Woelk: Takeaways From Buffs Win Over Arizona
BOULDER — One victory by no means guarantees a turnaround, but every turnaround begins with one victory.
Today, Karl Dorrell's Colorado Buffaloes have that opportunity in their grasp after a 34-0 thrashing of Arizona on Saturday that was arguably the Buffs' best overall effort in the Dorrell era.
— CU scored touchdowns in all three phases — offense, defense and special teams — something that hadn't been done by a Colorado team since the late years of the Gary Barnett era.
— CU's defense pitched a shutout against an FBS team, again something that hadn't happened since the Barnett years.
— Two weeks of practice sandwiched around a bye week paid big dividends, as evidenced by some dramatic improvement in several key areas.
— But perhaps most importantly, Dorrell's team received some validation for its hard work. The Buffs had faith in the process, didn't give up, and were rewarded for their resilience.
"They took ownership," Dorrell said of the two weeks the Buffs spent regrouping, retooling and resetting their season. "That's really what happened. They took ownership over the (bye week). They weren't pointing fingers. It was more like 'I have to do that better'. I think once a team realizes that they can do it better, which collectively makes everything happen, that's where we're at right now. They see the results of everybody taking ownership of it."
No doubt, a victory over an 0-6 program that hasn't won a game since 2019 doesn't qualify as a stunner.
But the Wildcats were also poised for a breakout game. They had been within one point of UCLA in the third quarter and a score away from Oregon heading into the fourth this season. They had produced some flashes of good play and were looking for their turnaround moment.
The Buffs squashed those hopes on a quintessential sun-splashed fall afternoon at Folsom.
"They're going to tell you 'We're a good football team,'" Dorrell said of his players. "They know we're a good football team. We just haven't put it all together. Hopefully, this is a great example for them to realize, 'Wow, when we have this type of mindset we can achieve the goals and aspirations we set for ourselves, which is winning ball games.' It's a great testimony to these young men that they accepted the challenge."
Other takeaways from Saturday's victory:
1. The coaches' faith in Brendon Lewis is paying off. For roughly the last month, Dorrell and his staff have heard the clamors for a quarterback switch. But after giving backup Drew Carter a shot at unseating Lewis over the last two weeks, CU coaches stuck with Lewis — and their decision paid dividends Saturday.
Not that Lewis played perfectly. But his 12-for-19, 248-yard, two-touchdown day showed that when given proper time in the pocket and a chance to find open receivers, he can do just that.
Lewis' best day as a Buff included some picture-perfect tosses, both short and long range. His 62-yard touchdown pass to Brenden Rice could not have been thrown any better, and his 11-yard scoring strike to Dimitri Stanley made sure only Stanley had a chance to make the catch.
(Lewis also had a sure touchdown dropped in the first half, a pass in the end zone that was squarely on target and would have given Colorado a 7-0 lead on its opening possession.)
CU's quarterback also showed an inclination to take a few more chances and trust his receivers. He put a ball up for grabs early, and his faith that Rice would simply beat his defender for the catch was rewarded with a 31-yard gain.
Lewis had a 90.6 overall grade from Pro Football Focus on Saturday. After three straight game below 60 on the PFF scale, he produced his best numbers of the year.
As Dorrell mentioned, there is no doubt room for improvement. CU's coach wants to see Lewis utilize his legs for more than just extending plays. Instead of rolling from the pocket and throwing out of bounds, Dorrell would like to see more of the Lewis we saw in the Alamo Bowl, when he tucked the ball away and headed upfield. Those are the kinds of plays that will give defensive coordinators headaches.
But Saturday was clearly a solid step in the right direction.
2. Give the O-line credit for helping Lewis take that step. Colorado's pass protection hasn't been consistent all year. But Saturday, the Buffs gave Lewis time and the passing game made plays. CU guard Kary Kutsch, the Buffs' most-consistent pass blocker all year, had another solid game and his linemates gained confidence and continuity as the game progressed.
Of course, Dorrell would like to see similar improvement in the run game. The Buffs have yet to establish a true ground-and-pound game — but if the passing game can continue to improve, it will force opponents to stop loading the box. That should help open up some running lanes.
3. CU's emphasis on special teams is paying off. Since he arrived, Dorrell has made sure to give full attention to that sometimes overlooked phase. The Buffs have a terrific punter in Josh Watts, a steady young kicker in Cole Becker and their return teams have been solid.
