Category Archives: University of Colorado

Mike MacIntyre avoids a meltdown as CU loses again

BOULDER — Until Saturday night, we’d never seen Mike MacIntyre like this.

He hasn’t been here that long, so we were bound to see the less sociable side at some point, but when he rushed into the CU defensive meeting room for his post-game session with the inquiring minds Saturday night, he started out as if determined to insert himself into the ESPN coaching meltdown highlight reel.

You know the one. It includes Mike Gundy (“Come after me! I’m a man! I’m 40!”), Steve Spurrier on multiple occasions, even former CU coach Dan Hawkins (“It’s Division I football! It’s the Big 12! It ain’t intramurals!”).

Here’s how MacIntyre began his post-game presser after Arizona beat Colorado 44-20 Saturday night at Folsom Field, effectively ending CU’s chance to become bowl eligible in MacIntyre’s first season, barring some truly incomprehensible outcomes the rest of the way.

MacIntyre, sitting down as reporters approach to deposit their recorders on the table: “All right, ready? Start shooting away, let’s go. I’ll take three questions, I’m outta here.”

Q: You were down 14 points . . . 

A: Yeah . . . 

Q: . . . with 18 minutes to go . . . 

A: Take a chance. See us try to play defense? Next question. Let’s go.

Q: Uh, problem stopping Denker . . .

A: Yeah, we had a problem stopping him. Next one?

Q: You gave up 670 in total offense.

A: Yeah, we did. Exactly. Next one?

You get the idea. Perhaps sensing he was about to create a video clip that could haunt him for years, he calmed down a bit and answered well more than three questions. The entire transcript is below.

MacIntyre had targeted Arizona as a Pac-12 opponent his Colorado team could beat. He said it publicly and he presented it to his team as a challenge. Beat the Wildcats, he said, and the Buffaloes could play meaningful games in November, meaning bowl eligibility would be at stake. With three non-conference wins and a Cal team winless in the Pac-12 coming to Boulder in November, a win over Arizona would leave CU needing just one upset to get to six.

Perhaps MacIntyre put too much stock in his own challenge. When push came to shove, it was the first-year coach, hungry for success his team is not yet ready to deliver, who salted the game away for the visitors from Tucson.

Even without MacIntyre’s premature desperation, CU almost certainly would have lost, and for the same reasons that drove MacIntyre’s desperation: The Buffs couldn’t stop the Wildcats, who put up 670 yards of offense — second-most under coach Rich Rodriguez and third most in school history — 405 of them on the ground.

But that didn’t make MacIntyre’s tactical decisions helpful. The Buffs trailed 24-13 at halftime. Not great, but not nearly as bad as two weeks ago in Tempe, when Arizona State led 47-6 at intermission. The Wildcats came out in the third quarter and drove 66 yards, but the Buffs held them to a field goal. CU responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 27-20. Arizona roared back with a 70-yard drive to extend the lead to 34-20.

CU drove 47 yards to a first-and-goal at the Arizona 7-yard line. After two rushes for three yards and an incomplete pass, the Buffs faced fourth-and-goal at the 4. MacIntyre eschewed the field goal and went for it. Freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau rolled right and threw incomplete into the end zone.

The Buffs stopped the Cats, then found themselves deep in their own territory as the third quarter expired.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, down 14 points with 15 minutes to play, the Buffs ran a fake punt on fourth-and-5 from their own 17. Punter Darragh O’Neill tried to run for the first down. He gained one yard.

Arizona took over on the CU 18. Two plays later, the Buffs’ deficit was 21. And that was that.

“If you see us playing defense, we couldn’t stop ’em,” MacIntyre explained. “Thought it was a good place to try it. He was supposed to read it. We’ve had five on this year and he’s punted all five. We thought we had a chance and he thought he had a chance and didn’t get it.”

The Buffs’ defensive game plan was so focused on Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey that their defenders repeatedly allowed quarterback B.J. Denker to run free. Denker finished with 192 rushing yards, 73 more than Carey.

“We couldn’t tackle the quarterback,” MacIntyre said. “We must have missed him seven times. Probably 200 yards of offense off of missed tackles on the quarterback. We gotta work on tackling better.”

