Monthly Archives: September 2012

This is how good the Broncos can be

If you’ve listened to various Broncos coaches perform the required post-mortems after being sliced and diced by Peyton Manning over the years, the words coming from Raiders coach Dennis Allen on Sunday should sound familiar.

“They out-coached us, they outplayed us, they beat us in every phase of the game,” he said after the Broncos routed the Raiders 37-6.

“The time of possession is killing us. We’ve got to be able to get off the field on third down defensively so we don’t play so many plays.”

The Broncos had the ball for 37 minutes, 25 seconds of the available 60, the Raiders for the other 22:35. You may recall the Broncos winning the coin toss in Indianapolis under former coach Josh McDaniels and deferring, giving the ball to Manning to open the game. Allen did the same thing Sunday, with the same result. Manning took the ball on the opening possession and marched it down the field to give the Broncos a lead they would never relinquish.

One of the unwritten rules in the NFL is you’re not allowed to make excuses, so one very relevant fact got almost no attention after Manning’s best game yet as a Bronco — the Raiders’ secondary was in tatters. Oakland was without both of its starting cornerbacks and Manning exploited this weakness at will.

When I mentioned to Allen that it’s hard to play Manning without either of your starting corners, the former Broncos defensive coordinator said what he was required to say.

“Well, it’s hard to play against Peyton Manning no matter what. He’s a good quarterback. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback and there’s a reason why he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. But we’ve got the guys that we have and that’s who we’ve got to go out and play with. And we’ve got to play at an NFL level. So we’re not going to use injuries as a crutch. That’s all of us.”

The Raiders signed a pair of 30-year-old free agent cornerbacks during the offseason. Ron Bartell lasted one game, breaking his left shoulder blade in the Raiders’ opener against the Chargers. Shawntae Spencer lasted twice as long, sustaining a foot injury in Week 2.

So the Raiders rolled into Denver with backup Pat Lee at one corner and safety Michael Huff at the other. Manning feasted, completing 30 of 38 passes to eight different receivers for 338 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.

“They’re still professionals out there and they’re still NFL players,” said veteran Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley. “You have to go in with the same mindset every game. I think we did that this week. We knew if we went out there and executed, there’d be some plays to be made. And that’s what we were able to do.”

Behind Manning, the Broncos converted 10 of 16 third downs, a remarkable 63 percent. Behind Carson Palmer, the Raiders converted one of 12, or 8 percent.

For a while, it looked as if the Broncos wouldn’t take full advantage. Demaryius Thomas was on his way to the end zone early in the second quarter when he fumbled the ball trying to shift it from his right hand to his left.

On their next possession, the Broncos had a fourth-and-one at the Oakland 36-yard line. Head coach John Fox had at least three choices: Let Manning go for the first down, as he had, successfully, on a fourth-and-one in the first quarter; let kicker Matt Prater try a 53-yard field goal, well within his range, especially at altitude; or fake the field goal and let Prater try to get the first down.

Inexplicably, Fox chose the latter, which produced a bizarre spectacle of the place-kicker rolling to his left and lofting a pass apparently intended for offensive guard Zane Beadles.

“I’m not sure it will go down with Montana-Rice or any of those great passing combinations,” Fox said. “We probably won’t see that one again for a while.”

Following the coach to the podium, Manning deadpanned: “Well, Fox took my line . . . I just kind of told them to maybe give Manning-to-Stokley a chance, maybe before Prater-to-Beadles. It’s one of the all-time great combinations, right? Kelly-Reed, Montana-Rice, Prater-Beadles, you know.”

It was easy to laugh because the Broncos erased any regrets in a fabulous third quarter. For the first time this season, offense, defense and special teams all reached the top of their game at the same time.

Having deferred to the second half, the Raiders got the ball to open the third quarter. The Denver defense forced a three-and-out, the big play a tackle by nickel back Chris Harris of Raiders receiver Denarius Moore one yard short of the first down. Manning and the offense responded with a nine-play, 79-yard touchdown drive capped by Manning’s 17-yard scoring strike to Eric Decker.

The Broncos kicked off and the defense forced another three-and-out. Champ Bailey put Oakland in a hole right away by tackling fullback Marcel Reece four yards behind the line of scrimmage on first down.

When Shane Lechler tried to punt the ball back to the Broncos, special teams ace David Bruton got his hand on it. Because the ball traveled two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, it didn’t count as a block, but no matter — the Broncos got the ball at the Oakland 18 and four plays later had another touchdown.

“They know what I did,” Bruton said. “They know what it is. It doesn’t bother me at all.”

In fact, Bruton wasn’t going for the block until the Raiders invited him in.

“I wasn’t even supposed to rush on that punt,” he said. “I was supposed to just pin the wing inside. He gave me a soft shoulder and I just ended up reaching over his shoulder and got my hand on the ball.”

I asked Bruton to describe the feeling when he felt his hand meet the ball. “Can’t nobody block me, that’s the feeling,” he said with a broad smile.

“And they can’t!” said safety Rahim Moore, eavesdropping from the next locker.

A third consecutive three-and-out for Oakland followed. This time linebackers Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard did the honors, stuffing Raiders running back Darren McFadden two yards behind the line of scrimmage on a third-and-two.

As night follows day, it produced yet another Broncos touchdown, this one taking only five plays to cover 63 yards. That made it 31-6.

In less than 12 minutes of game action, the Broncos had turned a nail-biter into a blowout. That’s why coaches talk so much about the three phases of the game working together. When they do, your players start to feel like a bunch of supermen.

But just as some fans overreacted negatively to the Broncos losing back-to-back games to Atlanta and Houston (which are now a combined 8-0), some are liable to overreact positively to the rout of the Raiders. Next up, the Broncos travel to New England to take on the Patriots, who put 52 points on Buffalo this week. The last time the Broncos played in New England . . . well . . . you probably remember.

“I think the key that I’ve said all along is just trying to keep making progress somehow,” Manning said. “That doesn’t always show on the scoreboard. You’d like to win every game as you’re feeling your way and learning about your team and learning about yourself a little bit. So there’s still a lot of that going on, for me out there as the quarterback and for our team, sort of figuring things out. But I think today we learned some things. We still have some things to improve on, but anytime you can be working on things and get a win at the same time, that sure is nice.”

“He’s getting more comfortable,” Fox said of Manning. “Let’s not forget he didn’t play all last season. This is a new team, a new coaching staff, a new city, a new field, a new everything for him. The type of guy he is, he’s just going to get better and better. He’s a championship guy and he’s going to get used to his teammates, our players. He just was better at it today than earlier.”

As Manning adjusts to Denver, Denver adjusts to Manning. Running the offense almost exclusively out of the no-huddle Sunday, several times Manning had to shush the excitable Orange Sunday crowd so his teammates could hear him calling signals at the line of scrimmage. This produced a novel instruction from the video screens, which often exhort crowds to make noise. “Quiet,” the boards instructed.