But Saturday proved how important the other areas of special teams can be. Freshman Trevor Woods' blocked punt and return for a touchdown in the third quarter gave the Buffs some breathing room in what was still anyone's game at the time. A 6-0 lead became a 13-0 edge and suddenly the Buffs were in full control instead of clinging to a one-score lead.
4. Don't forget that crucial goal-line stand by the defense. Yes, big plays were the big story. Woods' block and punt return. Carson Wells' 50-yard interception return for a score. Lewis' 62-yard bomb to Rice.
But don't forget the defense's magnificent goal line stand in the second quarter, when CU turned the Wildcats away on four consecutive plays from the 1-yard line.
On the first three, Terrance Lang, Jalen Sami, Christian Gonzalez and Joshka Gustav all came up with big stops on running plays. Then, on fourth down, the Buffs brought linebacker Nate Landman into the backfield, and he hurried a throw from UA quarterback Gunner Cruz. Paired with some good coverage in the end zone, the pass fell incomplete.
Had the Wildcats scored on the series, they likely would have taken a 7-6 halftime lead and the confidence that goes with such a momentum switch.
Instead, they needed 75 yards and got 74 — and on their next five possessions of the game, their longest drive was a mere 29 yards.
Big scoring plays are wonderful. But the Buffs' grit and toughness in the trenches with their backs to the wall is a major testament to Chris Wilson's group.
5. Speaking of Wilson, CU's D-coordinator had a terrific game plan. Nothing in Arizona coach Jedd Fisch's bag of tricks caught the Buffs by surprise. Wilson drew up an attack that produced nine tackles for loss, including seven in the first half, and Colorado had Arizona's offense on the ropes for much of the game.
The Buffs completely shut down UA's peripheral attack. With Wells manning the edge — four tackles for loss — it meant UA had to try the middle, where Landman and Co. were waiting.
As for UA's passing game, Colorado kept Arizona wide receiver Stanley Berryhill in check all game. While the Wildcats star did catch 13 passes, they went for a grand total of 48 yards and he never managed to produce a big play.
6. Key moments from Brenden Rice. The Buffs have been needing a wide receiver to step up and show some game-breaking potential. Rice may have filled the bill Saturday.
Rice finished with three catches for 111 yards, his first 100-yard game as a Buff. His 62-yard touchdown reception was textbook perfect and his 31-yard reception early showed an ability to simply beat good coverage for the ball.
But equally importantly, his emergence should force opponents to account for his presence — meaning they have to reduce the numbers dedicated to run defense. If Lewis and Rice — Killer Bs? — can continue their connection, it will help the offense in myriad ways.
7. Strong, steady game from Isaiah Lewis. While fellow safety Mark Perry was collecting the first interception of his career, Lewis put forth a solid, consistent effort.Lewis was credited with seven tackles — tied with Landman for the team high — and he finished with a 74.5 grade from PFF, his best of the season.
Lewis is often overshadowed by bigger numbers from his teammates. But he continues to be a steady, consistent presence on the back end, and his leadership for younger players in the secondary has been invaluable.
8. Young players are still making plays. We'll still include CB Christian Gonzalez in this group. While he has started 12 games for the Buffs — every game since he arrived — he's still a freshman.
We also saw some nice plays from true freshman CB Tyrin Taylor, freshman linebacker Joshka Gustav and freshman wide receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig (who could be the next WR to become a consistent big-play threat). We also saw freshman OL Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan get some snaps up front, along with TE Alec Pell (a critical position for development).
Dorrell is still finding ways to get young players some quality snaps. The process builds depth, builds confidence and builds for the future.
9. The Buffs played with confidence. Don't overlook this factor. With a four-game losing streak in tow, Colorado had plenty of reasons to wonder from which direction the next punch was coming.
But the Buffs didn't play like a team on the ropes. The defense played lights out from beginning to end, the offense made some plays early and gained confidence late — and they supported each other all day.
That's a critical step for a coaching staff still building its foundation. When the players continue to believe despite adversity, it's a sign they are being taught the right things.
10. Colorado closed. With the game in the balance well into the third quarter, there were plenty of opportunities for a slip-up.
Instead, the Buffs created some big plays and sealed the deal. The offense came alive, special teams did their job and the defense never let up.
That's something relatively new for Dorrell's Buffs. Even during last season's four-game win streak, CU built some big leads, then had to hold on down the stretch on a couple of occasions.
There was no holding on Saturday. Colorado took control in crunch time and put the Wildcats away.
Now, of course, the question is whether CU can take this momentum into next week's game at Cal, a team that took Oregon to the wire Saturday.
The good news is, Colorado has some confidence — and like defense, confidence travels.