Like a lot of folks in Boulder, MacIntyre wants the Buffs to improve more quickly than they are. It’s understandable. It’s hard not to feel for his players as they try to answer questions, honestly mystified as to their helplessness against Pac-12 opponents. It’s just a play here or there, they keep saying. Even MacIntyre fell back on this canard.

It’s not just a play here or there. MacIntyre is at the start of a major rebuilding project. He took over one of the worst teams in Division I history. It plays in a conference with some of the best offenses in the nation.

A fake punt on your own 17 does not help. Down 14 with a full quarter to play, it sends a signal of desperation to your players. When I asked MacIntyre if he regretted that decision in hindsight, his answer was firm and immediate: “No. Do not.”

The mirage of bowl eligibility should now fade and the Buffs will go back to focusing on the details, trying to get better each week. To achieve competitiveness in the Pac-12 is going to take a while. That’s not the fault of anybody now involved with the program. But trying to rush the process by getting desperate will not help.

Here’s a full transcript of MacIntyre’s post-game presser:

MacIntyre: All right, ready? Start shooting away, let’s go. I’ll take three questions, I’m outta here.

Q: You were down 14 points . . . 

A: Yeah . . . 

Q: . . . with 18 minutes to go . . . 

A: Take a chance. See us try to play defense? Next question. Let’s go.

Q: Uh, problem stopping Denker . . .

A: Yeah, we had a problem stopping him. Next one?

Q: You gave up 670 in total offense.

A: Yeah, we did. Exactly. Next one?

Q: Why are you in such a hurry?

A: Because I’m ready to get out of here. We played our hearts out. We gotta play better.

Q: How do you feel Sefo played?

A: I thought he did good. Missed a couple guys he coulda hit. And we had a couple out there he could have made, but I thought he did some good things. He’ll keep improving.

Q: Why’d you fake the punt?

A: Because if you see us playing defense, we couldn’t stop ’em. Thought it was a good place to try it. He was supposed to read it. We’ve had five on this year and he’s punted all five. We thought we had a chance and he thought he had a chance and didn’t get it.

Q: How concerned are you about your defense?

A: Very concerned. Playing as hard as they can play.

Q: Jered (Bell, the junior free safety) said they have the talent, they’re just not executing. Do you feel that’s true?

A: There’s part of that, yes. We gotta do a better job of coaching ’em and just keep fighting. There’s great offenses in this league.

Q: Does this one hurt you a little bit more than some of the others?

A: Oh, definitely. 100 percent.

Q: Seemed like there was a lot of pressure on Sefo tonight . . . 

A: Yeah, there’s been pressure on him every time he’s stepped back there.

Q: Why does it hurt more than the others?

A: Cause we can beat that team.

Q: Why do you feel like you didn’t?

A: We didn’t tackle ’em. We couldn’t tackle the quarterback. We must have missed him seven times. Probably 200 yards of offense off of missed tackles on the quarterback. We gotta work on tackling better.

Q: Obviously it hurts to lose, but this game was a step in the right direction in conference play. Do you feel that way?

A: No. We shoulda won the game.

Q: Did you do anything special to stop Carey and that made it harder to stop Denker?

A: Yeah, we stopped Carey pretty good. We had one he bounced outside and we didn’t play our . . . we shoulda stayed outside, he wouldn’t have gained that yard, and then he ran over us a few times, and he’s going to do that. He does that against everybody. Just very disappointed we didn’t do a better job against Denker. He did a good job, B.J., he threw the ball better than I’ve ever seen him throw in every game I’ve ever watched him play. So he came through, he really did. He did a great job. Their quarterback did a great job.

Q: You said they played as hard as they can play, yet you seem disappointed in the effort or outcome or . . .

A: Yeah, I’m very disappointed in the outcome.

Q: When the offense got in Arizona territory, why were there so many struggles of getting seven as opposed to just three?

A: We just couldn’t get it in. I’ll have to go back and look at it. We left a few out there we had chances at.

Q: How happy have you been with the tackling so far this year?

A: I mean, I think we’ve improved from the film I watched last year and from spring practice and early in fall. We just didn’t . . . he made us miss tonight and I’ve seen him make people miss before, it was just very frustrating for our kids.

Q: In hindsight, do you regret not kicking the field goal . . . 

