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Woelk: Takeaways From Buffs Win Over UCLA

Nov 8, 2020

BOULDER — Buff Nation awakened Sunday morning feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and ready for the next game of the Karl Dorrell Era.

It's no wonder. Dorrell's Colorado Buffaloes opened the much-delayed and much anticipated 2020 season Saturday with a bang, knocking off favored UCLA, 48-42, in a Folsom Field thriller. The Buffs used every phase of the game to pick up the win, getting big plays from the defense early, a special teams turnover early and two critical field goals late, and a consistent, steady offense that answered every punch the Bruins could throw.

So what did we learn from Saturday's win?

Plenty — which brings us to our weekly takeaways:

1. The Buffs are quickly taking on Dorrell's demeanor. We talked about it during camp, we said it would be a key to the game — and it proved to be critical Saturday.

Nobody panics when they're ahead 35-7. But when the score tightens up — as it did Saturday — the team that doesn't give in to nerves and makes plays in critical moments is usually the team that wins.

The Buffs were that team Saturday because their coach never showed signs of alarm. From kickoff to the final gun, Dorrell maintained a steady, intense focus and his team responded in a like manner. Big plays from the offense and key defensive stops in the fourth quarter were the difference against a potent offense that was inches away from seizing momentum for good.

This won't be the last time the Buffs face adversity. But they passed their first test in that department with flying colors. That's a great sign.

2. Give the big fellas up front their due. With three veteran starters returning and two youngsters with some experience, the general consensus was that Colorado's offensive line would be improved.

But Mitch Rodrigue's bunch exceeded most expectations. They gave first-time starter Sam Noyer plenty of time in the pocket (the only sack was an intentional grounding penalty) and paved the way for an outstanding rushing attack (264 yards).

Perhaps most importantly, they exerted their will with the game on the line. When the Bruins were desperate to get the ball back in the second half, the Buffs methodically pounded out three scoring drives on their last four possessions (touchdown, field goal, field goal) — and the fourth was a missed field goal.

Also of note? CU's last three scoring drives were three of the four longest of the game — by either team — in terms of clock time. Those are the kind of drives that take a toll on a defense, and they proved to be a big factor down the stretch.

3. O-coordinator Darrin Chiaverini has upped his game. Chev's second go-round in the play calling saddle no doubt looks good so far. He showed patience with his play calling, used his run game to establish the tone of the contest, and found plenty of ways to get Noyer comfortable early.

Chiaverini also used all the weapons available to him. Eight different Buffs caught passes, and Noyer was consistently able to find open receivers in space and allow them to make plays after the catch.

Dorrell has stressed the need for a balanced attack. Saturday's game plan fit the mold perfectly (264 yards rushing, 261 passing), and it came against a conference opponent.

Yes, it's just one game — but if you're Stanford head coach David Shaw, you have a good week's worth of work ahead of you trying to figure out where the Buffs might strike next Saturday.

4. Speaking of weapons, love the steady dose of tight ends. We can't remember the last game a CU tight end led the team in receiving yards— but it happened Saturday, as Brady Russell hauled in five catches for 77 yards and the only passing touchdown of the evening for the Buffs. 

This is a weapon that can't be over-emphasized. CU's tight ends offer help in the run game, pass protection when necessary — and now, a true offensive threat downfield. Russell has become a true all-around player, and it's clear he and Noyer have a solid chemistry already. The Buffs have a stable of tight ends for assistant coach Taylor Embree to utilize, and their abilities will no doubt continue to be a big part of the offense.

(P.S. here: While our memory wasn't working, CU sports info guru David Plati of course had the information at hand. Russel's game was the first time since 2012 that a tight end has led CU in receiving yards in a game, when Scott Fernandez had one catch for 71 yards Nov. 10 against Arizona. It was also the most receiving yards by a CU tight end since Riar Geer had seven catches for 89 yards at West Virginia in 2009).

5. Running backs coach Darian Hagan deserves a shoutout. Yes, we all know what sophomore Jarek Broussard accomplished in his debut — 187 yards on the ground and three touchdowns. It was a performance for the record books, and it greatly allayed fears of fans who wondered what the Buffs would do without Alex Fontenot in the lineup.

But Hagan deserves a nod for his work with Broussard (who Hagan recently compared to former Buffs standout Rodney Stewart). In the last four years, Hagan has coached three 1,000-yard rushers (Phillip Lindsay twice and Travon McMillian), and came close last year with Fontenot. None were considered can't-miss prospects, but Hagan turned them into consistent performers.

Now, Broussard appears to be next in line. That's some consistent work from the Buffs' RBs coach.

6. Hats off to QB coch Danny Langsdorf. Maybe the biggest concern among the fan base was how a first-time starter — who played safety last year — would react under center.

The answer? Very, very well. Langsdorf had Noyer prepared in every phase of the job. Noyer was calm under pressure, ran the offense efficiently, made plays with his legs and completed his checkdowns like a veteran. Noyer deserves full credit for his performance, but the guy who prepared him also needs a big nod for his prep work.

7. Defense played very well in stretches, and will continue to improve. First, it's important to remember here that without the three defensive takeaways (plus a special teams fumble recovery) early in the game, that 35-7 lead is much, much closer. Defense set the tone for the game and gave the offense every opportunity possible to put points on the board. Three of Colorado's first-half touchdown drives covered a grand total of 33 yards.

Second, rest assured that Colorado won't be the only team to have problems with UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Once he settled in and the Bruins made their halftime adjustments, he showed why he's considered to be one of the country's best dual-threat quarterbacks.

Finally, don't forget that when push came to shove — when the Buffs absolutely, positively had to have a stop — the defense bowed its neck and delivered. Colorado came up with two straight fourth-down stops on UCLA's last three possessions, defensive stands that ultimately made the difference. Veterans Mustafa Johnson and Nate Landman showed why they were preseason all-Pac-12 picks.

As for the explosive plays that hurt the Buffs, the bet here is that D-coordinator Tyson Summers will make the necessary corrections and adjustments this week to limit those in the future. We knew CU's young secondary would make some mistakes, but they were the type of errors that can be corrected. The Buffs weren't "out-talented."

Expect those youngsters on the back end to improve. If they do, the defense will be fine.

8. Kicking game will get extra attention. When you connect on just two of five field goal tries, something's not working. Dorrell made it clear after the game that the Buffs will do everything possible this week to make sure that area is a "non-issue" next week.

One bright note, however? How about the presence of Evan Price, a veteran kicker who stepped in for James Stefanou after the first two misses and calmly drilled a pair of critical kicks in the second half.

9. The Buffs won without playing their best. This can't be over-emphasized. As Dorrell noted, the offense left points on the board, the defense had some breakdowns, the kicking game had some miscues — and the Buffs still beat a quality Pac-12 opponent.

That should be a confidence boost for every player and coach. In a shortened season when there will be precious little margin for error and every game — every snap — will be magnified in importance, the ability to overcome adversity, forget bad moments and focus on making plays when they matter most will be crucial.

Saturday night, the Buffs showed that Dorrell has instilled that confidence and ability in his team.

That is a great sign not only for this year, but for the future of Colorado football.

Contact: Neill.Woelk@Colorado.edu