighting to take the next step. But, said MacIntyre, it can’t be done in leaps: “You have to go in steps. In last year’s Pac-12 games we kind of got blown out in a lot of them. In the Utah game we fought to end and had a chance (CU lost 24-17).
“We’ve been in every game this year going into the fourth quarter . . . that has showed marked improvement. Now, does it make it more gut-wrenching? Yes. Does it make it harder to dissect and the kids putting more pressure on themselves? Yes. But that’s all part of that process. The more you keep doing it, the more you punch through and (again and again and again).”
Before the season began, MacIntyre predicted that the Buffs would be a more competitive fourth-quarter team and therefore needed to work on final 4-minute and under situations. In the season’s first half, he’s seen that prediction play out.
“And that hasn’t been the case around here for a while,” he said. “I do feel like everyone on our sidelines felt like with our players taking the field (on their last possession against Oregon State), everyone felt like we would go score . . . we crossed that mental hump. That’s not just me. I could tell after the game (looking) in the kids’ eyes. Of course, they were really disappointed.”
The Buffs don’t play again until Saturday, Oct. 18 at Southern California (4 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Networks). Following that game, they’re home for back-to-back weekends against UCLA (Oct. 25) and Washington (Nov. 1). Two of the final three games are on the road – at Arizona (Nov. 8), at Oregon (Nov. 22). Utah visits Boulder on Nov. 29 in the season finale.
Unlikely to be favored in any of their final six games, the Buffs will need to hang onto MacIntyre’s bye-week advice of not giving in. Witherspoon, for one, says that won’t be difficult: “An upset is coming up and it’s going to be a big step for us.”
PAC-12 REPRIMANDS, FINES MACINTYRE
MacIntyre’s postgame pursuit of last weekend’s officiating crew drew a reprimand and $10,000 fine on Tuesday from Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who said MacIntyre’s “public postgame conduct . . . was completely unacceptable. Such misconduct violates Conference policy and this behavior will not be tolerated.”
A contrite MacIntyre called his chase “a mistake I made and it won’t happen again . . . in the heat of battle – as ya’ll can tell – I’m very passionate about it. I believe in the University of Colorado, I believe in our players . . . our program, this school. It’s something I definitely regret running out there and doing and I apologized for it.”
In the immediate aftermath Saturday, he said he apologized to athletic director Rick George “and some other people.” George said in a statement Tuesday that he “fully supports” MacIntyre. “(I) respect and appreciate how much he cares about his players and our football program. I know and believe that with his dedication and leadership, there will be great days ahead for CU football.
“With that said, I spent time with Mike immediately following the game, and also spoke with him after I was notified from the conference about the action it was going to take. He recognizes what he did was inappropriate. That is good enough for me, and this matter is now behind us and we’re moving on. We’re looking forward to our next game in two weeks at USC.”
In attempting to confront the officials, MacIntyre said he was “trying to stand up for our players and our program and for the fight in our players. You look in their eyes and just see that devastation and you know you’re going to have to go in and talk to them in the locker room again . . . we’ll keep battling, keep fighting and find a way to win these games at the end.”
Witherspoon is among the Buffs who view MacIntyre’s sideline passion as a positive for the team. “I appreciate ‘Coach Mac’ and his intensity,” Witherspoon said. “I can’t pick and choose when I want him to be intense. But that’s the same reaction I appreciate when I’m out on the field . . . that’s ‘Coach Mac.’”
MacIntyre said he has been reprimanded once before, referring to a “sideline thing in the WAC” when he coached at San Jose State. “It was getting a penalty, but never running on the field or anything like that.”
This week’s bye comes at a good time, said MacIntyre, in regard to allowing linebacker Addison Gillam and tailback Christian Powell extra time to heal from concussions. He said both players’ concussions symptoms “are way down. Hopefully they’ll be back at full speed next week.” . . . . A point of emphasis this week remains improvement in short-yardage and goal-line situations. “I thought we did better down there last week in short yardage,” MacIntyre noted, adding that the focus is “finding a way to shore up some individual fundamental things we’re doing.” . . . . He said another benefit of the bye week is getting an extended look at some of the younger players who haven’t seen action and remain ticketed for red shirts. “That’s a lot of fun . . . getting some scrimmage time with the younger guys is a good deal.” . . . . Cornerback Kenneth Crawley was the recipient of a critical and controversial pass interference call last weekend. While MacIntyre expects a balance to be drawn between being aggressive and avoiding penalties, he wants his defensive backs to remain aggressive: “If you don’t play aggressive you have no chance," he said. "It’s a tough game. You’ve got such good quarterbacks and such good receivers it makes it hard on the DBs. I truly believe more aggressive, playing harder, is better than playing passive. We’ve got to keep working at it and he’ll keep getting better.” . . . . The Buffs will practice on Wednesday and Thursday this week, then take Friday and Saturday off before resuming their preparations for USC next Sunday afternoon.