There will be more ups and downs, of course. It’s the NFL. But this was more than the Broncos’ most lopsided win over the Raiders in 50 years, more than putting a stop to four years of struggling at home against their longtime rivals from Oakland, more than a good start to the competition within the AFC West.

This was a template for how good this Broncos team can be. Everything came together, including a little bit of luck in the form of the Raiders’ banged up secondary. The question now is how often they can live up to it.

Looking for a silver lining in another CU loss

BOULDER — Let’s start with a heartwarming individual story because, frankly, there’s not that much to say about the University of Colorado’s 42-14 loss to UCLA that you don’t already know.

A fifth-year CU senior, a walk-on until this year, caught the first touchdown pass of his college career Saturday. Dustin Ebner of Arvada was so excited he forgot to hold onto the ball when the play was over.

“At halftime some of the guys were giving me crap, saying I should have kept the ball,” he admitted afterward with a smile. In fact, he wasn’t quite sure what he did with it.

“I don’t know, I think I was so excited in the celebration, I think I just dropped the ball. It was more important for me to celebrate with the team than remember to hold onto that ball. Maybe I’ll talk to J.T. (Galloway, director of equipment) and see if I can get ahold of one.”

In the media, college football is often reduced to its marquee players, the ones likely to go on to careers in the NFL. But the vast majority of college athletes are more like Ebner than the well-known players in the green room at the pro draft each year. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Ebner looks like your basic college kid.

After a nice football career at Pomona High, he walked on at CU and red-shirted in 2008. He caught three balls for 15 yards his second year in Boulder, broke a fibula his third year and played mostly special teams his fourth.

Saturday, he caught the first two passes of his final season, the fourth and fifth of his college career. The first of these was a 17-yard, second-quarter touchdown from quarterback Jordan Webb that cut UCLA’s lead to 14-7 at the time.

“It was awesome,” Ebner said. “I felt like all my hard work kind of finally paid off. When I lined up, the corner was in press (coverage). As Jordan made his calls, the corner kind of backed off and had outside leverage. Then I saw the safety kind of in the middle of the field. So my eyes got really big because I knew that I was going to be his choice.”

“He’s a kid that’s been here and worked hard,” coach Jon Embree said. “I put him on scholarship this year. I was happy for him. He made a few plays out there. We don’t have a lot of depth at receiver so you’ll obviously see more of him. But he runs good routes and does a good job of catching the ball with his hands, so it was good for him to make that play in traffic. It wasn’t exactly a gimme.”

Ebner graduated last December with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, but he stuck around for his final year of eligibility and was rewarded with a scholarship. With the Buffs making do without Paul Richardson, their best receiver, Ebner has been rotating in whenever sophomore starter Tyler McCulloch needs a blow.

His teammates knew what the first touchdown of his career meant to him.

“They were really excited; they all gave me some love,” Ebner said. “It was a great experience for me. I had my mom, my dad and then a couple other friends in the stands. After the game, I went to the sideline and gave them big hugs. They were really proud of me.”

When Ebner is in the game on offense, he’s usually asked to block downfield in the run game, which he’s happy to do. But he admitted that finally seeing the end zone for the first time since high school made him eager to do it again.

“The thing with run-blocking is that it’s all effort,” he said. “That’s what I really strive for — just go out there and put all my effort into each play. So being rewarded with pass plays is awesome, to get that recognition, because not everybody recognizes when you’re blocking. Now I’m hungry for those touchdowns.”

Outside of Ebner being rewarded for five years of dedication to CU football, there wasn’t much good news Saturday. UCLA, which was ranked No. 19 in the country before being upset by Oregon State last week, is a lot better than CU in pretty much every respect. The Buffs’ defense kept them in the game until back-to-back turnovers by the offense near the end of the third quarter allowed the Bruins to put them away.

“We’ve got to get better in all facets of the game,” said Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas.

Alums from CU’s football glory days, Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook, joined the team on the sideline. This turned into a bittersweet experience for Embree’s young crew, which couldn’t turn their words of inspiration into inspired play.

“I always remember watching Kordell for the Steelers; such an exciting player,” Webb said. “But you know, it sucks to lose. With those guys on the sideline, it really sucks to lose. Those guys, they started the tradition here, and it’s not a good feeling whenever you feel like you let someone like that down.”

Rebuilding a college football program takes time, and the temptation is strong among fans, alumni and media to get discouraged and rip everybody involved. But the truth is CU is going to take its lumps in the Pac-12 this season. That’s pretty obvious, despite last week’s memorable come-from-behind upset at Washington State.

“I actually was disappointed,” Embree said. “I thought our kids competed hard and played well in spurts. We didn’t do a good job tackling. We had two critical turnovers that they converted to 14 points and then never really were able to recover from that.”

Embree’s charges get next weekend off to work on their numerous issues before playing a nationally-televised night game at Folsom Field against Arizona on Oct. 11.

Who knows? If Dustin Ebner catches a touchdown in that one, maybe he’ll remember to keep the ball.

Broncos melodrama: Does Del Rio know what he’s doing?

Tracy Porter, the Broncos’ starting right cornerback, departed Sunday’s loss to Houston slightly before the end of the first half. He did not return.

Neither did he disappear into the locker room to get urgently-needed medical attention. Every time my binoculars found him on the Broncos sideline, he was sitting on the bench or standing and watching the action.

Perhaps he was injured, as head coach John Fox said afterward. “Knee,” Fox said by way of explanation, and Porter was indeed limping as he walked off the field at the end of a 31-25 home loss, although he was still in his uniform pants and there was no evidence of ice or any other treatment during the intervening two hours or so.

Normally, there’s little doubt about injuries because we see them take place or the club announces them in the press box or both. Neither occurred in the case of Porter. The Broncos announced injuries to linebacker Nate Irving and running back Willis McGahee during the game, but made no mention of an injury to Porter, leading to the conclusion that he he’d been benched.

After all, he came out of the lineup after Texans quarterback Matt Schaub completed a pair of long touchdown bombs to receivers Porter was covering. Andre Johnson caught a 60-yard scoring pass in the middle of the first quarter to give the Texans their first lead at 7-5 and Kevin Walter caught a 52-yarder in the middle of the second to make it 21-5. These were the biggest plays of the afternoon.

“They challenged us, played a lot of man coverage,” Texans head coach and former Broncos quarterback and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said afterward. “Jack got very aggressive in some of the things he did, so I tried to give us chances to make big plays, and we did.”

He was referring, of course, to Jack Del Rio, the Broncos’ first-year defensive coordinator, long known for aggressive defensive schemes.

“Andre makes a big play on the boot throwback early in the game,” Kubiak continued. “The throw that Matt made to Kevin for a touchdown was a tremendous play. But we knew we were going to have to make some big plays. It wasn’t a percentage-type throwing day because of the way they played us. But it was a big-play throwing day, so we were able to make those plays.”

