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Woelk: Takeaways From Buffs Win At Stanford

Nov 15, 2020
Terrance Lang had two tackles for loss Saturday for Colorado.

BOULDER — It would appear the Colorado Buffaloes are turning a few heads.

Sunday morning, on the heels of Saturday's 35-32 win at Stanford, the 2-0 Buffs received a handful of votes in the USA Today Coaches poll.

While it is a nice acknowledgement from his peers, by no means is it a concern — at least this point in the season — for CU head coach Karl Dorrell. 

Rather, Dorrell has more pressing and immediate issues on his mind.

Asked after Saturday's game whether the Buffs deserved mention in the polls, Dorrell said, "My focus is on this team. I'm going to let the voters ... that's their job. My job is to continue to try to produce winning games. That's my focus. I don't have any control of the other things. I hope our team does get the recognition it deserves at some point in time, but right now, we just want to get better and go on to the next challenge of the season."

That is the mantra Dorrell has stressed since the day he arrived — daily and weekly improvement. Get better. Improve on the things they do well and fix the areas that need correcting. It is just one more example of the steady, consistent hand Dorrell has brought to the program.

Certainly there are things Dorrell and his staff will be addressing this week as they prepare for their next game (whoever and whenever that might be). While the Buffs were no doubt happy with the end result against the Cardinal, the final few minutes were a little too close for comfort, as Stanford managed to shave a 35-16 lead down to just three before the Buffs sealed the deal.

Surviving those tense moments down the stretch — CU's second week of providing a little heartbeat increase near the end — is something Dorrell would probably rather not depend on every week.

Still, a win is a win — and in this pandemic-shortened season, every "W" is a little more important. 

So what did we learn from the Buffs' latest outing?

1. Under the direction of Mitch Rodrigue, the offensive line is becoming a force. With three returning veteran starters, the general consensus was that the O-line would be an improved bunch. But so far — and despite a key injury — the big fellas up front have exceeded expectations.

Left tackle William Sherman has been steady and dependable, and Saturday had the highest Pro Football Focus grade of any of the starters. Senior Kary Kutsch, meanwhile, has taken a huge jump this year, and did a nice job of filling in at center in place of injured Colby Pursell against the Cardinal.

A key process has been the development of youngsters. Frank Fillip (right tackle) and Casey Roddick (right guard) have been consistent while junior guard Chance Lytle had a nice starting debut. Also getting 10 quality fourth quarter snaps at guard was sophomore Kanan Ray.

But most telling are the numbers being posted by the offense. The Buffs have yielded just one sack, and that was an intentional grounding penalty against UCLA, a sack under NCAA rules. Meanwhile, CU's run game is averaging a robust 220 yards per game.

No doubt, there will be stiffer tests ahead. But this group so far is giving new starting quarterback Sam Noyer a nice security blanket while also forcing opposing defenses to respect Colorado's run game — and a nod has to go to Rodrigue, who might have been the biggest "unknown" on the coaching staff when the season began.

2. Speaking of Noyer … Guaranteed, nobody outside the CU Champions Center anticipated anything like the start the Buffs senior has put on the board. In two games, he has completed 35 of 55 attempts (63.6 percent) for 512 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, while also rushing 21 times for 100 yards and three more scores.

But it's more than just numbers for Noyer, whose story is quickly capturing the attention of the Pac-12. The quarterback who was playing safety a year ago — and then put his name in the transfer portal at season's end — has become a trusted, steady leader for the Buffs. 

His teammates trust and respect him. He puts his body on the line (often to Dorrell's chagrin) and exudes a confidence that the Buffs have absorbed. He makes plays with his arm and legs, he makes good decisions, and he has shown an instinctual ability to run the Colorado offense.

It will be interesting to see how opposing defensive coordinators choose to deal with his presence in the future. While the Buffs haven't seen any overly exotic schemes thus far, it wouldn't be a surprise to see some different looks in games ahead.

But given what we've seen so far, Noyer has displayed the ability and character to adjust. Which brings us to … 

3. QB coach Danny Langsdorf has done a nice job with his room. No doubt, Noyer's athleticism is a big part of his game. But Langsdorf's tutelage in the details has been instrumental in his quarterback's fast start. He has helped Noyer learn how to read defenses, fine-tune his decision making and quickly learn that the open receiver is the best option.

Langsdorf has also had a hand in developing the passing game portion of the game plan with O-coordinator Darrin Chiaverini. The plan has boosted Noyer's confidence, helped the Buffs move the sticks and build early momentum, and made the best use of Noyer's diverse skill set.

Langsdorf's influence will no doubt be even more important as defenses begin to scheme specifically for Colorado's quarterback, and it will be fun to watch the position continue to evolve under his direction.

4. Youngsters are contributing. When Dorrell arrived, he quickly made it clear that last season didn't matter. Every position was open and every player had the opportunity to prove himself from the beginning.

The result has been youngsters stepping in and making key contributions.

