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Takeaways From Buffs Loss At UCLA

Nov 14, 2021
CU held UCLA to just 69 yards rushing in the first half Saturday.

BOULDER — It's been awhile — since 2018, to be exact — that the Colorado Buffaloes have played two so distinctly different halves in one game.

Saturday night, Karl Dorrell's team controlled the first half against UCLA, taking a 20-7 lead with less than a minute to play in the half and still holding a 20-10 lead at intermission.

CU's offense made plays both on the ground and in the air, and the defense — while experiencing a few hiccups — still came up with some big stops, including an interception.

But the second half was a completely different story. The Bruins ran roughshod over the Buffs, finally finishing with 37 unanswered points to hand Colorado a 44-20 loss.

The game presented in many ways a microcosm of a 3-7 season. Flashes of good, even excellent play, interspersed with stretches of poor execution, questionable decisions and self-inflicted wounds.

Simply put, the only consistent thing about the Buffaloes this year has been their inconsistency.

Thus, for our weekly takeaways, we break Saturday's game down into two parts (along with a final conclusion):

1. When they play well, the Buffs have shown the ability to compete even-up with good teams. We first saw this on display way back in Week 2 of the season, when CU took Texas A&M down to the wire before dropping a 10-7 decision.

We saw it again Saturday. Colorado's offense put together two long touchdown drives in the first half (70 and 75 yards), plus a pair of 50-yard marches for field goals. QB Brendon Lewis was an efficient 9-for-12 for 87 yards and CU's run game hammered out 155 yards on the ground against one of the Pac-12's best rush defenses.

Four different Buffs caught at least two passes, the offensive line gave up just one sack and the offense controlled the tempo. Colorado's play-calling kept the Bruins on their heels and its execution was consistent.

Defensively, Colorado came up with some critical stops. Granted, the Buffs were the beneficiaries of two UCLA penalties that nullified big gains (one a touchdown), but the Buffs did get an interception from Mark Perry, a key third-down stop and a fourth-down stop. Meanwhile, CU held UCLA's vaunted run game to just 69 yards over the first two quarters.

All those things added up to a 20-10 halftime lead on the road.

2. CU's margin for error is still razor thin, and those errors were far too plentiful in the second half. Even after UCLA took the opening kick in the second half and marched downfield for a touchdown to narrow CU's lead to 20-16, the Buffs had a chance to regain momentum.

For a few plays, that's exactly what they did. Alex Fontenot ran 27 yards to convert a third-and-2 and the Buffs were in business in UCLA territory.

But then came an 18-yard sack, and not even a 59-yard Josh Watts punt could pin the Bruins deep enough, as the same CU defense that held UCLA to 59 yards rushing in the first half gave up an 83-yard scoring drive that included 70 yards on the ground.

Yes, the Buffs no doubt miss All-American linebacker Nate Landman, who did not play for the third straight game. But they have had three games to adjust — and again, it was the same defense that kept UCLA in check in the first half.

Offensively, an old bugaboo reared its ugly head again — short-yardage situations. After missing one fourth-down conversion try in the first half (a slightly errant but catchable pass that was dropped), CU came up short on two more fourth-down tries in the second half. That included a back-breaking fourth-and-1 early in the fourth quarter when the game was still ostensibly in reach. Colorado was also just 3-for-13 on third-down attempts for the game, including just 1-for-7 in the second half.

Even CU's normally consistent special teams came up short in the third and fourth quarters. There was a missed field goal that would have tied the game at 23-23 and an 82-yard UCLA punt return for a touchdown that iced the win for the Bruins.

In short, the Buffs couldn't lean on any one phase to keep them in the game.

3. As Dorrell said after the game, "It's on all of us and we have to try to find a way to finish this season in a positive way." Indeed, just about everyone in the CU locker room can bear responsibility for the latest loss — and the same goes for much of the season.

Now, with two games remaining and a bowl game officially out of reach, the Buffs must find motivation from a different avenue.

For the handful of seniors who will be making their last two appearances in CU uniforms, they still have a chance to leave a positive impact on the program. They can finish strong and provide some momentum and confidence for next year. (And, as tight end Brady Russell so aptly noted, they can still throw a wrench in opponents' plans. Washington is still in line for a bowl appearance; Utah is chasing a Pac-12 South title and major bowl bid. No doubt, misery loves company and the Buffs still have the opportunity to spread a little misery down the stretch.)

But for CU's vast number of players with at least a year of eligibility remaining, these last two games are a chance to improve, a chance to show coaches they deserve to be high on the depth chart next spring — and a chance to prove to themselves that they truly can play in the Pac-12 on a consistent basis.

Thing is, glimpses and flashes of good play don't go very far. The Buffs have learned that lesson the hard way this year, a season they expected to be at least a continuation of last year, when they jumped out to a 4-0 start and put themselves in contention for a Pac-12 title game appearance.

Now, the Buffs' goals have been narrowed considerably. What this team can do in these final two games is develop some consistency — and that is a process that involves players and coaches. These last two games are about the program, not just the 2021 season, and everyone involved is responsible.

As Dorrell said, "It's on all of us."