Porter was the AFC defensive player of Week 1, largely for the pick six that sealed the Broncos’ opening night victory over the Steelers. Del Rio made it clear that night that he was not flipping the coverage to keep Champ Bailey on the opponent’s top receiver, which the Broncos did routinely before Del Rio’s arrival. For one week, anyway, it didn’t hurt them.

Sunday, it did. Once Porter went out, nickel back Chris Harris took his place as the second cornerback. Tony Carter moved up to nickel back.

At that point, Del Rio allowed Bailey to return to the old formula. He generally shadowed Johnson for the rest of the game, shutting him down without a catch until Schaub found him on a short out with just over two minutes left in the game.

So I asked Bailey afterward if, given a choice, he would cover the opponent’s top receiver all over the field, wherever he lines up.

“I really just do what my coaches game plan for the week,” said the 11-time Pro Bowl selection. “I think everybody in the world knows I always want the best guy. I’ve never been shy about saying it. It’s really their call. I can’t just go against them.”

So there’s the challenge for the Broncos’ defensive coaches. If Del Rio wants to play aggressive defenses that leave his corners on their own, perhaps he should take some advice from one of the best to play the position.

“As a corner, that’s one thing you just don’t want to do, is give up the deep one,” Bailey said. “They could throw a hundred comebacks or curls, but don’t give up the deep one. It’s tough out there on that island, I’m telling you, but it is what it is. We’ve got to learn from it and try to get better.”

On the bomb to Johnson, it looked as if Porter was expecting help over the top from safety Mike Adams. The touchdown throw to Walter looked like basic man-to-man coverage.

Adams offered no insight: “I got to go back to the film and see what happened,” he said. “I just saw the (still) pictures and that didn’t help me much.”

The last time a cast wanted to see the film as much as these Broncos, Francis Ford Coppola was making the original Godfather.

“You never really feel like somebody’s better than you,” Bailey said. “It’s just we’re killing ourselves because we know what they’re going to do but our eyes aren’t in the right place, and that makes you look bad. That’s how they make plays. I mean, their offense is set up off that run game and if you don’t stop the run effectively they can eat you up in the boots and play-action and stuff like that.”

That’s what happened on the first-quarter touchdown to Johnson.

“It was just a double move,” Johnson explained. “They had the perfect coverage. There wasn’t anybody on the other side of the field.”

The Broncos thought the rebuilt back end of their defense was good enough to play man coverage and let Del Rio play the run and go after the quarterback with everybody else. So far, it looks like they were wrong.

Schaub threw four touchdown passes against Del Rio’s defense. That’s a lot. The Broncos’ front seven was victimized by the zone blocking, cut blocking scheme other teams complained about for many years when the Broncos ran it under Mike Shanahan, Kubiak’s former boss.

“You try to practice and prepare for it as much as you can, but you can’t practice (cut-blocking),” Broncos rookie defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said. “You can’t practice the back cutting on you like that. So that was definitely something new for us. I thought we handled it well at times, but there were just some misfits here and there. We got out-schemed, I think.”

Schaub’s shortest touchdown flip was a three-yard swing pass to running back Arian Foster. Somehow, 330-pound defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson seemed to have coverage responsibility. I have no idea what scheme that is, but it may need further review.

Schaub also had a scoring strike to Owen Daniels. Covering tight ends has not been the Broncos’ forte through the season’s first three weeks.

And then there were the two big plays. Kubiak denied he was going after Porter.

“I wouldn’t say we target anybody,” he said. “We’re attacking scheme, attacking what they’re doing on the back end, whether it’s quarters, quarter-quarter-half, or man. But we knew that we would have to try to get the ball down the field because they had a lot of people committed to the run. We just came off a game where we played a team that played us in a bunch of two-deep and we had to play the game totally different. So we did what we had to do to win. Convinced them to make some big plays and they did.”

If this is the sort of defense that Del Rio intends to run — a high-risk, gambling unit that leaves corners on their own — he’d better make sure his best cover corner is covering the other team’s most dangerous weapon.

Yes, Schaub completed a key 12-yard pass for a first down to Johnson with Bailey on him at the end, but that’s still the matchup you want if you’re a Broncos fan.

On the other side of the ball, the Broncos were uninspired and uninspiring for most of the game. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy seems determined to use the no-huddle as a change of pace, so the Broncos go long stretches huddling conventionally and looking thoroughly mediocre. Then they’ll break into the no-huddle and start moving the ball.

For most of the afternoon, Peyton Manning was clearly the second-best quarterback on the field. Through three quarters, he had completed 17 of 35 passes for 210 yards, no touchdowns and a pedestrian passer rating of 67.6. The one saving grace was he eliminated last week’s interceptions.

In the fourth quarter, against a Texans defense protecting a 20-point lead, he finally connected on a 38-yard touchdown to Brandon Stokley, his old Colts teammate, to cut the lead to 13.

“It was just a seam route,” Stokley said. “Peyton made a great throw right over the top of the guy. I thought we were able to get some stuff going after that. It kind of got our confidence going maybe and the defense started playing well and we were able to claw our way back into the thing.”

Fired up, the Denver defense delivered a rare three-and-out. Freed by the urgency of the no-huddle, the offense marched down the field with Manning leaning heavily on Stokley, the most familiar of his receivers. When his throw for Eric Decker was deflected into the waiting arms of tight end Joel Dreessen in the end zone, it seemed karmic compensation for Demaryius Thomas’ failure to get two feet down on a perfect touchdown throw five plays earlier.

Suddenly, the Broncos were down only six, just as they were a week earlier in Atlanta. Using their timeouts, they forced the Texans into a third-and-five with 2:49 on the clock. Johnson pushed Bailey off him at the line of scrimmage far enough to give him room to break to the outside. Schaub placed the ball perfectly, just beyond Bailey’s outstretched arm.

“We lined up in one formation and shifted to another,” Johnson said. “Champ was playing outside of me and I knew I had an out-breaking route. I started outside and pushed back up and broke out and Matt gave me a chance.

“I went to Matt earlier, before we got the ball, and said, ‘I’ve been playing (badly). Just give me a chance. Don’t give up on me.’ He came to me and said that I’ve been playing too much football to get down on myself. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to make a play.”

Johnson was referring, probably, to a couple of earlier near-misses — a bomb down the right sideline broken up by Bailey that Johnson appeared to catch momentarily with one hand, and another that he almost juggled into Adams’ arms. But it’s instructive that despite his early touchdown, he was frustrated enough at the end to apologize to Schaub before his third-down catch, just his second of the game.

“I was right there,” Bailey said. “It’s just two good players making a play. His quarterback put it right where I couldn’t get it, so I’ve got to give him a lot of credit. Once I started following him around, he didn’t have a catch. In crunch time, he made it happen, so you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for that.”

If an opposing receiver can beat Bailey, the Broncos will have to live with it. He’s the best they have and one of the best there’s ever been.

