BOULDER — The best thing you can say about Colorado’s 2012 football season is it’s over.
It ended on a beautiful autumn afternoon in which Jon Embree’s second Buffaloes team fought to the final minute to avoid becoming the first CU team since 1920 to go winless at home.
It fell just short, falling to Utah 42-35 to finish the season 1-11 and 0-6 at Folsom Field. The Buffs actually outplayed the Utes for much of the day, finishing with more first downs (25-18), total offense (418-336) and passing yards (306-128). Alas, they also had way more turnovers — five, to the Utes’ one.
CU fans showed their support 39,400 strong by the official count — not bad for a team going nowhere during Thanksgiving break on campus — and were rewarded with an entertaining game that featured back-to-back 100-yard kickoff returns and the crispest passing performance of the season from sophomore quarterback Nick Hirschman, who completed 30 of 51 throws for 306 yards and a touchdown.
Unfortunately, Hirschman also threw four interceptions. The fourth doesn’t really count. It was a desperation heave on CU’s final fourth down that would have resulted in a change of possession if it had fallen incomplete. But the others hurt, particularly the very first, an underthrown screen less than a minute into the game that set up Utah’s first touchdown.
There was a moment in the fourth quarter that seemed to symbolize many of the problems this team faced all year, from coaching to execution. Following the back-to-back kickoff returns, Utah led by the single touchdown that turned out to be its final margin of victory. CU began its subsequent possession at its 25-yard line with 8:12 remaining in the game.
The Buffs drove to their 45, where, on third-and-2, tailback Tony Jones was tackled behind the line of scrimmage for a one-yard loss. That brought up fourth-and-3 with about five and a half minutes left on the game clock.
CU had at least three options: Punt, go for it or try a little trickery with a fake punt. Embree sent out the punt team, then called timeout to think it over. Following the timeout, he replaced the punt team with the offense. Hirschman tried to hit freshman Gerald Thomas on a quick crossing pattern but the ball was batted down and Utah took over.
The change from the punt team to the offense gave the impression the coaching staff hadn’t anticipated the situation and wasn’t sure what it wanted to do. I asked Embree afterward if that was the case.
“I knew what we wanted,” he said. “I just wanted to give (offensive coordinator) Eric (Bieniemy) some more time to really think and decide, be confident, because there was a couple of things we were looking at.”
Did he consider running a fake out of the punt formation he dispatched before the timeout?
“No,” he said. “I just would rather, if we’re going to go for it, go for it with our guys, our offense.”
In any case, the Buffs got the ball back once more, with under 3 minutes to play, and turned it over on that final interception with less than a minute showing.
For CU’s nine seniors, it was a tough Senior Day.
“I would have liked for it to be a lot better, but it was still fun, to get to be in the game until the last play,” said tight end Nick Kasa, who had five catches for 51 yards in his final game. “I just wish things would have been better for us, but I think we all know better things are coming for this program.”
It wasn’t much better for the legion of freshmen who got their college football trial by fire this year. Embree entered the post-game press conference angry about what a fan had said to one of them as he walked off the field.
“I’m just mad ’cause, you know, when people say something to our kids, I got a problem,” Embree said. “Eighteen-year-old kid playing his heart out.”
Embree did not name the object of the fan’s derision, but he was seen consoling Thomas, the freshman receiver from New Orleans, as the two of them walked off of Folsom Field. Associate athletic director Dave Plati later confirmed in a facebook post that Thomas was the target of the taunt.
On both sides of the ball, CU finished the season ranked among the worst programs in Division I football. The defense, in particular, seemed helpless against Pac-12 offenses for much of the year, giving up an average of 46 points a game. I asked two senior linebackers, Jon Major and Doug Rippy, why they thought that was.
“It’s becoming a lot tougher to be a coach on the defensive side,” Major said. “We tried probably five or six different schemes just to try and slow down these teams. Whether it’s personnel or something beyond that — youth, discipline — as these guys continue to grow and get better, something’s going to stick, something’s going to work. Just unfortunately nothing good this year. But I also feel like we finished very strong as a defense.”
“Like Jon said, it was probably hardest for the defensive staff, just trying to figure out what we were going to do, because we had a lot of younger guys playing,” Rippy said. “Last year, if I can recall, we only had one freshman playing on defense, which was Greg Henderson. This year, we had a lot play. We just had to do things to make them comfortable . . . so it was hard. The younger guys, they’re going to learn from it. They’re going to be so much better at it next year.
“With us veteran guys that came back, we kind of knew what we were getting into. We lost a lot of seniors last year and we had such a small senior class. We’re not that vocal. We really show by our actions. The younger guys, they kind of picked that up. But just trying to find a scheme that fits us was kind of hard this year, especially with the personnel we went up against.”
The issues on offense are more easily diagnosed. The Buffs got poor quarterback play for most of the year. Redshirt freshman Shane Dillon is expected to compete for the starting job next year, probably with Hirschman, who showed flashes toward the end of the season amid his interceptions. And Embree has made it clear he intends to convert from what began as a standard pro set to a spread offense, which he used liberally in the finale Friday.
“I think when you look at our games, we’ve moved the ball and been more effective, or had opportunities, when we’ve been doing some of that stuff,” he said. “So I’d like to continue to move forward in that direction.”
Embree has also said for some weeks that he would reassess everything, from scheme to staff, when the season ended. I asked him how long he expected that reassessment to take.
“I don’t want to put a timetable on it, but I’ll continue down that path,” he said. “I’ll be out recruiting. I’m on the road Monday or Tuesday. I want to make sure as I go through this that we’re doing the right things and talking to the right people. But I don’t have a deadline or anything like that.
“But it’s something I’ll start thinking about, and I have been thinking about it, but continue to think on as we move forward. When I have a good idea, we’ll let you guys know, but I don’t think it’s a process that’s just going to drag out.”
As Kasa said in a rare light moment, the program has nowhere to go from here but up. Bill McCartney went 1-10 in 1984, his third season. He switched from a pro set to the wishbone the following spring, won seven games that fall, and never had another losing record. Embree was a player on both of those teams, so he’s seen it done. Whether he can replicate that turnaround remains to be seen.
On his way out the door, Hirschman recounted Embree’s message to his younger players, the ones who will be back next year.
“He just stressed that we never want to feel like this again,” Hirschman said. “This game kind of summed up our whole year. Everything that could have gone wrong did for us.”
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