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Takeaways From Buffs Win Over Oregon State

Nov 7, 2021
Carson Wells had a big QB sack in Saturday's Colorado win.

BOULDER — First things first: that was a good team the Colorado Buffaloes beat Saturday night.

Not great, by any stretch of the definition. But Oregon State has been good enough this year to beat USC, Washington and Utah. 

In fact, the 5-4 Beavers are the only Pac-12 team thus far to knock off the Utes. They have a very good rushing attack (leading the Pac-12 after 10 games), a competent passing game and a defense capable of big moments (see Utah).

They are also the only team with a winning record the Buffs have beaten this year, one good reason to believe Saturday night's 37-34 double-OT thriller could be the kind of turning point Karl Dorrell's program has been looking for.

CU's victory was no doubt a nice way to start November, the month in which every team wants to be playing its best ball of the season. The Buffaloes hit that standard against OSU. They had their best overall offensive performance of the season; their defense came up with crucial stops when absolutely necessary; and special teams produced some game-defining moments.

Quite simply, the Buffs played complementary football, something they have struggled to do all year.

Of course, the remainder of the November schedule doesn't get any easier. It includes a trip to the Rose Bowl for a matchup with UCLA (where the Buffs seemingly always struggle); a home game with Washington, which is still in the bowl game hunt; and a season-ending trip to Utah, where the Utes will quite likely be looking to wrap up a South Division title.

So what did we learn from Dorrell's 3-6 Buffs on Saturday?

1. QB Brendon Lewis is growing into the position. Maybe no Buff has taken more heat this season. The freshman has absorbed the brunt of the blame for the offense's struggles this year, and much of that blame has been unfairly placed on his shoulders.

But Lewis has quietly answered his critics with the best possible response — with better numbers and better performances. He has become far more comfortable in the pocket, even when under duress; he is moving through his progressions with much better acuity than early in the season; and he is learning to trust his ability and that of his receivers.

Saturday night's 5-yard touchdown pass to Brenden Rice in the third quarter was a perfect example. As Lewis rolled to his left, he checked one receiver, then another. Rice, meanwhile, broke to the goal line late in the play (after throwing a block early) and Lewis patiently waited for Rice to get open.

Then, bam — Lewis delivered the throw for the score.

That's the kind of play that would have ended in an incompletion or sack just a few weeks ago. But as Lewis gains more confidence in himself, his line and his receivers, he is seeing the game open up in front of him. His decision-making process is developing, he's making plays — and perhaps most importantly, his teammates have steadfastly remained in his corner.

Of course, he's had some help recently …

2. CU's offensive line has improved dramatically since a coaching change. It's hard to believe that a midseason position coach switch could have such a dramatic effect, but you can't argue with the numbers.

In CU's first seven games this year, the Buffs averaged 121 yards per game on the ground, 117 in the air, 4.24 yards per offensive play and 15.1 points per game.

Since the coaching change — granted, a small sample size of just two games — those numbers have risen dramatically. Colorado has averaged 169 yards on the ground, 197 in the air, 5.6 yards per offensive play and 33 points per game.

Meanwhile, after throwing four touchdown passes in his first seven games, Lewis has thrown six in the last two. And, after having been sacked 22 times in the first seven (more than three per game), he's been dumped behind the line of scrimmage just once in the last two.

"They have responded very well," Dorrell said. "They wiped the slate clean in a way and moved forward with the new process on how we're doing things and they're much more communicative right now. They're doing a lot of stuff that they haven't done the first six or seven games of the season."

Of course, there's more to the recent offensive success than just the O-line's improvement … 

3. The Buffs are opening up the playbook. While the change may have been subtle over the last couple of weeks, it has nevertheless been evident, particularly in Saturday's game.

CU has quietly moved back to more three- and four-wide receiver sets, forcing opponents to move defenders out of the box and give the Buffs' run game a little breathing room. It has expanded the opportunities for offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini (another target of a heap of criticism this season) and allowed Colorado to create more chances for their playmakers in space.

The Buffs ran a number of plays Saturday with three wide receivers and a tight end out wide in the slot; some four-wide sets; and even some formations featuring an empty backfield. The move has given Chiaverini more options in the play-calling department, and it resulted in three different Buffs — Rice, Daniel Arias and Montana Lemonious-Craig — catching touchdown passes.

The shift also opened up the run game, giving Jarek Broussard room to operate once he hit the second level. It's why Broussard was able to break a 49-yard run — CU's longest rush of the season — to set up one touchdown, as well as 14- and 16-yard gains to set up another.

Broussard is an excellent back when he hits the second level, as long as there aren't eight defenders in the box. When CU forces defenses to push personnel to the perimeter, it gives Buffs backs a chance to operate inside — and we saw the results Saturday.

4. The Buffs are learning to play without All-American linebacker Nate Landman. This is by no means an easy assignment. When you're missing an All-American stopper in the middle, it's bound to make a difference.

But the Buffs stepped up to the challenge Saturday. While OSU did finish with 475 yards offense, CU did a decent job in limiting the game-breaking type plays. The Beavers entered Saturday's game with eight plays of 40 yards or longer this season — and they left with the same number, as their longest plays of the night covered 31 yards.