If, on the other hand, they lose because an opposing No. 1 receiver beats their No. 2 cornerback, as Johnson did in the first quarter, that’s like a pitcher getting beat on his second-best pitch. That’s a mistake.

The Broncos may well need to play the high-risk defense Del Rio called Sunday. They may still not be stout enough up front to shut down the ground game and pressure the quarterback with four down linemen and the occasional linebacker, as the Texans were able to do.

But one lesson of Sunday’s loss seems pretty obvious: If that’s how they’re going to play, they need to let Champ Bailey cover their opponent’s best receiver until somebody else proves he can do it better.

Learning to pitch all over again

Even for immensely talented young pitchers, facing major league hitters usually requires some adjustments. Watch a young hurler long enough after his introduction to The Show and you’re likely to see an incredulous look pass over his face when a pitch that’s always worked for him lands in the seats 400 feet away.

So when the Rockies lost most of their veteran starting pitchers this season — Jorge De La Rosa took four months longer than expected to come back from Tommy John surgery, Jhoulys Chacin missed more than three months with a nerve issue, Jeremy Guthrie’s head exploded when he tried to pitch at altitude and Juan Nicasio suffered a season-ending knee injury — they knew they were in for a long year.

But the young starting pitchers thrown into the fire — Tyler Chatwood, 22; Drew Pomeranz, 23; Christian Friedrich (also injured), 25; and Alex White who just turned 24 — had to deal with more than pitching to big league hitters. They also had to conquer the demon that turned Guthrie, a 33-year-old veteran of eight major league seasons, into a basket case.

“It’s certainly a learning process,” White said recently on the Dave Logan Show. “I think one of the toughest things for us right now is our starting rotation is so young. We have a lot of guys trying to figure out, one, how to pitch at the major league level, and two, how to do it at Coors Field and then on the road. We’re working together to do that, but there’s definitely a big difference in pitching at home and pitching on the road.”

Faithful readers of this blog may recall veteran Rockies reliever Matt Belisle describing in some detail how he changes his release point to adjust for the relative absence of break, or bite, on his breaking pitches, and sometimes his two-seam fastball, at altitude. Guthrie, who generally refused to talk about it while in Colorado, admitted after recovering his sanity in Kansas City that he had trouble making his pitches break at Coors Field.

Seen through this prism, perhaps the struggles of the Rocks’ young starting pitchers this season shouldn’t discourage fans as much as they have. White, for example, has made significant progress as the season has gone along.

In his first 10 big league starts this season, he got knocked around to an earned-run average of 6.45, surrendering 64 hits and eight home runs in 51 2/3 innings.

In his last 10 starts, his innings limited by the club’s paired pitching rotation, he has compiled an ERA of 3.51, surrendering 40 hits and four homers in 41 innings. Remarkably, White has compiled a better ERA at Coors Field (4.73) than on the road (5.55) this year.

“That’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout this season, that you do have to change certain things in different places,” White said. “When you’re on the East Coast, you have a better breaking ball. My split-finger’s a lot better. When you come to Coors, those things kind of leave you. You have to change your approach and what you want to do in the strike zone.”

Still, as the season has proceeded, White’s ability to throw strikes has improved considerably.

“It’s really just been working on command,” he said. “I’ve been able to develop a change-up here lately that’s been pretty good for me. That allows me to use my split-finger as more of an out pitch. I don’t have to use it as my primary secondary pitch, if that makes sense. It allows me to pitch in the strike zone. My command’s been a lot better to both sides of the plate and the change-up allows me to have a pitch that I can throw in the strike zone in hitters’ counts that kind of keeps them off balance.”

For starting pitchers, of course, the paired pitching rotation has one career-crushing effect: Because a starter must pitch a minimum of five innings to get credit for a win, a system that limits his pitch count will take wins from him and award them to relievers.

In White’s three September starts so far, he has given up just three earned runs. But because his pitch count limited him to four innings each time, he was never eligible for a win. On the flip side, starters are always eligible for a loss if they leave the game at any point with their team trailing. Hence White’s record of 2-8 and reliever Rex Brothers’ mirror image record of 8-2.

“Everybody wants wins, but you really try not to think about it,” White said. “It’s really our job to win as a team. I think the starters are more susceptible to taking losses in this kind of plan, but when you look at the big picture it’s about winning as a team and we’re trying to figure out a way that we can be effective in Coors Field with different pitchers. And I think we’re starting to figure that out.”

You might think this would prevent starting pitchers from coming to pitch for the Rockies, but let’s be honest: No starting pitcher with a choice was coming here anyway. The disastrous experiences of Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle and Guthrie have made Colorado an option only for free agent pitchers who can’t get a major league job anywhere else.

In the latest incarnation of the paired pitching rotation, the number of starters has increased from four to the major league standard five, and the pitch limit has grown from 75 to 90, which ought to give starters a better chance to make it through five innings if they’re pitching well.

Whether a good young starting pitcher will elect to stay in Colorado once he becomes eligible for free agency is very much an open question. De La Rosa had enough success here to sign a three-year contract to stay, but then he suffered a major injury. That’s been a recurring issue for those who throw significant innings for the Rocks and was a major impetus for the pitch limits in the first place.

It’s beginning to look like the ability to pitch for the Rockies depends as much on competitive temperament as pitch selection or command. White’s attitude may help establish a template.

“It’s certainly a challenge, but we’ve got to win,” he said. “Somebody’s got to do it, and we’re learning how to do it with a lot of young players, a lot of young pitchers. I think once we figure this thing out here as a group — and to be honest I think we’ve started to do that. As a starting rotation, we’ve been a lot better. Our bullpen’s been great all year. It’s one of those things where once we figure it out, we’re going to be good for a long time.”

Not everyone has made the progress White has, but all the Rocks need is one example to show it can be done.

What, you thought the Broncos would go undefeated?

In his bewilderment during last night’s first quarter, Peyton Manning looked as if he’d just stepped out of a retrofitted DeLorean and was trying to figure out what year it was.

Clearly, it wasn’t the next year after he played last, as it had always been before. That would have been 2011.

Just as clearly, the people around him were not the same as those he played with last. That team is gone.

The NFL’s Rip Van Winkle awoke to find himself in entirely new circumstances. And while he was gone, it was evident his opponents had been studying up. By the time he figured out he had morphed from the tricker to the trickee, he had thrown three interceptions in a first quarter for the first time in his career.

“We were able to disguise our coverages very well,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said after the Falcons’ 27-21 victory dropped the Broncos to 1-1. “That’s something we said all week we’d have to do. You can’t give the quarterback a pre-snap read, and we were able to do that early in the ballgame. He made some throws we were able to convert, and make plays on the ball.”

When Manning last played, disguising coverages mostly meant showing blitz when you didn’t plan to blitz or the opposite, showing vanilla and then bringing the house. What Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan did was more sophisticated. He disguised not merely the defensive play call but the defensive scheme as well.

