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Takeaways From Buffs Loss At ASU

Sep 26, 2021

BOULDER — Nobody has to remind Colorado coach Karl Dorrell that a sense of urgency is required within the Buffaloes' program.

Now toting a three-game losing streak with another critical Pac-12 South matchup directly ahead, the Buffs (1-3 overall, 0-1 Pac-12) must find a way to ramp up their progress and production in time for Saturday's noon matchup with Southern California (1-2, 2-2) at Folsom Field (Pac-12 Networks).

The fact that the Buffs have an all-time 0-14 record against the Trojans only increases the importance of producing rapid improvement.

"We have to be big men and grow up and get some things fixed in a hurry," Dorrell said after Saturday night's 35-13 loss at Arizona State. "I think we're close. I don't think we're that far away."

The Buffs did display week-to-week improvement against the Sun Devils, even if the end result was another loss. In the wake of a dreadful offensive performance in a 30-0 loss to Minnesota, Colorado's offensive numbers took a step forward at ASU, most notably with a 183-yard effort on the ground.

But it clearly wasn't enough, especially when matched against a high-powered ASU offense. If CU is indeed going to still insert itself into the conversation as a division contender — or even a bowl game contender — the Buffs have to correct a number of issues quickly.

Our takeaways after Week 4:

1. Complementary football is critical. This means every phase of the game working together to produce more opportunities for success.

Complementary football is field position, possession time, big plays on both sides of the ball, quick defensive stops and long offensive drives with the run game setting the table for the pass game. Complementary football also requires excellent special teams play — kicking, punting and coverage teams.

Perfect example: Saturday night, ASU gained 33 yards on its first drive before punting from its own 47. The Sun Devils then held CU to minus-7 yards on its first possession to force a punt, and Arizona State took possession at the CU 45. That was essentially a gain of 8 yards for the offense from its previous possession, plus a fresh set of downs.

Six plays and one critical penalty later, ASU scored. Defense and special teams created good field position and the offense took advantage.

Colorado, meanwhile, had exactly one drive start past its own 25-yard line all night long. Arizona State had five series begin past its own 25, and scored a touchdown on every one of those possessions. 

Colorado has played well in every phase at different junctures of the season. But the Buffs haven't been able to mesh those moments together for consistent stretches, something that needs to change.

2. CU's defense needs some takeaways. For the second straight game, Colorado's defense couldn't come up with a momentum-shifting takeaway.

The good news was that CU's offense didn't have a turnover. But in a game when the Sun Devils were winning the field position battle by other means, the Buffs desperately needed a takeaway to tilt the field in their favor.

CU's defense came close. They forced one ASU fumble and had their hands close to some interceptions. The next step is closing the deal on a couple of those opportunities.

As for big plays on the other side of the ball …

3. CU's offense needs to create more explosive plays. Generally defined as a gain of 20 yards or longer, explosive plays are game-changers. And while this is an obvious point, it still bears mention.

In four games thus far, Colorado has produced seven plays of at least 20 yards — and four of those came against Northern Colorado in the opener. CU's longest pass play of the year is the 26-yard Brendon Lewis completion to Ty Robinson on Saturday, a jet sweep that paved the way for the Buffs' only touchdown. CU's second-longest run of the season is Lewis' 33-yard scamper Saturday, which helped put the Buffs in position for a field goal attempt.

Again, it's complementary football. Even if big plays don't help produce points, they can give special teams a chance to pin the opponent deep in its territory. The defense then has the chance to force a quick possession and give the ball back to the offense with better field position and a better chance to score.

4. The Buffs must reduce the self-inflicted wounds. Saturday night, the Buffs were penalized eight times for 84 yards — and just about every flag proved to be critical.

The two most-crucial flags came in the first half, when two CU penalties negated third-down stops. ASU turned both opportunities into touchdowns. But there were other penalties on offense that stymied promising drives and ended up handing ASU good field position.

Once more — complementary football. Drive-killing penalties also hand the opposition better field position.

5. CU's run game is finding its legs again. Colorado actually outgained ASU on the ground, 183-167, even after figuring in yardage lost on quarterback sacks (a bizarre college statistic that needs to change).

Alex Fontenot ran with authority. Jarek Broussard showed some bursts reminiscent of his 2020 season. Lewis displayed playmaking ability on some designed runs.

That improvement is a promising sign, and an indication that CU is finding its way back to the fundamentals that helped produce a 4-0 start last year.

6. There were glimpses of a passing game. Lewis' final passing stats were by no means impressive — 7-for-17 for 67 yards.

But as Dorrell noted, at least a couple of those incompletions were receiver drops that had chances to extend drives, not errant throws. Meanwhile, Lewis did seem to find a little more confidence in his arm as CU's run game established some rhythm. 

No doubt, there's room to improve. But it is yet another example of complementary football. If the Buffs can get that run game tempo back consistently, it will give Lewis more opportunity and confidence to open up the passing game.

7. Expectations can be a bear. After last season's 4-2 record and bowl appearance, the bar for this season was no doubt raised.

Now, the Buffs find themselves battling the shadows of doubt as they try to correct the issues that have been their downfall thus far. Confidence, morale, leadership — all those qualities that are hard to quantify but integral to success will now be tested in the weeks ahead.

8. Young players are contributing. Saturday night, we saw true freshman receiver Robinson make his first big contribution with the jet sweep to help set up CU's only touchdown of the night. Freshman kicker Cole Becker hit a 51-yard field goal to end CU's scoring drought, then added a 33-yarder late in the game.

Meanwhile, freshman DB Tyrin Taylor had a handful of snaps and was in on a third-down stop early in the game, freshman DB Christian Gonzalez continues to play well, freshman O-lineman Jake Wiley played all 65 snaps, and LB Marvin Ham III, DB Nikko Reed and DL Ryan Williams all got some additional game experience.

The Buffs are a young team. Every snap those youngsters get now will pay dividends in the future.

9. The Buffs have shown glimpses in every phase — now they have to turn those glimpses into consistency. At some point in the first four games, the Buffs have played well in all three phases.

Offensively, CU had an impressive drive to take the lead against Texas A&M, and put together another long drive that was stymied in the red zone. Saturday night's scoring march to open the second half — and make it anybody's game for at least a few minutes — was a thing of beauty at a critical juncture.

At the same time, CU's defense has produced some solid moments and kept the Buffs in games while special teams have also turned in some key plays.

But they have seldom all come together in a consistent stretch. Somehow, the Buff must find a way to string together good offensive and defensive series consecutively, sandwiched around solid special teams play.

That is, of course, easier said than done.

But Dorrell still believes this team can make that jump. Which brings us to …

10. CU's coaches haven't lost confidence. "We have to play smarter and make sure we're locked in on what we need to do," Dorrell said. "We're all going through that trial by fire right now — and we'll come out of it OK if we keep our heads and our attitude the way it should be. We'll come out of this OK."

That's an attitude the Buffs have to embrace. If they do, the eight remaining games should hold ample opportunity for CU to make sure this season is a good step forward for the program.