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Woelk: Sanford Convinces Buffs To Believe In Themselves

Oct 15, 2022
Montana Lemonious-Craig goes high for one of his eight catches Saturday.

BOULDER — For the last two weeks, Colorado interim head coach Mike Sanford has insisted that "it's all about the players."

Saturday afternoon, while a few diehard CU fans were still celebrating an overtime win over Cal in Folsom Field, Sanford reiterated that belief.

"This has nothing to do with me hitting the right buttons," a jubilant Sanford said at his first post-game press conference as Colorado's head coach. "This is all for the players and all about the players. This is all about their response, their resolve … We talked about how unbelievable of a group of resilient fighters that we have in our locker room. I think everybody had a chance to see that on full display today. I'm just really proud of these players."

When Sanford took the reins handed to him by Buffs Athletic Director Rick George on Oct. 2, he vowed to inject new energy into the program. He changed up CU's practice approach, spent time on the road recruiting, shuffled his coaching staff — but most of all, used every possible moment to convince CU players to believe in themselves.

Have joy in playing the game, he insisted. Remember why you love football, he told them.

They responded. His words of encouragement, his insistence upon playing with a positive mindset, his relentless enthusiasm and energy made a difference. 

Saturday afternoon, the Buffs did things they hadn't done in five previous games, and did so in front of 50,000-plus fans who were hungry — desperate — for anything resembling a positive step forward.

The Buffs delivered more than a step. They took a huge leap.

Under the direction of new coordinator Gerald Chatman, Colorado's defense was terrific in every regard. The Buffs tweaked their scheme to include "big nickel" and "joker" linebackers, while also simplifying the defensive front alignment.

The result made people wonder where that defense has been the last five weeks.

After recording 18 tackles for loss and three sacks in the first five games, Colorado had 10 TFLs — including two sacks — against the Bears. Linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo had 3.5 tackles for loss. Terrance Lang had two and five other Buffs were in on at least one.

After giving up more yards rushing per game than any other team in the nation in the first five games, the Buffs strangled the Cal run game. The Bears limped out of Folsom with a grand total of 35 yards on the ground. 

But most importantly, the defense delivered big plays when anything less might have resulted in a loss.

There was Chatman's daring call of a corner blitz late in the game and Cal knocking on the door of a go-ahead touchdown. Instead, Nikko Reed's sack forced the Bears to settle for a tying field goal.

There was Woods' big-time hit on Cal receiver Mason Starling in the end zone in overtime. Starling seemingly had the game-tying catch in hand — and then he didn't, thanks to Woods' play.

But honestly, the big plays by the defense were too many to mention. Seemingly every time the Bears threatened, the Buffs had an answer.

Meanwhile, Colorado's offense made the plays when it counted. Sophomore wide receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig was spectacular, pulling down eight catches for 119 yards and the all-important touchdown in overtime. Every time the Buffs had a big play, Lemonious-Craig seemed to be in the neighborhood.

Then there was the play of quarterback J.T. Shrout, a one-time starter who had been relegated to a spot on the bench — until the Buffs needed a spark. Taking the place of a banged-up Owen McCown, Shrout led the Buffs to a touchdown and field goal in regulation, then threw the game-winning touchdown in overtime.

"He took every one of his reps this week like he was going to be the starter," Sanford said. "We knew it was going to require all of us to win a football game."

But while Sanford did his best to deflect praise and heap it all on his players — who no doubt deserve the congratulations — CU's coach also deserves his share.

In the span of just a couple of weeks and a handful of practices, Sanford changed the mindset of a program.

Yes, there were some schematic changes.

But the biggest change came in the attitude of the players. The Buffs bought into Sanford's energy, enthusiasm and confidence. They listened, they believed — and then they produced as Sanford tirelessly exhorted them from the sidelines.

Sanford started the Buffs' day with a pregame "highlight" video on the Folsom big screen.

"I wanted to show the team images of what they've done, the joy of how we've practiced," he said. "Then show them the plays we've made this year, the plays that can win football games. The only thing we haven't done is piece it together."

The Buffs put those pieces together Saturday. They did it because they believed in themselves, believed in the process and believed in their head coach.

Clearly, Saturday's win is just one game with six to go — and every one of them a tough conference opponent.

But for 60 minutes Saturday, the Buffs proved they could play straight up with a good team, take advantage of the opportunities when presented and produce a victory in crunch time.

It is definitely about the players … but someone played a huge role in getting the players to that point.

Congrats to Mike Sanford for showing them the way.