Former quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer called it a “walk-around, amoeba defense” that produced “a lot of brain clutter.” There was no base defense in position before most of those first-quarter snaps, just a bunch of guys wandering around.

“William Moore lines up as the (middle) linebacker, drops as the hole safety,” Dilfer said, referring to the Falcons’ strong safety, who made the first of the three interceptions. “Peyton Manning thinks he has a defined look at the snap; the look changes post-snap, (he) makes a big mistake.

“I think what you saw was Mike Nolan win the chess match and his players execute a scheme beautifully designed for Peyton Manning. They gave him these pre-snap looks, where Peyton usually wins, and then, as the ball is snapped, that look becomes totally different. Playing the game after the snap is much different from playing it before the snap and this is a guy that hasn’t played football in a year.”

That’s the most important fact to remember. For perhaps the first time since his rookie season in the league, Manning is actually behind the NFL learning curve, trying to catch up after spending a year undergoing multiple neck surgeries and undertaking a grueling rehabilitation process.

Nolan will not be the last defensive coordinator to try to take away his pre-snap advantage. In Week 1, Pittsburgh’s Dick LeBeau limited his disguises to the usual suspects: Where would safety Troy Polamalu be? Nolan’s walk-around scheme meant almost anyone could end up almost anywhere, and they frequently did.

Still, Manning eventually figured it out and brought the Broncos back to the point where a defensive stop with two minutes remaining would have given him and the offense a shot at a come-from-behind win. It didn’t happen, but the fact it was even possible after turning the ball over four times in the first quarter — Manning’s three interceptions and Knowshon Moreno’s fumble, awarded to Atlanta by replacement referees even after Broncos tackle Orlando Franklin emerged from the pile with the ball — showed how competitive the Broncos can be.

“You’ve got to remember, Peyton Manning’s a new quarterback in our system,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “He’s adjusting to teammates, adjusting to the things we’re doing. It’s not going to happen overnight. He’s just going to get better.  I think we learned a lot about our football team tonight.”

Much of what they learned was good, actually. The Falcons are an excellent team, a likely contender for the NFC title. Yet even after spotting them four turnovers, the Broncos ended up with more first downs (24-22), more total yards of offense (336-275) and a much better ground game (118 yards to 67).

Beyond the turnovers, Denver’s two most obvious weaknesses were the lack of a pass rush on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan — he was sacked once — and an inability for the second week in a row to cover an opposing tight end (Tony Gonzalez had seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown). But even those problems probably could have been overcome without the 4-0 disparity in giveaways.

“Those first three interceptions, he was flat out tricked by the coverage,” Dilfer said of Manning.

“Obviously, I’d like to have all three of them back,” Manning said. “Just three bad decisions. I’m sure when I see the film I’m sure I’ll see somebody open short, underneath, on a check-down. So I’d love to have all three of them back. But I’ll learn from them and I think our team will learn from them and I would hope to be better for it.”

Almost as compelling as the unfamiliar sight of a confused Manning was an excruciating performance by the crew of replacement referees, who were nearly as bad as the Broncos’ offense early on.

Although it’s easy to mock these refs, who were asked to fill in when the NFL locked out its regular game officials, it’s not their fault. These are referees from lower collegiate divisions most of whom would not even be candidates to form a new pool of referees if all the locked-out referees were suddenly fired. Such a pool would consist of Division I college refs, who can currently be found working Division I college games on Saturday afternoons.

Late Monday night, long after the game was over, Steve Young, the retired quarterback and ESPN commentator, offered a devastating but honest appraisal of why the NFL allowed the administration of its game to get as bad as it was at the Georgia Dome:

“I can say this because league officials have gone to sleep, so let me just go right at this. There’s a lot of people in the league that would rather break the (referees’) union. There’s a lot of people who don’t feel like officiating is on-field personnel; they feel like it’s a commodity.

“But more importantly, everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There’s nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don’t care. Player safety doesn’t matter in this case. Bring in Division III officials — doesn’t matter. Because in the end you’re still going to watch the game. We’re going to all complain and moan and gripe and say there’s all these problems. All the coaches will say it, the players will say it. Doesn’t matter. So just go ahead, gripe all you want. I’m going to rest. Let them eat cake.”

This is actually something to worry about. If the NFL doesn’t figure out that the integrity of the game requires referees with a clue, the chaos on the field in Atlanta will be replicated on gridirons across the country. In fact, it may get worse. At one point, the Broncos’ head coach found himself on the field trying to break up a scrum that looked about one short fuse from turning into a brawl.

By comparison, Manning’s bad quarter should cause very little concern. In fact, you could argue that by November, he’ll be thanking Nolan for helping bring him up to speed.

The four-time Most Valuable Player has been back for two games after missing a full season — an eternity in sports. He’ll adjust. It’s what he does best.

An auspicious beginning

There’s a scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Butch and Sundance are auditioning for jobs as stagecoach guards. Percy Garris, played by Strother Martin, asks if Sundance can hit anything with his six shooter.

“Sometimes,” Sundance says. “Can I move?”

“What the hell ya mean, move?” Martin asks.

Standing still, Sundance hits nothing. Martin is about to give up on him when Sundance moves as he might in a gunfight and destroys the target.

“I’m better when I move.” he says.

Which brings us to Peyton Manning and the no-huddle offense. Early in Sunday night’s game, the Broncos ran a traditional offense, huddling up between plays. They did OK, too, earning two first downs before they were forced to punt.

But it was in the no-huddle, the scheme Manning mastered in Indianapolis, that they began gashing Pittsburgh’s able defense in the second quarter. Here’s what Tony Dungy, Manning’s former coach with the Colts, posted on Twitter after the game:

“Once Broncos went to no huddle Peyton Manning led them to 3 TDs and a FG. I am so happy for him. A lot of hard work went into his comeback.”

Manning agreed, at least with the first part.

“I think it made a difference,” he said. “I think it did sort of give our offense a little boost. I can’t speak to (the Steelers), just how they felt about it, whether it fatigued them or not. I don’t know that. But it did give our offense a little boost where we got into a little rhythm.”

For those who doubted whether Manning could resemble his younger self at age 36 after multiple neck surgeries and a full year off, check out these numbers from his first game back:

He completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 129.2.

For the sake of comparison, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 22 of 40 for 245 yards, two touchdowns, a comeback-killing interception and a passer rating of 79.7.

As good as Roethlisberger was, and he was, Manning was equally productive, more efficient and less mistake-prone.

“He’s Peyton,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

“He’s a great player,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “A lot’s been made of the injury and those types of things, but we’re just glad he’s on our team.”

The atmosphere at Mile High for Manning’s Broncos debut was like that of a legendary actor opening in a new play on Broadway. The sense of anticipation, that the stadium was the place to be, came with the early-arriving crowd.

The Broncos’ return to orange as their primary uniform color gave it a visual theme. The stadium was a sea of orange. The Steelers travel so well that normally there are significant patches of yellow and black whenever they come to town. Evidently, Broncos season ticket holders were less willing to sell their tickets this time. The yellow towels that flew when the Steelers made big plays were more isolated than usual, threatening to drown in that ocean of orange.