CU inside 'backers Quinn Perry and Robert Barnes did a solid job in Landman's absence. Perry was credited with nine tackles, including one for loss; while Barnes had seven tackles and a quarterback hurry. Also stepping up at linebacker were Marvin Ham II (four tackles) and Joshka Gustav (three).

Limiting those big plays meant the Beavers had to work for their points. While they did compile plenty of yards, they didn't have any quick-strike, momentum-changing plays. That allowed the Buffs to come up with a key fourth-down stop as well as a critical three-and-out in the fourth quarter that gave CU's offense the opportunity to score a go-ahead touchdown.

5. The kids are all right. We know what youngsters like Rice and Lemonious-Craig are capable of doing. We've seen more and more flashes this season. Rice is turning into one of the best young receivers in the conference and Lemonious-Craig is showing a penchant for big plays as well.

But also quietly stepping into a role as a dependable playmaker is true freshman Chase Penry, who has caught at least one pass in six games this year and had a career-best three for 41 yards against OSU. Penry runs precise routes, has good hands, catches the ball well in traffic and isn't afraid to block downfield.

Meanwhile, CU's youngsters on the other side of the ball are also making some waves. At one point Saturday night, CU had three true freshman defensive backs in the game — Kaylin Moore, Tyrin Taylor and Nikko Reed.

All three are becoming dependable in coverage and are showing run-stopping ability as well. The fact that they were in the game at crunch time will pay huge dividends in the future.

Of course, we didn't include second-year freshman Christian Gonzalez in this group because he has already attained veteran status. Gonzalez had a huge pass breakup in the end zone Saturday and will be an All-Pac-12 performer before his days at CU are finished.

All of them add up to what should give CU a solid, dependable secondary for years to come.

6. But it's not just the youngsters. Four true veterans — defensive end Carson Wells, DT Jalen Sami and safeties Isaiah Lewis and Mark Perry — continue to provide solid leadership and continuity.

Wells had another outstanding game Saturday, collecting seven tackles and a sack, along with a big quarterback hurry that forced a fourth down incompletion.

Sami is growing into a solid run stopper while Lewis — who had his second interception of the season — and Perry lend a presence on the back end.

Meanwhile, vets Kary Kutsch and Colby Pursell are adding some guidance up front. They not only accepted the coaching change, but embraced the opportunity and the results are showing.

7. Turnovers are critical. After 15 games in the Dorrell era, it's safe to say his teams know how to take care of the ball.

Saturday night was the fifth time this season Colorado has not turned the ball over — a program record and one of the best numbers in the nation. 

For the year, CU has just six turnovers while the defense has produced seven. When Colorado has won the turnover battle this year, the Buffs are 3-1.

8. Yellow flags were a little too plentiful. Not everything was perfect Saturday, as Dorrell and his staff will be the first to attest.

CU was flagged for nine penalties against the Beavers, giving the Buffs 20 in the last two games. Those penalties Saturday were particularly costly, as they forced the Buffs to settle for field goals on a couple of occasions in the red zone, moments when touchdowns could have opened the game up.

"That is an issue right now," Dorrell said. "We've got to clean those things up. We'll continue to address those things."

9. Special teams in the clutch. It's hard to argue with CU's special teams when the freshman kicker delivers a game-winning field goal in overtime. 

But the Buffs also gave up a 26-yard punt return at the end of regulation, one very big reason the Beavers were able to navigate their way into a 60-yard field goal try to tie the game and force overtime.

Still, CU's special teams overall have been a consistent plus for the Buffs this year. From kicker Cole Becker to punter Josh Watts to coverage and return teams, Colorado has been well above average in these categories. If the Buffs can make that a foundational piece of Dorrell's teams over the years, it will pay substantial benefits.

10. The Buffs showed resolve in the face of adversity. When OSU's last-second field goal went through the uprights to force overtime, there's no doubt that Colorado fans everywhere had a bad feeling. It was almost as if the football gods were determined to snatch a win away from the Buffs.

But while CU fans everywhere groaned, Colorado players didn't flinch. They went out and won the game, putting together an outstanding offensive series in the first overtime and a solid defensive effort in the second.

That is the kind of defining moment that can pay dividends for years to come, the kind of moment players can store in the memory bank — and then make a withdrawal the next time adversity rears its head.

Not to say the Buffs have clearly turned the corner. As we mentioned earlier, it's a tough schedule down the stretch. 

But we did see a young team take a big step in the maturity department Saturday. Colorado was given multiple opportunities to call it a night against the Beavers — and every time, the Buffs responded by battling back. They made plays when absolutely necessary, they refused to fold under pressure, and they had the resolve and confidence to beat a good team when they could have easily said close is good enough.

That's the sign of a program moving in the right direction, and Dorrell deserves full credit for staying the course. His calm demeanor, refusal to panic and faith in the process is taking root with his players.

It is how good programs are built over the long haul — and Dorrell is steadily constructing that foundation.