Monthly Archives: November 2012

Of Cy Young awards, the knuckleball and high altitude

The first knuckleballer to win the Cy Young Award seemed as good a person as any to ask about throwing baseball’s most unpredictable pitch at high altitude. Or, yes, high elevation for you wordsmiths.

Regular readers may recall that we are building an inventory of conversations about the challenge of pitching at baseball’s highest level, no pun intended, with folks who actually do it. Here are a few of the earlier installments:

Matt Belisle.

Alex White.

John Smoltz.

So as Mets righthander R.A. Dickey was preparing to come to Denver last week to accept the Branch Rickey Award for humanitarian service, I got a chance to ask him about throwing the knuckleball in Colorado.

Dickey was one of three finalists for the Cy Young Award at the time. He was named the winner today, easily outpacing the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez. Dickey received 27 of 32 first-place votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Phil Niekro and Wilbur Wood each finished in the top five of Cy Young voting three times, Joe Niekro (for whom the knuckler was a complementary pitch) twice, and Tim Wakefield once, but Dickey became the first pitcher whose primary pitch is the knuckleball to actually win the thing.

I raised the question about altitude because fascination with the knuckleball comes up sometimes in conversations about how to pitch at Coors Field. Desperately seeking a pitch or approach that might work there for longer than a season or two, fans periodically ask whether the knuckleball could be a solution.

Knowing that curveballs often lose their bite a mile high and even two-seam fastballs tend to get less sinking action, I assumed the knuckleball would be the ultimate victim of thin air, relying as it does on air resistance to do its inimitable dance. When I looked at Dickey’s career, I found he has never started a big league game in Colorado. But it turns out he has thrown the knuckler here, both in bullpen sessions at Coors Field and in games at Colorado Springs as a minor leaguer.

First, some background on how Dickey came to throw the knuckleball relatively late in his career.

“I started the first few years of my career as a conventional pitcher, and I came to the point in 2005 where I’d kind of run my course as a conventional pitcher,” he said on the Dave Logan Show.

“My velocity had dropped, and just through general attrition, I just didn’t have the stuff I once had. So if I wanted to keep chasing the dream of being a major league baseball player, I had to come up with something that was a weapon that I could use to face big league batters.

“Orel Hershiser was my pitching coach at the time (with the Texas Rangers) and he suggested that I go to a knuckleball full time. He had seen me kind of piddle around with it on the side and thought that it might be good enough. So that’s when it began for me. It took quite some time to learn how to throw it correctly. I mean, it wasn’t until 2008 or 2009 where I really kind of felt comfortable with it. So it took a good three and a half years for me just to really have a mechanic that I could depend on that would produce a ball that doesn’t spin.

“That’s what a knuckleball is, for the people out there that don’t know. It’s a ball that when you throw it, does not spin. It has about a quarter of a revolution on it from the time it leaves your hand ’til the time it gets to the plate, which is a lot different than every other pitch that’s thrown. A curveball, you’re trying to impart really a lot of revolution on the ball to get it to manipulate the spin; a fastball the same way. But a knuckleball’s tough to throw, and it took me quite some time.”

In fact, Dickey enjoyed the best season of his career this year at age 37. His 20 wins and 2.73 earned-run average were career bests. Like Wood, the Niekro brothers, Wakefield, Hoyt Wilhelm and Charlie Hough, Dickey’s knuckler danced to an unpredictable tune of its own.

“I think one of the things that makes a knuckleball effective is if I throw it and I don’t know which direction it’s going to break, well, the hitter surely doesn’t know,” he said.

“So I’ve got an advantage there. It may break like a curveball at one point, it may break like a screwball at one point, it may not break at all on another one. I can throw 10 knuckleballs and they may do 10 different things. That’s the advantage of throwing a pitch like that, is that it’s going to probably do something a little bit different every time, and a hitter can’t track that. It’s tough for them to anticipate where the ball’s going to end up and put the barrel on the ball. Once you learn how to throw a knuckleball, the next step is how can you throw it for strikes. And that took me quite some time.”

So . . . about throwing it in Colorado. I mentioned that my research hadn’t turned up any Dickey starts at Coors Field.

“I’ve thrown bullpens in Colorado and I pitched in the minor leagues against Colorado Springs as a knuckleballer,” he said.