The Broncos reported the fourth-highest attendance in franchise history — 76,823 — with 181 no-shows instead of the usual 3,000 or 4,000. If executive vice president of football operations John Elway has really made the club competitive for the first time since he was executive vice president of throwing the football, well, the Broncos may again be the toughest ticket in town.

“What an awesome atmosphere, playing in prime time and the fans were rocking,” Manning said.

The game had an odd rhythm, chiefly because for a long stretch in the middle, Manning and the offense couldn’t get on the field. In the third quarter, Pittsburgh possessed the ball for 14 minutes and 24 seconds, leaving Manning the other 36 seconds.

Of course, this was in part because Manning and the offense traversed 80 yards in two plays during those 36 seconds, including the night’s signature play, a screen pass that wide receiver Demaryius Thomas turned into a 71-yard touchdown.

For the Steelers, this had to be a nightmarish flashback. The last time they played a game that counted, it was a playoff game at Mile High in which the final scene was Thomas running toward the south end zone with the game-winning touchdown in overtime. This touchdown wasn’t quite as decisive, but their view of Thomas was exactly the same.

When I asked afterward if Manning had checked out of another play and into that one, he declined to answer, so I’m going to take that as a yes. We are only just beginning to learn the Manning Rules — what he’ll discuss and what he won’t — but an audible in the no-huddle is very common. It looked like he got to the line of scrimmage, saw the corner backing off Thomas and took advantage. If that’s true, it’s more evidence that in signing him as a free agent, the Broncos acquired as much a mental weapon as a physical one.

Interestingly, he had no problem explaining the tactical considerations that made the play an option.

“We were running the ball on a similar formation in the first half and they kept blitzing off the back side, so it was kind of a halftime adjustment,” he said.

“We thought we could fake that run to the strong side and throw him a screen, thought we’d have a chance for a big play. We weren’t thinking an 80-yard touchdown, maybe a nine-yard gain was kind of what I was thinking. So it sure was a nice surprise. Some really good blocking on that play. Zane (Beadles) got a good block, (Ryan) Clady. I know Matt Willis came all the way from the back side and got the safety and of course Demaryius did the majority of the work. Really turned it on with great speed. Just a huge play.”

Thomas, by the way, joined Eric Decker and Jacob Tamme as Manning’s leading receivers on the night, each catching five balls. Veteran Brandon Stokley caught two and Willis and Joel Dreessen caught one each.

The big play to Thomas gave the Broncos a 14-13 lead, which lasted 6 minutes and 18 seconds, the length of the Steelers’ subsequent possession. For a moment, the Broncos seemed to have forced the visitors into a three-and-out — a welcome achievement considering Pittsburgh’s previous possession lasted 8 minutes, 55 seconds — but when safety Rahim Moore was called for a personal foul on the Steelers’ failed third-down play, it gave Roethlisberger new life and he took full advantage.

When Big Ben hit wide receiver Mike Wallace with a short slant in the first minute of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh went ahead 19-14, missing a two-point try that would have made it 21.

Now in a groove, Manning brought the Broncos right back. He hit Tamme, like Stokley a former teammate with the Colts, with his second touchdown pass — a one-yard flip on an unusual Peyton Manning rollout to his left. He hit running back Willis McGahee with another short throw for a two-point conversion that made it 22-19.

Jack Del Rio’s defense finally forced Roethlisberger into a three-and-out and Manning responded with his fourth consecutive scoring drive, not counting a kneel-down to end the first half.

When cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted Roethlisberger on the ensuing series and returned it 43 yards up the right sideline for a touchdown, the Broadway opening morphed into an outdoor party on a summer night.

It was not entirely Manning’s doing, of course. For all the frustration produced by the Steelers’ time of possession — it was 35:05 to 24:55 for the game — the Broncos’ revamped defense held them to 19 points and got the big turnover at the end. Cornerback Tracy Porter, who got the pick six, was Elway’s second-most important offseason free-agent pickup.

“They were good defensively,” Roethlisberger said. “They disguised very well. We were on the sideline talking about half the time we didn’t know what coverage they were going to.”

It might not surprise you to learn that the Steelers have had about enough of Mile High for a while.

“It’s a great place, great environment, great fans and good team,” Roethlisberger said. “I’d like to say I hope we come back here, but I hope we don’t. I hope they come back to our place because it’s a nice advantage.”

For one thing, safety Ryan Clark would be able to play then. The Steelers’ starting free safety can’t play at altitude because of a medical condition. Pittsburgh was also missing its best pass rusher, linebacker James Harrison, and its starting running back, Rashard Mendenhall.

As Manning pointed out, it’s only one game. The Broncos have an even bigger challenge in Week 2, traveling to Atlanta to play the Falcons, who beat the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday, 40-24.

Still, the curtain was raised at home in fine fashion. The touchdown pass to Thomas was Manning’s 400th in the NFL. (The pass to Tamme was No. 401.) Only Brett Favre (508) and Dan Marino (420) have thrown more. And Manning, clearly, isn’t done.

“There’s a lot of people that participated in that process, a lot of receivers on different teams throughout the years,” he said of the milestone.

“I’m grateful for their help. I guess you call it an individual record, but I kind of accept it on behalf of many great teammates and coaches. Dan Marino and Brett Favre are two of my favorite players of all time, two of the best quarterbacks of all time. I don’t really feel comfortable being in that company, but to be mentioned amongst them, it’s truly humbling and quite an honor and it’s not one that I take lightly.”

For the rest of the league, here’s the scary part: Manning still doesn’t think he’s all the way back.

“I’m still feeling my way out,” he said. “I still have some limitations. I think this team is still forming its identity. As you’re feeling yourself out and feeling the team out, when you can get a win in that process, that’s a nice thing. We’ve got an extremely tough schedule going on the road to Atlanta. It will be nice to go in there 1-0 as opposed to 0-1, but it’s going to be a serious test next Monday.”

No doubt. But Manning’s debut demonstrated the wisdom of the Broncos’ courtship last winter. For the first time since Elway retired almost 14 years ago, the Broncos have an elite quarterback, a field general who can take them as far as his teammates are ready to go.

For CU football, it’s always Groundhog Day

BOULDER — The University of Colorado post-football game press conference needs only an appearance from Bill Murray to earn the title Groundhog Day II. Whether the coach is Dan Hawkins or his successor, Jon Embree, it has been a painful, repetitive routine for too long now.

Saturday, after CU fell to 0-2 on the young season by losing 30-28 at home on a last-second field goal by a team called Sacramento State, Embree was asked what he would say to long-suffering fans of the CU football program.

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m going to do everything I can to make it right and fix it, just like I tried to last week. You guys that know me, are around me, I’m competitive. I’m going to fight ’til there’s nothing left. It’ll start here in 14 minutes when we go upstairs and figure it out, or start to.”