A: No. The guy was open. We had a chance. We just couldn’t get it to him.

Q: In hindsight, do you regret the fake punt?

A: No. Do not.

Q: Did you see the same thing you saw against Oregon from the defense when you ran that trick play to (junior receiver Paul) Richardson?

A: Yeah, but we did it different than that one. It was a different formation. And they lined up differently than they had been, too. That kind of threw us off. But PRich did a good job. We had worked on if that happened, throw it out of bounds.

Q: How is he?

A: I think he’s fine. He said he was fine. Hopefully it doesn’t swell up or something tonight.

Q: How disconcerting is it, just the lack of success against . . . 

A: Very disconcerting. Very disconcerting. We keep improving, we’ve just got to do it. Very disconcerting. We’ve just got to keep fighting and keep moving forward. It’s just disheartening for the kids, you know? We’re battling right there and just . . . a few plays here or there.

Q: Is that similar to your first year at San Jose State?

A: I don’t know. So long ago.

Q: You sparked the offense with some personnel changes. How do you spark the defense?

A: We just keep working at it. We’ve made personnel changes there too. Just got to keep working, keep fighting and keep pushing. Find ways to keep trying to help ’em. I thought we did a few things tonight to help ’em and they just made some more plays than we did.


CU hands its offense over to 18-year-olds

BOULDER — It’s not something you see every day, a major college football program starting true freshmen at quarterback and tailback. In fact, at the University of Colorado, the number of times it happened before today was zero.

You might say CU does not have a major college football program, especially if you’re on Twitter, but coach Mike MacIntyre’s resort to quarterback Sefo Liufau, who turns 19 in ten days, and tailback Michael Adkins II, who won’t turn 19 until next spring, at least gave the oft-trampled Buffaloes a sense of direction.

Against a school called Charleston Southern University, shoehorned into the schedule to replace the Fresno State game canceled in September because of flooding in Boulder, Liufau and Adkins got to gather confidence during a 43-10 victory against a slightly lower level of competition (what used to be called Division I-AA and is now identified by the acronym for a euphemism).

Gather they did. Liufau didn’t blow the doors off — 14 completions in 20 pass attempts for 198 yards and a touchdown — but he showed beguiling maturity and flashes of intriguing talent. Adkins blew the doors off — 13 carries for 137 yards and four touchdowns.

“I think he’s a very good player,” MacIntyre said of the tailback from San Diego. “He has power, he has speed, he has vision, and he’s very bright. That one run he made today over on the sidelines when it looked like it was all clogged up and he just crept in there, broke two tackles and then outran everybody to me was a really impressive run and I was excited to see that.”

Liufau’s play was less dominant, but almost as promising. Once, in the second quarter, a Buccaneers pass rusher was approximately 2.1 milliseconds from sending Liufau into another dimension when he dumped the ball just over the line of scrimmage to junior receiver Paul Richardson, the Buffs’ best player. He took care of the remaining real estate on what went down as a 60-yard touchdown pass.

“They try to keep everything pretty simple for him to build his confidence, and then we threw some things in there to challenge his IQ and he responded well,” Richardson said of the freshman quarterback.

Another time, in the fourth, the pass rush was coming straight up the gut and Liufau was back-pedaling in retreat. Somehow, with all his momentum going the wrong way, he managed to get enough on a long out to Nelson Spruce to gain 10 yards and a first down.

“He’s able to move in the pocket and still be accurate,” MacIntyre said. “He did a good job of throwing the ball away a few times today, and didn’t really force the ball. He did some good things; he just needs to keep improving with the rest of the guys.”

The reality remains that the Buffs have yet to be competitive in a Pac-12 Conference game, having lost the three they’ve played by a combined score of 155-46. And now that the interlude of the makeup game is over, it’s back to the conference schedule. With three non-conference victories, they have to win three of their six remaining Pac-12 games to become eligible for a postseason bowl game.

MacIntyre referred to a more modest goal, pointing out that if CU manages to beat Arizona in Boulder next week,  it would play meaningful games in November, suggesting that even having a shot at bowl eligibility would be better than playing out the string again. This is true, of course, but an indication of how far the program has fallen.