“It is tougher to throw at those high altitudes because there’s not much humidity for the ball to kind of resist against. At sea level, let’s say in New York, for instance, if I throw a mediocre knuckleball, well, it’s still going to move, it just might not move as sharply or as much. If I throw a mediocre knuckleball in Colorado, it’s going to be a b.p. (batting practice) fastball right down the middle that I’m going to have to either dodge or I’m going to just put my glove up for the umpire to throw me another ball because that one just went 450 feet.

“So it is tougher. You’ve got to be more perfect with your mechanic, with your release point, with the consistency of the rotation. You just have to be a little more perfect.”

So, no, sadly, the knuckleball is probably not a solution to the interminable search for an approach that will solve the riddle of making a career out of pitching at major league baseball’s only park a mile above sea level, home to the game’s highest team ERA (5.22) last season. It is that quest for perfection that has led to injury both physical and psychological in Rockies pitchers over the franchise’s first 20 years of existence.

Dickey might yet get the chance to give it a try on the hill at Coors. Though he just turned 38, the history of knuckleballers suggests he could be pitching for years to come.

“I do think that my body will be able to withstand pitching into my mid-40s,” he said.

“A knuckleballer is probably best when they are operating at about 70 percent capacity, which means you’re not taking a lot out of your arm. Now, other parts of your body can break down too, so it’s not only an arm issue, but most of the time the thing that stops someone from pitching another year is that they have arm problems or they just don’t want to deal with the pain that comes from pitching a game, throwing 120 pitches, and having to do it again in five days.

“Well, throwing a knuckleball takes away some of that concern because you’re throwing at about 70 percent capacity. So there’s less wear and tear, there’s easier recovery, you’re a little more resilient, and you’ve got a good mechanic where you could pretty much throw 300 or 400 hundred pitches and it would be no big deal. So that’s what’s different about being a knuckleballer and that’s why you can pitch deep into your 40s.”

Oh, and one more thing. About that humanitarian service that earned him the Branch Rickey Award and a banquet in Colorado.

“One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about specifically playing in New York is that it gives you the platform to do things that might transcend the game, and I’ve always had interest in trying to use the platform of baseball to do that,” Dickey said.

“I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last year in an effort to raise money for an outreach called the Bombay Teen Challenge, which rescues young girls and women from sex slavery and human trafficking in Mumbai, India.

“I had some exposure to that through a friend and he turned me on to the charity and I got involved intimately with the head of it. We raised over $100,000 for that outreach and they’re able now to purchase a clinic in the middle of the red light district in Mumbai, which was, ironically, once a brothel. It’s a really neat story and it’s a fantastic organization and it’s something that I’m thankful that I’m a part of.”

Two stats suggest Broncos growing into legit contender

Five weeks ago, the Broncos were 2-3 and ranked 19th in the NFL in points allowed. Peyton Manning and the offense were coming together, week by week, but the Broncos had all kinds of questions on the other side of the ball. Having surrendered 62 points to Houston and New England over the previous three weeks, their defense scared no one.

Sunday, the Broncos won their fourth consecutive game since then. For the first time, Manning was not the main reason. The Denver defense, which had improved to 13th in points allowed in the interim, dominated Carolina, forcing Cam Newton to run for his life most of the day.

Two stats best reflected this defensive dominance:

— Seven quarterback sacks by six different Broncos defenders, the first time they’ve had that many in a game in nine years.

— The Panthers’ astonishing 0-for-12 success rate on third down, the first time the Broncos have shut out an opponent on third down in 12 years.

Jack Del Rio’s unit had improved from 29th to 20th in third-down defense over the past three weeks, and that ranking will rise again when all of this weekend’s action is over.

Combine a stifling defense that held Carolina to 250 yards of offense (the Broncos had 360) with another kick return for a touchdown by Trindon Holliday — a kickoff last week in Cincinnati, a punt this week in Carolina — and the Broncos resembled, for the first time, a complete team that could be a legitimate championship contender.

“It was a heck of an effort by the defense today,” Manning told KOA afterward. “They really put a lot of pressure on Carolina’s offense. And, boy, that’s two straight weeks with a (special teams) return for a touchdown. Just can’t tell you what that does for a team. Just a huge swing. Holliday and the entire return team has done a heck of a job. So, good overall team win. Offensively, obviously, some things we need to do better, but it sure was a good win.”