This is more or less what he said last week, after losing in Denver to Colorado State — another game his team was favored to win. It’s also pretty much what he said after many of CU’s games last season — Embree’s first as head coach — when the Buffaloes went 3-10. The problem for many CU fans and alumni is they don’t see any signs of progress.

The Buffs were favored by three touchdowns over a former Division II cupcake put on the schedule specifically to give them a running start into the meat of their Pac-12 schedule. They surrendered 466 yards of offense to a school many students in the stands had probably never heard of.

For all that, they still had a chance to eke out a 28-27 win until they gave up a killer 72-yard drive to the winning field goal in the game’s final 2 minutes and 26 seconds.

“For them to go out there and do what they did to us today, it’s embarrassing,” said Buffs defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe. “They came out here with the mindset they had nothing to lose. This was not a game they were supposed to win, so they came out here and just gave it their all.”

The question left hanging in the air was this: Why didn’t the Buffs?

“I did not come in this game thinking we were going to dominate,” Embree said. “I came in thinking this was going to be a football game we were going to have to fight and win. And that’s how they were coached all week and how they were talked to. No one thought we were just going to come in and win.”

Any way you look at this, it’s bad for Embree and his program. Either his players took Sacramento State lightly and got burned or they took them seriously and got burned.

To his credit, Embree does not blame Hawkins for the sparsely-populated cupboard of talent he found when he arrived, but his choice of personnel Saturday made his opinion of many of the holdovers pretty clear. He started four freshmen on defense, including three in the secondary, and used freshmen liberally on offense as well.

After his running game ground to a halt against CSU, he installed 235-pound freshman Christian Powell at tailback. Powell finished with 154 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. Those numbers look a little gaudier than they felt because Powell scored the Buffs’ first touchdown on a 64-yard ramble just over a minute into the game. After that, the yards came harder.

Still, he’s more likely to provide the power running game Embree has advertised than the back he replaced, sophomore Tony Jones, who is quicker than Powell but weighs just 190 pounds.

The last time a CU runner scored three touchdowns in his first start, his name was Bobby Anderson and the year was 1969. “I thought he did a lot of good things,” Embree said of Powell.

He was less complimentary discussing his quarterback, Jordan Webb, a junior transfer from Kansas, who completed 12 of 24 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times.

“We missed some throws,” Embree said. “We missed some critical throws. I’ll have to see the tape overall, but there’s two that really jumped out that were some big-time plays for us and we weren’t able to make the throw.”

Asked if that means he will re-evaluate his decision to start Webb over sophomore Connor Wood, Embree said:

“Everything will be re-evaluated. Everything will. All positions. Yes.”

Webb suggested that protection breakdowns were at least partially responsible for his misses.

“I missed a couple, but every quarterback does,” he said. “A couple of them, I was just trying to get the ball out of my hands to avoid a sack. A few times the receivers were not even breaking into their route and I had to get rid of it. It is hard to be accurate and I guess I missed a couple.”

Wood danced nimbly around the possibility he’ll be named the starter this week, although he said he’s competing for that job every day. He entered the game for a single play — on third-and-18 — when Webb’s helmet came off and he was required to leave the field for a play. Wood completed a short pass to freshman Gerald Thomas that Thomas turned into a 28-yard gain and a first-and-goal.

“A lot of guys had their hand in the loss; it wasn’t just the quarterback position,” Wood said. “I think it was everyone. Right now, I’m not really thinking about the job. I’m still mad just as a teammate after a loss like that.”

Of course, when you lose to a team you’re favored to beat by 21 points, more than one thing is going wrong. When I asked Embree if all those freshmen in his lineup reflected a decision after last week’s loss to go with his own recruits, he demurred.

“It’s not necessarily my guys or someone else’s guys,” he said. “We’re just trying to play our best players and get guys going that we feel give us our best chance. In some cases, it’s true freshmen. So it wasn’t like, my guys or their guys. We’re all University of Colorado football players and it’s about trying to play those guys that give us the best chance and I thought those young kids played well.”

Maybe, but two of the true freshmen in his secondary — safety Marques Mosley and cornerback Kenneth Crawley — were called for pass interference on Sacramento State’s final drive.

The Hornets used a read-option running attack that might have reminded Broncos fans of the offense designed around Tim Tebow’s skill set last season in Denver. Like many of the Broncos’ opponents, the Buffs failed to maintain gap discipline too often, biting on fakes and giving up an average of 7 yards per carry to running back A.J. Ellis.

Sacramento State also burned the Buffs in the passing game on a series of quick slants that CU seemed unable to defend.

Most CU fans know that legendary coach Bill McCartney started his career in Boulder with three losing seasons, culminating in a dreadful 1-10 mark in the third. But there was no Twitter or Facebook in the 1980s. It’s not at all clear Embree could survive such a start to his head coaching career.

He was widely expected to be 2-0 at this point in the current season. Instead, he’s 0-2 and 3-12 overall. With only one non-Pac-12 game remaining — at Fresno State next week — CU has botched arguably the two most winnable games on its schedule. CU fans have not been shy about expressing their displeasure.

Whether it’s scheme or talent, coaching or coordination, the Buffs don’t look any better than they did a year ago.

“For whatever reason, the team that’s practicing isn’t necessarily coming consistently to Saturday,” Embree said. “That’s one of the things I need to look at and figure out why.”

And soon.

A new day for Colorado State football

The president of Colorado State University grew up a Cubs fan on a farm in rural Illinois, so he knows to a certainty that no matter how promising things look, they can always go horribly wrong.

As Tony Frank and his wife, Patti, stood on the CSU sideline in the final minutes of Saturday’s Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver, they were the last to celebrate. When green-shirted Rams personnel leaped in the air at an apparent interception by strong safety Trent Matthews with just over a minute to play and the Rams up five, Frank watched warily as the interception was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty that gave Colorado a first down at the Rams’ 47. Could it all still slip away?

“As a Cubs fan, we’re always skeptical, right?” Frank told me afterward, aware of our shared affliction. “As long as Steve Bartman’s out there, you’re never sure it’s over.”

“Did you see him anywhere?” I asked.

“Well,” Frank said, smiling, “maybe a hallucination here or there.”

CSU’s recent haplessness on the gridiron has been the blink of an eye compared to the Cubs’ historic run of pity and sorrow, but Frank, who was named the school’s 14th president in June 2009, was hoping for a sign that he, his new athletic director and new head coach were headed in the right direction. He got it with the Rams’ 22-17 upset of the Buffaloes to open the college football season for both schools.

The celebration by CSU hands old and new was reminiscent of the Sonny Lubick years, when every victory over Colorado was a triumph by the little brother over the big brother. As CU’s disconsolate student section streamed out of the Broncos’ stadium, the Rams went to the northeast corner to celebrate with their small but raucous student section, as if to announce that CSU football is back.

