BOULDER — It was late in another painful post-mortem for second-year Colorado football coach Jon Embree when I asked about his longtime friend, fellow former Buff and current offensive coordinator.
Is it possible, I asked, for Embree to evaluate objectively the job Eric Bieniemy is doing running CU’s offense?
“Yeah, and I will do that with everybody, myself included, at the end of the season, and make sure that we’re doing things that give us the best chance to win,” Embree said. “It’s important that this program has relevancy.”
That final comment was the first clue that Embree understands just how many people are now tuning out.
Colorado has been blown out in its last five Pac-12 conference games: 42-14 to UCLA, 51-17 to Arizona State, 50-6 to Southern Cal, 70-14 to Oregon and, perhaps worst of all, 48-0 to Stanford on Saturday, the first time the Buffs have been shut out at home in 26 years.
That’s a combined score of 261-51 over the past five games. Ripping the program is now casual sport on social media. Twitter followers beg you to stop offering game updates.
The Buffs rank dead last among 120 Division I teams in scoring defense. In fact, they rank 124th — below four programs transitioning to Division I status. Opponents are averaging more than 46 points a game against them.
On the other side of the ball, they also rank very near the bottom — 117th before being shut out Saturday. They are averaging barely 16 points a game on offense.
So I could certainly have asked the same question about defensive coordinator Greg Brown, but if you watch the Buffs you’re likely to end up feeling sorry for the defense. Against the high-powered offenses of the Pac-12, the CU offense gives its defense no chance. When you’re constantly giving the ball back to the likes of Southern Cal, Oregon and Stanford, your defense is going to pay the price sooner or later.
Saturday’s game was a case in point. The Buffs took the opening kickoff and went three-and-out. The defense came on and forced the Cardinal into a three-and-out.
The offense came back for its second series and made the game’s initial first down. Then quarterback Jordan Webb threw an interception in the middle of the field that Stanford safety Ed Reynolds returned 52 yards for a touchdown. The defense hadn’t given up a first down and the Buffaloes were already behind.
“It’s something you have to prepare for as a defense,” sophomore linebacker Brady Daigh said after the Buffs surrendered 436 yards of offense to the Cardinal and put up a meager 76 on 44 offensive plays themselves.
“You need to expect that something like that is going to happen. You still need to go out there and shut down their offense and get yourself off the field. It was tough, though. I was feeling a little tired out there and was missing a lot of tackles. That’s something I need to improve on.”
Stanford had the ball for more than 36 minutes Saturday; CU for less than 24.
From the standpoint of CU’s offense, it looked a little like a spring scrimmage. Embree tried all his quarterbacks — well, three of them, anyway — to no avail. Webb, the junior transfer who has started every game so far, started again, even though he’d been replaced last week in Eugene by sophomore Nick Hirschman. When he was ineffective against Stanford, he was again replaced by Hirschman. When Hirschman did no better, he was replaced by sophomore Connor Wood.
When I asked Embree what he might do next at quarterback, this was his reply:
“I’ll address that Tuesday and I’ll be very clear on that. I just don’t want to say anything right now because I don’t want it to seem like people are being blamed. But Tuesday I’ll announce some stuff. I just don’t want to do it now.”
Embree’s announcement that Webb would start this week came late Friday. When I asked why he elected to stay with the transfer from Kansas, this was his reply:
“He was the better guy, clearly, during practice. But I’ll talk more about that whole situation Tuesday.”
I’m speculating, of course, but I’m not sure a discussion and announcement Tuesday would be necessary if he were sticking with Webb, so perhaps a change is coming.
There wasn’t much to distinguish the candidates Saturday. Webb completed four of 10 passes for 19 yards. He was intercepted once, as I may have mentioned, and took three sacks. Hirschman completed four of six for 12 yards. He, too, was sacked three times. Wood was four of seven for 66 yards and took just one sack. Wood engineered the only drive that crossed midfield.
Embree has tried to install principles of the spread option on the fly over the past three weeks as he has realized that his offensive line isn’t good enough to match up and consistently block the defensive lines of the Pac-12. But not one of his quarterbacks is known as a runner, which means defenses don’t honor their run fakes. The three of them combined for four yards rushing Saturday.
With his team now 1-8, with nothing to lose, I asked if Embree has considered putting a running back at quarterback as Bill McCartney did in 1985 with tailback Mark Hatcher when he converted to the wishbone.
“No, I haven’t,” he said. “We have to get it out of one of those three guys.”
So I followed up by asking if he thinks it’s possible to run the spread option successfully with a quarterback who’s not a runner.
“If he can get you four (yards),” Embree said. “That’s really what you need out of him right now. When you look at some of those teams that do it, it’s not necessarily the quarterback being a great rusher. It’s the threat of him running it.
“You force defenses to do some things — play zero and man coverage. But then you’ve got to be able to take advantage of that. That’s where we struggle sometimes, too, getting some man match ups and being able to take advantage of it. So it’s a combination of things. Unfortunately, it’s not something you fix overnight. But we’ll keep chipping away at it and keep trying to give our kids the best chance to have success on that side.”
Everyone knew the Buffs would struggle in the early days of Embree’s tenure because former coach Dan Hawkins left the cupboard pretty bare. But falling to the bottom of Division I in both offense and defense is something else. Getting blown out week after week is something else. The Buffs are rapidly becoming a laughingstock, if they’re not already, and Embree knows he and his staff can’t survive for long playing the worst football in the nation.
Bieniemy’s offense is fooling no one. If you can’t measure up in talent, you have to be smart enough to fool opponents with trickery or misdirection or the various disguises provided by option football. The Air Force Academy has been doing this for years. The Buffs don’t do any of that. They try to run a classic pro set and it’s going nowhere. They did try a few spread option fakes in the run game Saturday, but they fooled no one. Week in and week out, they keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
At least Embree knows that relevance is now an issue. In a stadium that was barely half full for homecoming Saturday, season-ticket holders have little incentive to renew and the effort to sell luxury boxes has become an uphill battle.
Embree expressed faith that redshirt freshman quarterback Shane Dillon will become a factor in spring practice. He expressed faith that new recruits on the offensive line will address his team’s issues in pass protection. Perhaps conversion to the spread will improve the ground game.
Shut out at home for the first time since 1986, the Buffs have hit bottom. Now it’s up to Embree to prove he and his staff are capable of bouncing off the floor rather than just lying there. It’s only their second season, but the Buffs’ helplessness is shortening the normal timeline. Embree is now 4-18 as a head coach, 1-8 this year.
This can’t go on. Changes have to be made. Embree and his staff must signal to fans that the status quo is unacceptable. It begins with whatever Embree plans to announce Tuesday.