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Woelk: Takeaways From Buffs' Opening Win Over Northern Colorado

Sep 4, 2021
Brendon Lewis had 10 completions for 102 yards and a touchdown in his CU debut.

BOULDER — Colorado coach Karl Dorrell didn't waste much time in his post-game press conference Saturday night after his Buffaloes had dispatched Northern Colorado, 35-7.

In his opening statement, Dorrell made it clear he was not happy with his team's 12 penalties, the most in any game by a Dorrell team at Colorado.

"I thought we just played undisciplined," he said. "We've got to get a lot of things fixed."

But despite a slow start on the offensive side, the Buffs did produce numerous positives in all three phases as the night unfolded. Still, as Dorrell said, the penalties "clouded" a season-opening win.

Thus, we'll start our weekly takeaways for the 2021 season with that issue, then move on to the better stuff.

1. Too many flags. If you're looking for a bright side to those penalties, it's worth remembering four of them were either unsportsmanlike conduct calls or personal fouls.

That's a good thing?

In a way, yes. While no doubt egregious — especially when they extend an opponent's drive or bury your offense — those kinds of penalties are also the easiest to eliminate. Just don't do dumb things, especially when the play is over.

"The things that would cause you to start losing games is the way we played after the whistle," Dorrell said. "If we do that, and continue to do that, we're going to shoot ourselves in the foot and end up losing games."

At least the Buffs' over-exuberance didn't cost them the game Friday. It's much better to learn a lesson in a win than have those mistakes produce a loss.

Thus far in his tenure, discipline has been a hallmark building block for Dorrell. We'll soon know if Friday was an aberration or the beginning of a disturbing trend.

2. RB depth is every bit as good as advertised. It didn't take long for Jarek Broussard to show he's ready to pick up where he left off in 2020. His 30-yard scamper in the second quarter when he tightroped the sidelines was a thing of beauty.

Meanwhile, Ashaad Clayton (8 carries, 51 yards), Alex Fontenot (8-40) and Deion Smith (4-32) also each showed they are worthy of getting their share of carries. Of course, as Dorrell noted, not all four backs will continue to get relatively equal time, but it's a wonderful problem to solve.

One back who might have gone unnoticed but had a big role in CU's run game success? Try freshman Jayle Stacks, who lined up at fullback on a couple of Colorado's short-yardage scores. The 5-11, 230-pound Stacks provides a big punch in that role, a little reminiscent of the days when Brandon Drumm was clearing the way for the likes of Cortlen Johnson, Bobby Purify and Chris Brown in the early 2000s.

3. Brendon Lewis will grow at quarterback. The freshman's numbers were by no means eye popping — 10-for-15 for 102 yards and a touchdown.

But maybe the most important number of Lewis' night was zero — as in no interceptions. Lewis made good decisions when coverage was tight, didn't try to force throws and overall did a good job in managing the game.

As Dorrell noted, he did miss a couple of open receivers in his reads. But he also had 44 yards rushing, extended pass plays with his legs and kept the UNC defense honest. He will continue to grow into his role and there's no reason to think CU's pass production won't get better as well.

4. New defense has promise. The Buffs didn't do much in the way of tipping their defensive hand Friday. They kept things basic, starting with five DBs and loading up the box with big bodies up front with the obvious goal of stopping the run first.

They were quite successful in that role, holding UNC to a measly 20 yards on the ground on 18 carries. Big fellas Na'im Rodman and Jalen Sami combined for three tackles for loss (two sacks) and five tackles, and generally made running up the middle impossible for the Bears. Defense starts up front and CU's line showed some potential of being a solid bunch in the opener.

CU's secondary also had a good night. While the Bears did have some success early with crossing routes, the Buffs shut down that avenue as the game wore on, and combined with a good pass rush, kept UNC's pass game in check for most of the evening.

Colorado was especially productive on third down, limiting the Bears to just three successful conversions on 13 attempts (and 0-for-2 on fourth down). Those are momentum-shifting numbers that can dictate the tempo of a game.

5. Welcome back … Buffs coaches and fans no doubt had to be pleased with the play of defensive back Chris Miller, who hadn't played since the fourth week of the 2019 season. A talented player who has shown great potential, he is finally healthy again and was all over the field Friday, playing 44 snaps. Miller can play the run, bring pressure on the quarterback from the outside and is steady in coverage, and his return is a big boost for the defense.

Other Buffs coming back from injuries who had solid games included linebacker Nate Landman, tackle Chance Lytle and Fontenot. 

6. Depth, depth, depth. The Buffs did get the chance to get some backups some quality snaps Friday. At one point, CU had four freshmen in the secondary and they played well.

Among the newcomers and young players who made their first appearances on offense or defense were DBs Tyrin Taylor, Kaylin Moore, Nikko Reed and Trevor Woods; D-linemen Ryan Williams and Jayden Simon; quarterback Drew Carter; wide receivers Chase Penry and Ty Robinson; grad transfer linebacker Jack Lamb; O-linemen Max Wray and Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan; and safety Trustin Oliver.

Playing time for those players will pay off. Injuries play a role in every season, and chances are those players and more will be called upon to deliver in significant moments before the year is over.

7. Solid special teams. More often than not, special teams get the most attention when they aren't so special.

CU's special teams were dialed in Friday. Freshman kicker Cole Becker did come up just short on a 53-yard field goal try (he hit the crossbar), but he did hit all five PAT attempts and had just one kick returned, for just 16 yards.

Colorado's return game was outstanding. Dimitri Stanley looks to be on his way to a very good season in the punt return department, as he opened with three for 68 yards on Friday. Brenden Rice, meanwhile, had one kick return for 44 yards. Each of the returns gave the Buffs good field position, an underrated stat but one that is critical in close games.

8. O-line developing. With three new starters up front and facing a defensive scheme they hadn't seen in practice or on film, the Buffs' slow start was understandable.

But as the game wore on, CU's big men up front began to exert their will and finally pounded the Bears into submission. Colorado did give up a pair of sacks, but overall, it was a nice start for an O-line looking to gel.

9. Wealth of weapons. This ties into the depth in the running backs room, but it's worth a separate mention. Along with plenty of talent at RB, Colorado is also loaded at wide receiver and tight end.

Eight different Buffs caught passes Friday — an amazing number when you figure that CU completed only 10 passes all night. The distribution included six completions to receivers, two to tight ends and two to running backs. Players notching their first career catches included wideouts Montana Lemonious-Craig and Chase Penry (both of whom will no doubt see a few more balls their way this year) and tight end Alec Pell.

That kind of versatility will no doubt be a plus as Colorado heads into the meat of its schedule.

Speaking of which … 

10. The road gets tougher in a hurry. Three of Colorado's next four opponents — beginning with next week's matchup with Texas A&M in Denver — were ranked in the preseason top 25. The others include Arizona State (Sept. 25) and USC (Oct. 2). The only non-ranked team in that span, Minnesota, just gave Ohio State all it wanted in their season opener.

Of course, nobody needs to remind Dorrell and his team about the schedule.

"We know what's in front of us," Dorrell said dryly.

Next weekend's game will no doubt be a good barometer for Colorado (as will the following week's matchup against Minnesota). The Buffs will spend the week cleaning up issues that arose in the opener, working on plays and schemes they didn't show against UNC, and generally sharpening their game in every area.

"My vision of this team is we can be as good as we want ourselves to be," Dorrell said.

The Buffs will certainly have the opportunity to prove that over the next four weeks.