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.”