BOULDER — Midway through the fourth quarter Saturday night at Folsom Field, in a tie game, University of Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson caught the football across the middle and waited for the hit.
There was no Central Arkansas defender within 10 yards of him. From upstairs, it was a bizarre scene, reminiscent of last week, when Colorado State elected not to cover Colorado’s most dangerous offensive weapon on the second play from scrimmage.
Again Saturday night, not only was there no one on Richardson, there was no one between him and a wide swath of goal line. This produced his fourth touchdown in two games and contributed to his 417 receiving yards, which lead the country by more than 100 yards.
“I was definitely surprised at how wide open I was,” he said afterward with a laugh. “I was waiting to get hit, I was looking back, I think I stopped a little bit. But you know, I closed my eyes and I ran across the line.”
“They played cover zero there, so they’re bringing pressure, and no guys were in the middle, no defenders,” CU quarterback Connor Wood explained. “He ran, like, a stutter-through, and the floodgates opened. So just give the ball to him.”
Well, yeah. In the first two games of the Mike MacIntyre regime, Wood has connected with Richardson 21 times.
“Connor’s doing a good job of finding him, and he’s kind of slippery,” MacIntyre said. “He kind of gets through there and makes plays and is making catches. When we see certain matchups, we’re going to go attack it. And he’ll go get it.”
About the only question Richardson hasn’t answered yet during his CU career is whether he can stay healthy. Two years ago, he started almost as fast, catching 11 passes for 284 yards against Cal in the second game of the season. He looked poised for a monster year.
But later opponents scouted and contained him, and he missed several games with a knee injury, finishing his sophomore season with a relatively modest 39 catches for 555 yards and five touchdowns.
Last year, of course, he missed the entire season after blowing out an ACL.
He entered his junior season ranked 21st in career receiving yards at CU. It has taken him two weeks to climb to ninth.
He showed off his remarkable speed, acceleration, burst, on the first of his two touchdowns Saturday night against Central Arkansas, closing the gap on what appeared to be an overthrown ball and in the process leaving a defender in his dust, road runner-like.
It was good for 55 yards, Richardson’s eighth career touchdown of more than 50. The average gain on his 15 career touchdown catches for CU is 40.8 yards.
“I was holding my helmet,” said Wood. “I was like, ‘I overthrew him,’ and then he just, shooo, got it.
“I’ve seen it a few times, so I wasn’t nervous,” Wood said with a grin.
Richardson tied the school single-game record with 11 receptions in Saturday’s 38-24 victory. He had 10 the week before, in the opener against Colorado State. His back-to-back 200-yard receiving games are just the fourth and fifth in school history. Counting that Cal game a couple of years ago, he now has three of them.
Richardson’s second touchdown, the one where he found himself wide open, was the play that put CU ahead to stay Saturday, breaking a 24-24 deadlock with a little more than nine minutes remaining.
Buffs defensive back Chidobe Awuzie changed the game by ripping the ball from the arms of Central Arkansas wideout Jatavious Wilson. The Buffs tried a running play, to no effect, and then Wood hit Richardson over the middle with a 30-yard touchdown pass to give Colorado a 31-24 lead.
There are story lines aplenty in CU’s 2-0 start. For one thing, it’s already twice as many wins as the Buffs had all last season. For another, players led by Richardson are being quite explicit complimenting the “constructive” criticism they get from MacIntyre and his staff, which seems an obvious if unspoken contrast with the previous staff, fired after a 1-11 campaign last year.
But the schedule gets tougher from here, so we’ll soon see just how much progress they’ve made.
The same is true of Richardson. Two years ago, after his sizzling start, defenses adjusted and then he got hurt. He has yet to sustain the sensational play that has given him such glittering single-game numbers.
But he’s two years older now, two years wiser, a team captain and leader, and part of what appears to be a more sophisticated offensive design. For now, he leads the nation in receiving yardage, is tied for first in receiving touchdowns and ranks second in receptions.
If he can just stay healthy, he could put up numbers CU has never seen by the time the season is over.