In exuberance on the field afterward, first-year Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre hugged everyone in sight. In fact, he hugged running back Christian Powell with 27 seconds still on the clock, after Colorado State fumbled away its last chance. A bunch of his players ran to the South Stands to celebrate with their fellow students.
Junior running back Tony Jones walked around as if in a daze, telling everyone he ran into, “Best feeling ever! Best feeling ever!” There may have been an adjective in there somewhere too.
It’s been a while since any CU football player said that. Certainly not last year, when the Buffaloes were in the conversation about worst feeling ever. In fact, they scored more points in Sunday’s 41-27 victory than in any game last season, when they went 1-11.
A year ago, quarterback Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas, appeared in six games, completing 21 of 42 passes for 265 yards, a touchdown and four interceptions. Of the three quarterbacks who played last year, he was the only one still in a position to compete this year, but the word that he would start — that any remnant of last year’s travesty would lead this year’s team — didn’t seem that encouraging.
Sunday he looked like a completely different guy. He completed 33 of 46 passes for 400 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. For the first time since his arrival, he looked in command, despite being on his third head coach and fourth offensive coordinator in four years of college football.
It didn’t hurt that his primary target was Paul Richardson, the dynamic weapon who missed all last season after blowing out a knee. Richardson picked up right where he left off before the injury, catching 10 balls for 208 yards and two touchdowns, both long plays on blown Colorado State coverages.
Was Wood transformed by some cosmic force, or did he finally land in a system that gave him a chance to succeed?
“This summer was really huge for me,” said Wood, who will turn 22 in November.
“We did those player-run practices three times a week. It was really organized and we got a lot of stuff done doing team drills with all of the offensive linemen. So throughout the summer we got a ton of reps. We hit the ground running in training camp and we continue to try to get better throughout the season. Summer really propelled us into training camp.”
From the press box, not only did he look more confident, he looked like he was operating a much better design.
“Scheme has something to do with it, there’s no doubt, but work ethic, repetition — rep after rep after rep — he has thrown those routes a million times, he’s made those calls a million times, he’s handled it all,” MacIntyre said.
“So I think it’s just the repetitions and (offensive coordinator) Brian Lindgren is a great quarterback coach. Not just a good one, a great one. I saw him do it last year. I see him doing it now when I watch every day. Our other quarterbacks are getting better and better . . . .
“Our scheme is very good. We know how to attack things, and the quarterback knows where to go with the ball. Believe it or not, he had some reads tonight — when he watches tape, he’ll go, ‘Oh, gosh’ — that he could have hit, and he’ll hit those next week and hopefully put up some even bigger numbers.”
Which would certainly be interesting. The virtues of MacIntyre’s scheme were on display early, when CSU’s defensive backs got confused on the Buffs’ second play from scrimmage and unaccountably left Richardson, the most dangerous weapon on the field, all alone near the left hash. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a receiver that wide open. There was nobody within at least 20 yards.
“The corner was clouded on me, so I was anticipating the safety being over top of me,” Richardson said.
Cloud refers to a zone pass coverage in which the cornerback has responsibility for the flat and a safety is responsible for deeper routes.
“The safety bit on the under route and let me go free,” Richardson said.
“It was motion and we didn’t get the check,” said Rams coach Jim McElwain. “The corner thought he had help and the safety thought he had support.”
I asked MacIntyre what he was thinking when he saw his best playmaker that wide open.
“Don’t fall down, don’t drop it, throw it right to him. I thought all of that at once.”
CU dominated the game most of the way. The Buffs ran 81 plays, about what they hoped their fast-paced offense would produce. Colorado State managed 67, but could not sustain enough drives to keep up until the Rams’ special teams took over.
“Offensively, we didn’t do a very good job of keeping our defense off the field and sustaining drives,” McElwain said. “I thought we missed a couple opportunities here and there. But I want you to know this: We’ve got a very good football team. And I believe in our football team. I believe in the commitment, I believe in what they’ve done. We’ve got a ways to go. I get it, OK? But I do, I believe in this football team and I think we’ve got a lot of good things to look forward to.”
The Rams stayed in it on the strength of special teams, which produced a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown and an 84-yard kickoff return that set up another. The Rams were actually ahead for a minute late in the third quarter, 24-23, but the Buffs outscored them 18-3 in the fourth.
The turning point came early in the final quarter with CU back on top 26-24. CSU moved the ball 20 yards in three plays to the Buffs’ 48, where Rams quarterback Garrett Grayson hit wide receiver Joe Hansley with a little swing pass. Hansley was CSU’s leading receiver in the game — eight catches for 91 yards — and the author of the 74-yard punt return for a touchdown.
Buffaloes defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe ripped the ball from Hansley’s grasp and cornerback Greg Henderson picked it up and carried it 53 yards the other way. Suddenly, a potential CSU lead had become a two-score deficit at 33-24. A field goal pulled them within a single score and then they busted another coverage on Richardson to finish it.
Considering the state of football at Colorado’s two big state schools lately, both schools should be encouraged. They put on an entertaining game that suggested the two coaches, both bright and determined, might just get this thing turned around.
Happily, the outcome wasn’t determined by failure, as it often has been recently. It was determined by big-time football plays — exciting kick returns, hard-to-believe pass plays.
They announced 59,601 tickets distributed for the 76,125-seat Broncos stadium in downtown Denver, which magically became “attendance” in the final box. It was not.
The Broncos regularly report the difference between tickets distributed and tickets actually used. The latter figure is attendance. I consulted with a few other veterans of the joint and decided actual attendance was somewhere in the 45,000-50,000 neighborhood, or about the same as last year.
Which isn’t too bad considering these programs combined for five wins last season. If this game was any guide, Colorado college football just might be on the way to getting interesting again.