This is the key intangible the Broncos have going for them — veterans on both sides of the ball who are dissatisfied after a convincing 36-14 road win.

Asked by Channel 4’s Gary Miller if the defense was coming along faster than he expected, cornerback Champ Bailey did not hesitate.

“No,” he said. “I think we’re going too slow. We need to pick it up a little bit.”

It sounded like a joke, but if you know Bailey, who held the great Panthers receiver Steve Smith to one catch on seven targets for 19 yards, you know it wasn’t. At 34, Bailey’s sense of urgency to get to his first Super Bowl is palpable.

Similarly, Manning returns to Denver determined to work on flaws in the offense.

“I thought we were close on offense all day and really had some chances to put some more points and maybe have a little more separation,” he said. “We still had a few self-inflicted wounds. I’ve learned never to take winning for granted in the NFL, but certainly some things we can improve on and hopefully correct on offense.”

Even on a relatively modest day for Manning — he completed 27 of 38 passes for 301 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 103.1 — the Broncos’ quarterback continued his assault on the record book. The touchdown tied Dan Marino for second on the career list at 420. Only Brett Favre, with 508, had more. The win tied him with Marino for third on that list with 147, behind only John Elway (148) and Favre (186).

Now in charge of the Broncos’ front office, Elway gets appropriate credit for courting and signing Manning, giving the franchise instant credibility on offense. The front office he leads has continued to add veteran pieces that have played major roles, among them linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen and safety Jim Leonhard.

But no pickup on the fly has had a bigger impact than Holliday, just the third player in Broncos history to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same season, joining Al Frazier in 1961 and Eddie Royal in 2009. The Broncos claimed him off waivers from Houston last month.

“We look at the wire every single day to see who’s on that wire and if there’s a possibility that we can improve our football team,” Elway said on the Dave Logan Show last week.

“When we had a chance to get Trindon Holliday and claimed him a couple weeks ago, it was key for us because we needed a returner and he’d had so much success in preseason and even earlier this season . . . It was kind of an area of need and we saw what he could do last week. He’s really upgraded our return game.”

Holliday’s 76-yard punt return on the first play of the second quarter broke a 7-7 tie. Returners with the ability to break one at any time are a rare breed and provide a dimension that few teams have. To add that, in midseason, to improving units on offense and defense, makes the Broncos a threat to score in all three phases of the game, as they did Sunday.

“Especially a guy with that kind of speed,” Elway said. “If we can get people on people and get him some space, then he’s going to be very dangerous and it puts that much pressure on the other team. We really can look at it as another offensive weapon that when we do get in the return game, we have the ability to make some big plays.”

Indeed, the 5-foot-5-inch, 170-pound Holliday has been so impressive the Broncos are working him into the passing game. In Carolina, he had his first two NFL catches.

On the other hand, replays appeared to show Holliday flipping the ball away before crossing the goal line on the punt return. Neither the officials nor the Panthers noticed. Broncos coach John Fox told him to bring him the ball next time.

Meanwhile, Von Miller continued his ascent into one of the dominant defensive players in the league. Although he got credit for just one of the Broncos’ sacks after registering three the week before, he seemed to be in the Carolina backfield all day. He denied any special motivation going after the one player picked ahead of him in the 2011 NFL draft, but his teammates knew better.

“It was important not only for our head coach coming back here, but the first time Von has gone up against Cam,” said fellow linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “So it was exciting for him.”

Fox, of course, coached the Panthers for nine seasons and was less than thrilled when he was set up to fail with a stripped-down roster in his final season. But Fox, like Miller, declined to talk about his motivation publicly.

Broncos defenders credited with quarterback sacks in addition to Miller were defensive linemen Kevin Vickerson (two), Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil; and defensive backs Mike Adams and Chris Harris.

About the only negative for the Broncos was the running game, which put up only 65 yards, averaging three yards per rush. The starter, Willis McGahee, fumbled twice. Luckily, one rolled back to him. The other became his third lost fumble of the season.

Still, their turnover ratio continued to improve from a horrible start with interceptions by cornerback Tony Carter — a third-quarter pick six that extended the lead to 24-7 — and safety Rahim Moore. They improved to minus three on the season.

Combined with the Chargers’ loss to Tampa Bay, the Broncos’ fourth straight victory gave them a two-game lead in the AFC West with a chance to make it effectively four by beating San Diego next week and sweeping the head-to-head matchups, the first tie-breaker.

