Brooks: Buffs Plod Into November Still Seeking Answers
EUGENE, Ore. - Just over two hours before kickoff here Saturday, Eric Bieniemy was standing outside the Colorado locker room, coffee in hand, watching it rain. CU's offensive coordinator reminisced on a 2004 UCLA game in Autzen Stadium when he and his current boss, Jon Embree, were Bruins assistant coaches.
UCLA, playing a freshman tailback and "two tight ends you never heard of," recalled Bieniemy, upset Oregon 34-26. In place of injured starter Maurice Drew, third-stringer Chris Markey ran for 131 yards and caught five passes for 84 yards as the Bruins became bowl eligible.
Ah, sweet memories . . .
Much later Saturday afternoon, Bieniemy left Autzen Stadium with another collection of flashbacks, most of which won't rest comfortably in his memory banks. No upsets on this trip, unless the flips and heaves of his and Embree's stomachs count.
Oregon's second-ranked Ducks won in a walk, 70-14, pushing CU further into a mid-season free-fall since its long-ago win at Washington State on Sept. 22. Oregon, meanwhile, performed like a national title contender, which Embree believes is accurate and entirely possible.
"I've been saying all week they have a great opportunity to hold that crystal ball at the end of the year," he said. "I felt that before we played them and I feel the same way now."
For the Buffs, meanwhile, the end is in sight - but it isn't the kind of conclusion anyone in Boulder could have imagined. CU will plod into November with one win and seven losses - the five most recent low-lighted by blowouts of 55, 28, 34, 44 and 56 points. That's an average of 43.2 points per loss.
Embree was asked if he had hopes for defensive improvement in the season's final month. "You have to . . . you have to," he answered. "But there's no quick fix for that. We've got to get our guys playing better on that side and get some stops."
The stops were few Saturday. By halftime, Oregon had punched up 56 points and 447 yards in total offense. The Ducks finished with their highest point total ever in conference play and 617 total yards. Their speed left Buffs tacklers grasping and groping, but then the Buffs had been engaged in those shoddy practices for the last couple of weeks.
Embree's team began the season eyeing at least six wins and the school's first bowl appearance since 2007. Saturday's loss officially flushed that possibility, instead assuring this of being a school-record seventh consecutive losing season. That's counting a 6-7 finish in 2006 after an Independence Bowl loss to Alabama; CU qualified for that trip with a 6-6 regular-season finish.
During that stretch, some CU teams kept the hope of a winning season alive until the last couple of games. But these Buffs know their final four games - three of which are at Folsom Field - are all that's left and even a sweep will leave them below .500. It's a sad reality for a team and a coaching staff that entered September believing the postseason was attainable.
One glimmer on a gloomy afternoon in the Pacific Northwest was freshman Christian Powell, who carried 20 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns. It was Powell's second 100-yard game this season, both coming in losses. But for obvious reasons, this one meant more to him than the 147-yard performance against Sacramento State.
Oregon's defense, he said, is "as good as anybody expected. They're very disciplined, just a great team . . . that's a great accomplishment, something to be proud of. I just have to keep on working, keep on trying to grind it out these last four games."
Embree said Powell "played well . . . he's getting better and doing some good things in the pass game also. I talked about some of our freshmen having to start playing like sophomores - he's one of those guys who's doing that. It's a long season for those guys, longer than anything they've experienced.
"Games are longer for them. High school games are kind of like a half for them in college football. It's a little bit of a mental grind for them. It can be hard at times. But he's one of the guys who's fought his way and pushed his way through it; he's going to be a very good player for us and I expect him to get better. I know he will because that's how he works and prepares. Now he's got to get a couple of his classmates to take that next step before the season's done."
Aside from Powell's performance and perhaps a step forward taken by sophomore quarterback Nick Hirschman, there was little else offensively to make a Black and Gold memory. Embree and his offensive staff have been reluctant to change starting quarterbacks, using junior Jordan Webb in that role since the Sept. 1 opener against Colorado State.
Sophomore Connor Wood and Hirschman have dueled weekly for backup duty since Webb was named the starter, and Wood was believed to be set as first off the bench on Saturday. But Hirschman said that wasn't the plan. He entered the game late in the second quarter and played until late in the fourth, when Wood relieved him. Webb didn't play at all in the second half, and Embree indicated once again that the starting job will be reevaluated this week before No. 19 Stanford visits on Saturday.
Hirschman said he believed he has been making "quicker, sounder decisions" and has "matured as a player" over the last couple of weeks in practice. His goal for the offense "is what we did at the start of the third quarter," he said, referring to opening the second half with a 72-yard scoring drive, then converting a Ducks fumble into another shorter TD march.
Oregon, said Hirschman, "has a national championship caliber defense. We moved the ball on them . . . it just shows we have the ability to play like that if we're consistent. If we can keep that consistency, we can be scary."
For the record, Oregon had begun substituting liberally on both sides of the ball at halftime, which saw the Ducks trot off the field with their 56-point lead. But the Buffs did have enough of a spark remaining to open the second half with a TD march.
Embree told his team he would finish out the season with the players who demonstrated they still want to play. But he also said when he reviews the game, he doesn't expect to find anyone who has cashed it in: "I didn't see any (Saturday) and I don't expect to see it when we turn on the tape either."
His goals for the final month: "Get more consistent play at the quarterback position and get the defense to stop some people . . . that's what I want to see these next four games," he said.
Games to remember are supposedly played in November. In 2011, the Buffs fashioned an upbeat final-month finish, winning two of their last three games in Embree's three-win debut season (3-10). This schedule has them at home next Saturday against Stanford, traveling to resurgent Arizona (Nov. 10), then closing it out with visits to Folsom Field by Washington (Nov. 17) and Utah (Nov. 23).
And in case anyone's forgotten, there hasn't been a home win yet this season. November still can be a month to remember . . . it's all that's left after two months to forget.