“I know that maybe they’ve been a little down about not being able to really give those students something to cheer about, so I was kind of excited when they ran over there,” said first-year coach Jim McElwain, now 1-0. “I mean, that was kind of cool, wasn’t it? It wasn’t planned.”

For most of the first half, it looked as if the Rams would be thoroughly overmatched. When McElwain inexplicably declined to punt on fourth-and-1 at his own 47-yard line trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, he set up a short CU touchdown drive that made it 14-3.

“Stupidest decision ever, isn’t it?” McElwain said.

But what was your thinking behind it, I asked him.

“I don’t know, but my dad was looking down and saying, ‘Boy, Jimmy, you messed that one up,'” he said.

“I guess the biggest thing is showing faith in your guys. I have faith in them. And I told the defense, ‘Look, if we don’t get it, I’ve got faith in you to stop them.’ So it’s about showing trust in your guys. And you’re going to see on video, we came off a double team too soon getting to the second level, which, always block the line of scrimmage first. I’ll beat myself up over it, but I know this: Our guys knew that we trusted them.”

On CSU’s ensuing possession, CU went for an early knockout, putting on a punt block. They didn’t get there and, to make matters worse, return man D.D. Goodson muffed the catch.

“We were supposed to fair-catch it and obviously we didn’t do that,” said CU coach Jon Embree.

CSU had new life at the CU 20 with 33 seconds remaining in the half. They needed only seven of those seconds for quarterback Garrett Grayson to hit a wide-open Dominique Vinson for the touchdown.

“Half the guys heard one call, the other half didn’t,” Embree said of the blown defensive coverage.

Even after the extra point was blocked, CSU went into the locker room at halftime back in the game, trailing 14-9.

When they came out after intermission, neither team looked quite the same. The Rams drove 89 yards on their first possession, culminating in a brilliant misdirection screen pass for 32 yards and the touchdown that gave them a 16-14 lead.

McElwain, in his second riverboat gamble of the afternoon, called for a “bunt onside kick” in which his kicker bunts the ball — kicks it softly on the ground directly in front of him — runs alongside it for 10 yards and falls on it. It worked, too, except the officials said they never blew the whistle to signal the ball was ready to be kicked. That’s a delay-of-game penalty. So McElwain was 0-for-2 on riverboat gambles, but he signaled that life as a Rams football fan just got a lot more interesting.

On the Rams’ next possession, running back Tommey Morris fumbled at his own 15-yard line. The stage was set for another reversal of fortune, this one to benefit Embree and the Buffs.

On third-and-goal from the Rams’ 3, Buffs tailback Malcolm Creer tried to reach the ball over the goal line as he went down. The ball hit the ground and bounced into the air. CSU defensive back Austin Gray grabbed it in stride and raced 100 yards the other way for an apparent touchdown. Upon further review, officials ruled Creer’s knee was down before he lost control. Instead of a possible 23-14 CSU lead, the Buffs were back in business.

In fact, both coaches thought the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line before Creer lost control, meaning the play might have been ruled a Buffs touchdown instead of a Rams touchdown. But officials said Creer’s knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane or came out, so the Buffs were awarded a fourth-and-goal at the Rams’ 1, still trailing by just two.

Embree eschewed the field goal that would have put CU back in front, if only by a point. When I asked him why, he replied:

“Because I didn’t think it was going to be enough, to tell you the truth. I thought we were going to need touchdowns if we were going to win.”

What he called was a play fake into the line and roll out by his quarterback, junior transfer Jordan Webb. CSU read it and pressured Webb, who had to retreat behind the 10 and finally heave the ball out of the end zone.

“We felt it just gave us more options,” Embree said of the play call. “We had three options on that — a run and then two guys to throw it to. They did a good job of defending it. But we felt that was better for us. Our backs, Tony (Jones) was out with a shoulder and then Malcolm got dinged a little bit on (the previous play), so we just felt like our best option at that point was doing that.”

Still, the Rams took over at their 1-yard line. Although they made a first down, their ensuing punt gave the Buffs excellent field position at the CSU 35. Four plays later, CU’s Will Oliver kicked a 30-yard field goal and the Buffs had a 17-16 lead.

This is when McElwain, Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama the past four seasons, brought out his Alabama playbook. Not counting his quarterback taking a knee on the last two snaps of the game, the Rams ran 16 plays in the fourth quarter. Thirteen of them were running plays.

Despite the Crimson Tide’s reputation for conservative offense under Saban, McElwain likes to point out that ‘Bama tended to throw more than run through the first three quarters of games. But in the fourth, having beaten down the opposing defense, they would “run to win.”

That’s what the Rams did to the Buffs. After possessing the ball for more than 6 minutes on their first series of the fourth quarter, McElwain’s bunch faced a third-and-13 on the CU 34. That’s the very edge of field goal territory, particularly for a college kicker. Nine out of 10 coaches would attempt to throw for the first down in that situation. McElwain called his seventh consecutive running play. I asked him why.

“We were in that (field goal) range,” he said. “I mean, let’s face it, we weren’t throwing the ball well. It’s not like Joe Namath was out there slinging it around. But Garrett did a great job, he did a great job of managing the game. What we ask our guys to do is let the people around you help you be successful because of how they’re playing, because of how hard they’re working. We just felt right there, look, our defense was playing pretty darn good. And that look in their eyes, I felt really comfortable with our defense.”

The running play gained three yards. On fourth-and-10 from the 31, McElwain sent out sophomore kicker Jared Roberts, who drilled the 48-yard field goal with 10 yards to spare. The Rams were back on top, 19-17.

McElwain’s defense, the one with that look in its eyes, forced the Buffs into a three-and-out. That’s when the “run to win” philosophy paid off. The first running play produced a 37-yard scamper from Donnell Alexander. It led to another field goal and the final 22-17 margin. After that, all CSU had to worry about was Steve Bartman.

“We did not play a good football game by any stretch of the imagination,” McElwain said. “Plain and simple, we have a long way to go. And this, at the end of the day, as good as it is for Colorado State, for our students, our faculty, our fans, it’s great. But at the end of the day, it was one game. And as excited as I was for them, they have to realize that we have a long, long ways to go before I consider us a decent ball squad.”

The story is pretty much the same for the Buffs except they didn’t get to celebrate going 1-0.

“Obviously, we didn’t play good enough,” Embree said. “We had too many turnovers. We talked about that, protecting the ball was going to be a key for us in a game like this. We didn’t do it and they were able to take advantage of it. And we weren’t effective running the ball. So we’ve got to get that fixed, because it’s been too long now, too many games of us not being good running the ball. So we’ll get that figured out.”

On the field afterward, CSU’s new leadership soaked in the unfamiliar feeling of winning a showdown with a big brother.

“It’s a great start for the coach and the staff and the players,” said Frank, the school president, his smile as wide as anybody’s. “It’s fantastic. It’s good for the fans. It’s nice to have a good competitive game back in Colorado college football.”