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Takeaways From Buffs Win Over Bears

Oct 16, 2022

BOULDER — First things first:

It was a touchdown. When replay officials overruled the initial decision from the field Saturday and called Montana Lemonious-Craig's 22-yard reception from J.T. Shrout a touchdown in Colorado's overtime victory against Cal, they did so for good reason.

The officials had clear evidence that Lemonious-Craig made the catch with one foot in bounds.

Touchdown.

Replay officials don't overturn calls on the field without conclusive evidence that the initial call was wrong. They especially don't overturn calls of that magnitude — a touchdown in an overtime game — without definitive proof that the original call should be reversed.

Touchdown.

Had the call from the field been a completion and had replay officials merely upheld the call, there would be at least a little wiggle room for controversy.

But the fact that they reversed the call makes the final verdict even more concrete. They had conclusive confirmation that Lemonious-Craig caught the ball and dragged his foot in bounds.

Initial call reversed.

Touchdown. 

Now, on to the order of the day, that being our takeaways from the Buffs' dramatic 20-13 win over the Bears:

1. Keep it simple. When Mike Sanford took the reins as CU's interim head coach two weeks ago, he elevated Gerald Chatman to defensive coordinator. The two wanted to simplify the defense, focus on the strengths of their personnel and allow the Buffs to play fast instead of worrying about making a mistake.

For one game at least, mission accomplished. The Buffs played fast and recorded 10 tackles for loss — more than half of their total in the first five games combined. They played loose, with confidence and with a purpose. They made big plays, reduced "chunk" plays and overall dictated the pace and tempo of the game.

Sanford and Chatman did make some schematic weaks. That added a "big nickel" defender and an extra linebacker on occasion. But the Buffs had no trouble executing the new scheme because it wasn't overly complicated. The message was simple: execute your assignment, stay in your gap and trust that the guy next to you will do the same.

As a result, CU's defense was a step ahead of Cal most of the day. The Buffs managed to not leave their young corners on a man-to-man island very often — but still managed to bring pressure from all angles while also playing solid, consistent run defense.

It was a winning combination.

Speaking of run defense … 

2. The defensive line Buffs fans thought they would see. When the season began, the general consensus was that the Buffs D-line would be a strength. CU had a nice core of returning vets and some depth that would give Colorado the foundation of a solid run defense.

But that strength didn't materialize in the first five games. In fact, CU entered Saturday's game with the nation's worst ranked run defense, yielding nearly 300 yards per game on the ground.

That all changed Saturday. Colorado's men in the trenches — Na'im Rodman, Jalen Sami and Terrance Lang — all had arguably their best games of the year, limiting Cal to a measly 35 yards rushing.

They also helped Colorado record two sacks, and perhaps more importantly, kept Cal QB Jack Plummer uncomfortable in the pocket all day — a huge help to CU's secondary. Their play up front also allowed Colorado's linebackers to roam free and make plays (10 tackles for loss).

In short, it is the line Buffs fans had expected to see early on.

3. Sanford follows his instincts. As the son of a longtime, successful coach, Sanford no doubt is familiar with playing the analytics and what the numbers suggest will be most successful in a situation.

But Sanford is also a former quarterback who appears to be willing to occasionally ignore the analytics and follow his gut instinct. We're guessing that had more than a little role in his decision to replace starting QB Owen McCown with J.T. Shrout late in the third quarter.

McCown had taken a wicked hit to the midsection earlier in the game. While he could have continued, it was clear he was less than 100 percent.

Sanford made the switch — but not out of desperation. Sanford simply sensed that Shrout might offer a spark, and those instincts proved correct. Shrout came in and led Colorado to a touchdown and field goal in the fourth quarter, then threw the game-winning score in OT.

Those instincts don't come from a chart. They can't be calibrated with statistical outcomes. They simply come with years of watching, learning and plenty of honing.

Sanford made the right call with his quarterbacks Saturday. That's a positive step forward.

4. Young players continue to emerge. There's no way you couldn't be impressed with the play of Montana Lemonious-Craig. The sophomore wide receiver not only had big numbers — eight catches, 119 yards, one touchdown — he produced those numbers by making eye-popping catches.

His touchdown catch was terrific. But he also went up and perfectly high-pointed a ball from fellow WR Jordyn Tyson that led to CU's fourth-quarter touchdown and he showed excellent ability to pick up yards after catch when he had the opportunity (45 yards YAC). Lemonious-Craig finished with an 87 Pro Football Focus grade, one of the highest of any Buff this season.

There were other young players who showed signs of becoming impact guys. Freshman running back Anthony Hankerson — a player RBs coach Darian Hagan said reminds him of former CU great Eric Bieniemy — ran for 47 yards and a touchdown and finished with a 73.3 PFF grade. Up front, sophomore tackle Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan continues to show promise while both McCown and Shrout lend promise to a solid QB position for the future.

Defensively, the Buffs got great performance from their vets, beginning with transfer LB Josh Chandler-Semedo. 

But younger players such as sophomore safety Trevor Woods (74.3 PFF grade), sophomore corner Nikko Reed (six tackles, a fumble recovery and a huge sack) and true freshman linebacker Aubrey Smith had an impact. Smith played just nine snaps but was credited with two tackles and a forced fumble — the kind of impact you love to see from young players.

"Aubrey's going to be a tremendous football player," Sanford said. "He really capitalized on his opportunity. We created a position for him for that game plan and he executed at a very high level. He can run, he can hit, he's got instincts. He's going to be a name here at the University of Colorado for years to come. He's going to be a fantastic football player."

5. Buffs made mistakes and still won. Colorado didn't play perfect football. CU lost the turnover battle (3-2), committed six penalties (several of which nullified big plays) and had problems developing a consistent run game.

But they still overcame all those areas to come away with a win. That's a very good sign. It means the Buffs have plenty of room to improve, something they will have to do if they want to add to their win column.

Which brings us to … 

6. The road only gets tougher from here. Five of CU's six remaining opponents have winning records, beginning with next week's foe (5-2 Oregon State). Three of those opponents are ranked in the top 25 and every one of the remaining teams on the schedule has at least one quality win.

But right now, it's hard to imagine a 1-5 team playing with more confidence. The Buffs endured a midseason coaching change and have responded to Sanford's injection of enthusiasm, energy and passion.

Odds are the Buffs won't be favored in any of their remaining contests.

But then, they were two-touchdown underdogs against the Bears. If they continue to believe in their new process, they should have at least a puncher's chance in the coming weeks.

That's more than most folks would have given them just one short week ago.