BOULDER — Consistency has not been a strong suit of Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes this season.
When the offense is rolling, the defense struggles. When the defense plays well — as it has the last two weeks — the offense has trouble establishing a steady rhythm.
As a result, the Buffs (4-5 overall, 1-5 Pac-12) are now mired in a three-game losing streak and have dropped five of their last six. With three games remaining, beginning with next Saturday’s home final against surging Arizona, the Buffs must find a way to snap their slump or miss a chance at a bowl bid — something that seemed almost a given after their 3-0 start.
That inconsistency reared its head in a big way Saturday night at Folsom Field in a 26-19 loss to No. 16 Oregon State.
For the second straight week, CU’s defense kept the Buffs in the game, forcing two first half turnovers by the Beavers and limiting them to just one touchdown for nearly the entire first half.
But Colorado’s offense managed to turn those takeaways into just one field goal, and a late first half gamble to try to move out of a hole deep in CU territory instead ended up opening the door for another Oregon State touchdown.
Colorado’s offense did finally put together two long scoring drives in the fourth quarter. After totaling just 78 yards offense in the first three periods, CU produced two 75-yard scoring drives in the final period, throwing a scare into the Beavers down the stretch.
But that was all it was — a scare. OSU escaped Boulder with a win (despite some questionable coaching decisions) and the Buffs are scrambling to find their early season offensive production.
Our takeaways from Week 9:
1. A new play caller doesn’t seem to be the quick fix for the offense. Through the first six and one-half games this year, Colorado’s offense was outstanding. Aside from a 42-6 loss at Oregon, the Buffs moved the ball at a prolific pace.
But after scoring four touchdowns on its first four possessions against Stanford, the Colorado offense went cold. In the last 10 quarters and two overtime periods, CU has scored just 47 points. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders is under constant pressure — he was sacked four times by OSU to bring the season total to 45 — and the running game once again couldn’t establish a threat.
Colorado’s two fourth quarter drives did offer some hope. The Buffs showed glimpses of the offense that was so productive in wins over TCU and Nebraska and a narrow loss to USC.
But if CU is going to make a run down the stretch, the Buffs will need to find that consistency again.
2. Charles Kelly‘s defense is finding its groove. While the national stats still have CU closer to the bottom than the top in key defensive categories, the truth is Colorado’s defense has given the Buffs a chance to beat two ranked opponents in a row.
A week ago, CU forced four UCLA turnovers in the first half. Saturday the Buffs collected two more against Oregon State.
But the Colorado offense converted those six turnovers into just six points.
Kelly is keeping opponents guessing with pressure from every area on the field and an opportunistic approach that has produced 18 turnovers.
3. Defense producing big-play moments. Shilo Sanders continues to deliver big hits (he has forced three fumbles), Trevor Woods continues to be in position to make plays (he has two interceptions and a fumble recovery) and Jordan Domineck is a disruptor up front (9.5 tackles for loss this year, including five sacks).
Those are the kinds of plays that put a team in position to win — but the offense has to take advantage when those moments present themselves.
4. Clock management is critical. As mentioned previously, the Buffs’ decisions late in the first half paved the way for an easy OSU touchdown when Colorado could have easily entered halftime trailing only 7-3.
The Buffs then had some more interesting moments in the final minutes. After pulling to within one score with 1:42 on the clock, Colorado elected not to try an onside kick. CU had all its timeouts remaining, but OSU managed a first down and the Buffs then waited until just two seconds remained to use their final timeout.
Coach Prime said there was confusion as to how many timeouts the Buffs had remaining in the final minute, but the end result was OSU was able to run the clock out after gaining one first down.
5. Shedeur Sanders is still a playmaker when given the opportunity. The fact that Sanders was even walking by the game’s end is a testament to his toughness. He continues to be a target in the pocket. Along with taking four sacks, he also absorbed at least a dozen more hits.
CU’s game plan was obviously to try to get the ball out of his hands to playmakers quickly, but those plays didn’t produce much yardage.
But he still found a way to make plays in the fourth quarter, when he completed 9-of-14 attempts for 179 yards and two touchdowns. That included back-to-back throws that helped CU overcome a second-and-34 and a 36-yard completion to Xavier Weaver to set up the first score, then a 40-yard toss to Travis Hunter to put Colorado in position for its second touchdown of the game.
6. Arizona will be a great test. Saturday’s noon game at Folsom Field will provide an interesting storyline.
It was just two years ago that the Wildcats went 1-11 in Jedd Fisch’s first year. Last season, they improved to 5-7 and this year they have quietly become one of the nation’s big stories. Saturday’s 27-10 win over UCLA was their third in a row over a ranked team and the 6-3 Wildcats have now moved into the nation’s top 25, checking in at No. 23 this week.
CU fans who are disappointed about the Buffs’ recent efforts would do well to remember Arizona’s trajectory.
Coach Prime this year took over a program that was 1-11 just a year ago. The Buffs have won four games this year and been within striking distance in four of their losses. The improvement has been significant and while Coach Prime is certainly not pleased with the recent skid, CU’s step forward can’t be disputed.
The Buffs have three games remaining and a chance to keep moving forward. Saturday’s matchup with the Wildcats will be a good opportunity to regain some of that early season momentum and remind fans of the improvement the program has produced.