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Takeaways From Buffs Vs. Utah

Dec 13, 2020

BOULDER — If you haven't had the chance to watch Karl Dorrell's press conference after Saturday's 38-21 Colorado loss to Utah, do yourself a favor and take the time.

You'll see a coach who is exactly what the Buffaloes need — a leader whose competitive fire is clearly evident, but also one whose calm, analytical approach is the perfect fit for a program in need of stability.

That is exactly what Dorrell brings to a team that has been hammered by circumstances severe enough to sink any program.

Three head coaches in three years. A pandemic that took away spring ball and much of the summer while also creating an unprecedented cloud of uncertainty over the entire season.

But through it all, Dorrell has remained steadfastly resolute, always looking forward, always preparing — and always helping his team maintain that same steady focus.

No doubt, Saturday's loss was disappointing. The Buffs have been one of the nation's bigger surprises, entering Saturday's game with a 4-0 record that included quality wins over Stanford and UCLA. While a win over the Utes still would have likely left them out of the Pac-12 title game picture, they were clearly worthy of consideration.

But after the game — after his first loss as CU's head coach — Dorrell refused to follow a path taken by many other head coaches around the country.

He did not point fingers. He did not panic. He did not make excuses. Instead, he credited the Utes with playing a solid game. He acknowledged that Colorado made mistakes, and he vowed to get his Buffs back on the practice field, address those areas and be ready for the next game.

There is, of course, at least one more game in the Buffs' future. They will travel to Los Angeles next week to meet Oregon in a 7 p.m. game at the LA Coliseum.

But before we begin looking at the Ducks, our weekly takeaways from Saturday's game:

1. No alibis. Don't underestimate the importance of Dorrell's refusal to latch onto excuses, even when the media gave him the opportunity.

Players feed off of their coach's reactions to every game — win or lose. If the coach makes excuses, players will quickly follow, and that attitude becomes ingrained in a program.

Dorrell would have none of that Saturday. 

No doubt the loss of Nate Landman — one of the nation's best linebackers — was damaging. With Landman in the game, the Utes rushed for 47 yards on 18 carries in the first half, a 2.6 per carry average. With Landman sidelined, Utah's numbers ballooned to 145 yards while averaging 6.6 per carry.

But Dorrell also knows injuries are part of the game. Every team must deal with them.

"Not one guy does the whole defense," Dorrell said, noting that the Buffs missed opportunities to make tackles in key situations in the second half. "Even though he's a great piece to that, we have a next-man-up mentality. When someone goes down, we expect the next guy to come in and do his job effectively, just like the starter."

Ditto with the cold, wet conditions. As Dorrell dryly noted, the Utes had to play on the same field. 

"There were two teams out there, our team and Utah," Dorrell said. "No excuses."

It is exactly what CU players — and fans — needed to hear from their coach. Dorrell had refused to sell alibis to this point, and to see him follow that philosophy after a loss was a strong message.

The Buffs will play the hand they are dealt. 

2. Building depth will be a key for the future. Since the day he arrived, Dorrell has stressed the importance of depth. We have seen it pay off already, with reserves stepping in to starting roles, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines.

But CU's young roster needs more development, and the process will no doubt be critical in recruiting, as well as when Dorrell finally gets to conduct an actual spring ball session. 

Starters are obviously a huge key to a team's success. But the next man up is equally important as a season heads down the stretch — and Dorrell's message to his players to be ready at a moment's notice will be a cornerstone of the program.

3. Young players continue to step up. If the Pac-12 wasn't aware of Brenden Rice before Saturday, the entire league certainly took notice after his performance against Utah. The true freshman receiver reeled off an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, then scored on a 66-yard reception early in the second half. He will no doubt be a weapon in the future.

But Rice is by no means the only youngster with big potential. Fellow wide receiver La'Vontae Shenault continues to make plays. Young running backs Jaren Mangham and Ashaad Clayton have shown bursts — and Jarek Broussard is only a sophomore. 

Meanwhile, youngsters in the trenches continue to develop. O-linemen Frank Fillip, Kanan Ray and Josh Jynes give CU a strong foundation. On the defensive side, Na'im Rodman and Lloyd Murray have gotten quality snaps, junior Janaz Jordan is stepping up — and starting nose tackle Jalen Sami is just a sophomore.

It's the same at nearly every position. Young players are learning in the heat of battle. It is building the depth Dorrell values and forming a cornerstone upon which CU can continue to build.

4. Explosive plays and turnovers can't be over-emphasized. For the first three games of the season, Colorado won or stayed even in the turnover department. The Buffs slipped past Arizona despite losing the turnover battle, but they had no such luck Saturday, as Utah claimed three defensive takeaways and the Buffs had just one.

It's not as if CU's staff doesn't place plenty of emphasis on takeaways/turnovers. In fact, Saturday's lost fumble by Broussard was the first fumble by a CU running back this season and the first lost by a Buffs RB in 19 games. There's no reason to believe it is in any way a trend.

As for explosive plays, the Buffs had their fair share offensively (and on special teams), and the defense yielded just one damaging big play — the 66-yard touchdown run by the Utes late in the game that sealed their victory.

Still, there's no doubt both areas will continue to be heavily emphasized by the CU coaching staff, especially with the big-play Ducks on the immediate horizon.

5. Dorrell and his staff have reaped far more from this season than most expected. With so much on the line Saturday, it's understandable that disappointment may have temporarily clouded over what the Buffs have accomplished.

Today, it would be wise to look at the big picture. With a 4-1 record, the Buffs are guaranteed their first winning season since 2016 and only their second since 2005. They have produced quality wins over Stanford and UCLA.

But most importantly, the foundation for the future is carefully being put in place. Dorrell has been outstanding in managing this season, using every opportunity to play young players — knowing that no eligibility will be lost — while still playing to win. It has been a delicate balance that he has achieved as well as anyone in the country.

Now, Colorado fans can look forward to once again being a relevant program in the Pac-12. The Buffs came oh-so-close to earning a berth in the title game, and they did it without a roster heavily dependent upon seniors. If you want to play "what if," we would have loved to have seen how CU would have fared in the two games canceled by Covid — Arizona State and USC.

But that's not a game Dorrell will be interested in playing. Rather, he will look forward to preparing for Oregon, then whatever comes next. It's what he has done since the day he arrived, tackling each obstacle as it has arisen, then moving forward.

To their credit, his players have bought into that philosophy. 

That's a program building block that will pay dividends for years to come.