“It’s certainly a big game, and we all know how the game went last time,” Manning said, referring to the turning point of the Broncos’ season so far. It came at halftime of the game in San Diego on Oct. 15. The Chargers led 24-0 and the Broncos were 30 minutes from falling to 2-4. Instead, they came back with 35 second-half points and haven’t lost since.

“Everybody talks about the comeback, but we were down 24-0 for a reason, because they are a good team and they forced us into some mistakes,” Manning said. “So we’re going to have to play a whole lot better than we did last time . . . We need a good week of practice.”

Now 6-3 on the season, the Broncos’ record is beginning to reflect the quality of their game. One memorable stat that made the rounds last spring, just after Manning signed, seems increasingly relevant these days. Throughout his career, Manning’s teams have averaged 26 points a game. Throughout his career, Fox’s defensively-oriented teams have won more than 90 percent of the time when they score at least 26 points.

It’s working so far. When the Broncos have scored 26 points or more this season, they are 6-0. If the defense continues to improve at its recent rate, they could be as scary as any team when the playoffs get underway.

This just in: Peyton Manning is not a cyborg

Remember the ad with Albert Pujols where ESPN anchors call him by his nickname, The Machine, and his inner robot offers him the options of denying the allegation or eliminating the allegators?

When he chooses to deny, his inner robot asks in a Hal-like voice, “Why didn’t you eliminate them, Albert?”

The way the two players have performed since, Pujols ought to surrender the name to Peyton Manning. For weeks now, Manning has resembled nothing so much as a football-savant cyborg with a microprocessor just a little bit faster than anyone else’s and the robotic physical skill to execute its commands.

So it was almost reassuring to see him make a couple of mistakes Sunday in Cincinnati. Robots have come to surgery already, but not yet to sports.

Manning’s mistakes also allowed the Broncos to keep developing as a contender by overcoming a little adversity on the road, requiring another fourth-quarter comeback (Manning’s 48th). For good teams, such tests are mile markers of their progress.

In their third consecutive win, a 31-23 decision over the Bengals that left them with a record of 5-3 at the season’s halfway mark, the Broncos continued to hone a dynamic combination of elite veteran leadership and impressive, improving young talent.

In the area of veteran leadership, you don’t do better than Manning on offense and Champ Bailey on defense. If anyone in that locker room is inclined toward giddiness, they are swiftly corrected.

In the area of emerging young talent, the offense is benefiting from Manning’s increased confidence in receivers Eric Decker (eight catches, 99 yards, two touchdowns) and Demaryius Thomas (six catches, 77 yards).

The defense is benefiting from Von Miller, the outstanding second-year pass rusher who added three sacks to his previous six; Wesley Woodyard, the replacement for the suspended D.J. Williams who was in on 14 tackles; and Chris Harris and Tony Carter, unheralded defensive backs who have done a better job covering NFL receivers than a series of bigger names brought in over the years to help Bailey out.

“We had great coverage,” Miller said, sharing the credit for his sacks. “Chris Harris, Champ Bailey, Rahim Moore, all those guys had great games. They were able to give us time to rush the passer. And whenever you can get time to do your job, we’ve got to get there, and that’s what we did today.”

Remarkably, Manning was not sacked all day by a Cincinnati pass rush that led the AFC with 23 going into the game. Part of it was due to the offensive line, which lost guard Chris Kuper again to a reinjured left ankle, part of it to Manning for getting rid of the ball quickly, and part of it to the Broncos’ receiver corps, which got open fast enough to give Manning early targets.

The Broncos front office under John Elway has also made a number of key veteran acquisitions now contributing in bigger ways than may have been anticipated. Keith Brooking, imported at age 36 to see if he could add a little depth and leadership to the linebacking corps, is now the middle linebacker in the base defense. Dan Koppen, picked up after New England cut him, is now the starting center. Jim Leonhard is getting more time at safety.

And Trindon Holliday, the speedster the Broncos claimed off waivers from Houston last month, made the longest play in franchise history, a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half.

The Broncos were on their way to a second consecutive comfortable win when Manning made his first mistake. Holliday’s return of the second half kickoff made it 17-3. The Bengals responded with their first touchdown, the big play a 52-yard reception by wide-open tight end Jermaine Gresham.