Saturday, we saw freshmen receivers Brenden Rice and La'Vontae Shenault come up with critical catches, freshman linebacker Joshka Gustav come up with a big red zone pass breakup and freshman corner Christian Gonzalez finish with five tackles and a pass breakup.

Meanwhile, sophomore running back Jaren Mangham continues to get work and freshman Ashaad Clayton got his first taste of action.

It's proof that Dorrell will play young players if they earn his trust and prove they deserve a shot. That's a great sign for the future as he continues to build the Colorado foundation.

5. Jarek Broussard is the real deal. Broussard — just a sophomore — burst onto the scene with a 187-yard, three-touchdown effort against UCLA a week ago. But there was still a question as to how he would fare against a much sturdier Stanford front seven.

The answer? A solid 121 yards on 27 carries, with every inch earned. Broussard's longest run of the day covered just 18 yards, but he managed to exploit every crease possible. He is shifty and quick to the hole, and continues to show surprising strength for a 5-foot-9, 185-pounder.

One remaining question might be whether the Buffs will continue to lean on Broussard for roughly 30 touches a game (he also had a pass reception Saturday). It's not a question of durability, but rather more of whether they can keep him fresh for the stretch run.

But this much we do know — opposing defenses will be well-aware of No. 23 from this point on.

6. Third down efforts. They call it the "money down" for good reason, and Colorado was solid on both sides of the ball in this area.

Offensively, the Buffs were 8-for-14 on third down conversions Saturday, including 3-for-3 on their second scoring drive and 2-for-2 on their final touchdown march. Both drives used 10 plays and a combined nine minutes off the clock — the kind of drives that wear out a defense.

On the defensive side, the Buffs held Stanford to just 5-for-16 on third down. That included three huge stops in the first half — two in the red zone — that forced the Cardinal to settle for field goals on all three possessions.

As Stanford coach David Shaw noted, it would have been a much different game had the Cardinal converted two of those red zone third downs. Those are plays that many folks forget by game's end — but in the end, plays that made a big difference.

7. "Next man up" is seriously a thing. Most coaches and teams talk about the next-man-up mentality. The Buffs back up their words with actions.

Saturday, they beat Stanford without their starting center (Pursell) and their starting star back on defense (Chris Miller), and without the service of starting tight end Brady Russell for much of the game. And, of course, they started their season without the services of last year's leading rusher (Alex Fontenot) and their leading returning receiver (K.D. Nixon).

"We know it's the next-man-up mentality," linebacker Carson Wells said " Everybody prepares like they're the starter. There's no slack."

8. Speaking of Wells … The CU junior outside 'backer has taken a big step under the direction of OLBs coach Brian Michalowski.

Wells, who had a key interception against UCLA, was one of Colorado's captains for Saturday's game. He responded with six tackles — two for loss, including a sack — and a pass breakup. He has made significant strides from last season, and has become a key figure both against the run and in pass defense.

Also stepping up Saturday was defensive end Terrance Lang, who is looking more and more comfortable each week under the coaching of D-line boss Chris Wilson. Lang had two tackles for loss and a pass breakup, and was a big part of a run defense that held Stanford to 70 yards total (and a long run of just 15 yards).

Both are examples of defensive coordinator Tyson Summers' philosophy of putting his best players in position to make plays. Nate Landman has been a rock in the middle, Derrion Rakestraw has been steady on the back end and Wells, Lang and Mustafa Johnson are giving the Buffs a formidable first-level wall. No doubt there are improvements to be made, but CU's defense has made enough plays to win games — and should continue to get better.

9. Upperclassmen leadership. Don't underestimate the importance of this — Colorado's upperclassmen have taken ownership of their responsibilities in this area and it is showing.

From Landman to Johnson to Rakestraw to Sherman to Noyer — and more — CU's elder statesmen have helped Dorrell keep the program steady.

There's no question it hasn't been easy. The Buffs are playing for their third head coach in as many years, with several positions playing with their fourth different position coach in four seasons. Continuity has been virtually non-existent during these players' time in Boulder.

But when Dorrell arrived, the players listened, believed and trusted him. In turn, they transmitted that trust to the weight room, locker room and practice field. Tired of 5-7 finishes (CU's record the last three years), they have set their sights on leaving a foundation upon which future Buffs can build.

So far, they are putting down some impressive blocks.

10. Right man for the right time. Throughout camp and into the season, we've stressed how important Dorrell's steady hand has been in shaping the identity of these Buffs.

Saturday was the latest example. With all kinds of opportunities to fold, all kinds of chances to let the game slip away, the Buff instead showed the resiliency they have developed under Dorrell.

 It is the result of his focused, disciplined style, a demeanor that is already taking hold throughout the team. There is no indecisiveness, but neither is there any over-the-top, unnecessary showmanship.

Instead, in the midst of the most unusual circumstances modern college football has ever seen, Dorrell has focused on what he and his players can control. They have blocked out the noise, refused to make excuses, and maintained a steady, determined resolve that concentrates on the next play, next practice, next game.

Simply, Dorrell has provided exactly the kind of leadership and stability the Buffaloes needed in these extraordinary times. That's something Colorado fans can no doubt embrace.