The Broncos marched right back down the field in that methodical way Manning had led them over the previous five weeks, when he totaled 14 touchdown passes and one interception (and even that, a misread on a hot route by receiver Matt Willis, wasn’t Manning’s fault). After driving from their own 17 to the Bengals’ 9-yard line, the Broncos looked poised to restore their two-touchdown advantage.

If Manning throws his pass into the end zone a foot or two to the right, it might have been caught by Decker rather than Bengals cornerback Terence Newman. That would have made the score 24-10. Instead, when the Bengals turned the turnover into a field goal, the Broncos’ lead was only 17-13. It wasn’t immediately obvious whose fault that first pick was — Manning’s for leading Decker a sliver too much, or Decker for letting the smaller Newman keep him from getting to his spot. Tony Dungy, Manning’s former coach, said on NBC that Manning and Decker would be watching the video on the flight home to correct whatever the problem was.

The second Newman interception, on Manning’s very next pass, from his own 3-yard line, overshot Decker, and Manning took responsibility.

“Obviously, the interception, the second one to Newman, was a poor decision on my part,” he told KOA. “I just can’t give them that kind of field position, put our defense in a tough bind. So that was a disappointing decision on my part. But offensively we responded.”

One thing you can say for Manning — interceptions don’t chasten him in the least. He keeps heaving it, and his completion rate remains spectacular. Despite the mistakes, he ended up with more touchdowns than interceptions in Cincinnati.

“My father always talked about level zero, get back to level zero,” he told reporters afterward. “You’ve got to erase the play from your mind, a good play or a bad play, and move on to the next one. So, not the scenario that we wanted, anytime you’re on the road and you have a chance to put a team away, you’d like to. You hate to give them a little life, which we did. And give credit to them for responding. But when we had to, our team responded as well, and that was important.”

The Bengals turned his second turnover into a touchdown and a short-lived 20-17 lead. The Broncos responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive on five plays, the big ones a 30-yard completion to Decker, most of it after the catch, and a 29-yard pass interference penalty on Adam “Pacman” Jones on a pass in the end zone intended for Thomas.

The Broncos had the lead back, 24-20, and when Bailey came up with his first interception of the year on Cincinnati’s next possession — a pass to A.J. Green underthrown by Andy Dalton because of pressure from the Broncos’ pass rush, which had five sacks — Manning had a short field and turned it into another touchdown to make it 31-20.

“It’s hard to be at 100 percent every week, and so the good news is we’ve strung three wins together, and for us to continue that takes a lot of mental toughness, especially in the preparation to go on the road,” coach John Fox said.

NFL players and coaches know that plaudits from those of us in the cheap seats are less annoying than our second-guessing when they lose, but possibly more harmful. After consecutive wins over San Diego and New Orleans, everyone was already telling the Broncos how great they were. Exuberant internet columns predict they won’t lose again this season.

One of the encouraging things about these Broncos is they very firmly don’t want to hear it. This starts with Manning, who doesn’t even want to hear that he’s all the way back from last year’s injury.

“We feel good about where we are, but if we want to be a really good offense we’ve got to continue to improve,” said veteran receiver and Manning pal Brandon Stokley. “There’s things to clean up. We had a few too many drops today and we’ve got to put some more points on the board in the first half. So it’s still a work in progress.”

For the same reason, it’s probably better for the Broncos that Manning had those interceptions and the Broncos did not enjoy a second straight easy victory. No matter how much the veterans preach, complacency is a natural reaction to a series of lopsided wins. Instead, as Manning suggested, navigating some stormy seas may serve the team better in the long run.

“I think the more scenarios this team can get into, fourth quarter being down, two-minute drill to win it, whatever it is, this team needs to form its identity going through those type of situations, playing on the road in a hostile environment,” Manning said. “So any time you can persevere when you’re kind of doing it for the first time as a unit, to me that’s a real positive. So to get the win today was really key.”

It’s not often you can throw two interceptions and still finish with a passer rating over 100, but Manning finished at 105.8 by hitting 27 of 35 attempts (despite several drops) and throwing three touchdown passes, leaving him with a still-sensational ratio of 20 touchdowns and six picks on the season. He is leading his new offense, in his first year, by demonstrating personal accountability and demanding that teammates focus on the little things as much as he does.

And also playing really well, even if he does turn out to be human.

Buffs hit rock bottom

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.