Playing a succession of upper-classmen transfers at quarterback over the past couple of seasons has given the program a directionless feel and made you wonder why CU couldn’t recruit a quarterback of its own. Watching Marcus Mariota lead the No. 2-ranked Oregon Ducks into Boulder a couple of weeks ago made you appreciate what it’s like to have a talented underclassman at quarterback.

The Buffs have plenty of other issues, including keeping Pac-12 opponents below their current average of 51.7 points a game against them. Beating Charleston Southern doesn’t mean much more for a Pac-12 team than beating Central Arkansas, or Colorado State, for that matter. Those are the Buffs’ three victories. For the record, MacIntyre said Charleston Southern was better than Central Arkansas.

Adkins won’t take over all the rushing duties, mainly because they’d wear him out. Christian Powell, last year’s freshman tailback, offers a bigger, less elusive but more powerful change up, and junior Tony Jones, demoted behind successive freshmen, made the most of his four carries late in today’s game, turning them into 37 yards.

But MacIntyre, in his first season at CU, is making it clear that Adkins and Liufau, along with freshman linebacker Addison Gillam, are the beginnings of a new core going forward. They have talent and higher ceilings than their predecessors. In other words, they offer hope that better times are coming.


Tangled up in Ducks

BOULDER — When Mark Helfrich left Dan Hawkins’ football staff at the University of Colorado following the 2008 season to join Chip Kelly’s staff at the University of Oregon, there was speculation he was frustrated by a bad offense he was powerless to change.

Nobody said anything on the record, of course, because this dance is well-rehearsed by now and it’s all agreed: Every former employer was awesome and every future employer is providing a cherished opportunity.

Like many of the issues surrounding the CU program at the time, this one had to do with Hawkins and his desire to have his son, Cody, play quarterback. Helfrich knew where major college football offenses were going, and Cody Hawkins, a wonderful kid and mediocre football player, was not it.

Three years earlier, Hawkins made Helfrich the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I football. (I don’t use the initials that replaced the divisions because I don’t know what they mean and you don’t either.) Helfrich was 32 when Hawkins persuaded him to leave Arizona State, where he was quarterbacks coach, to become CU’s offensive coordinator.

Helfrich was a protege of Dirk Koetter, who had been offensive coordinator at Oregon when Helfrich was a graduate assistant. When Koetter got the head job at Boise State, he brought Helfrich with him to coach quarterbacks. When Koetter moved on to Arizona State, again Helfrich moved with him. But the opportunity to be a coordinator in a major conference at 32 was quite rare, and Hawkins had followed Koetter at Boise State, so it was all in the family.

Unfortunately, it was a little too all in the family during the Hawkins era at CU. It was probably true that the younger Hawkins was the best quarterback on the roster, but that was a sad rationale. A coach looking for a bigger, stronger, faster or more athletic quarterback would have been more aggressive than the elder Hawkins in recruiting competition.

Helfrich had already worked with some pretty good quarterbacks — Bart Hendricks at Boise State and Andrew Walter at Arizona State — and it is not hard to believe that he could see, like most people, how limited the upside was on Cody Hawkins and any offense built around him.

In fact, it’s possible Helfrich saw something of himself in the younger Hawkins, and that this insight helped him see Cody was in over his head. An Oregon native, Helfrich was a small but accomplished high school quarterback who chose Southern Oregon and a prodigious NAIA career over an offer to walk on at Oregon, where he knew he probably would have spent his career on the bench.

So Helfrich’s choice in 2009 was to continue coordinating a bad Colorado offense that was hard to improve given the limitations at the most important position, or move back to Oregon and work under Kelly, an offensive coordinator of such repute that Oregon reportedly kicked head coach Mike Bellotti upstairs to create the head coaching vacancy Kelly craved.

As a newly-minted head coach, Kelly wanted Helfrich as his offensive coordinator. And he wanted to do lots of interesting, innovative things. For Helfrich, it probably wasn’t that tough a call. He thanked Hawkins, packed his bags and went home.

Kelly moved on to the NFL this season. He’s the new coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were just pulverized by the Broncos to drop to 1-3, but that’s another story. Kelly reportedly lobbied for Helfrich to succeed him. He may not have needed to. The OC moving up is an Oregon tradition, dating back to Bellotti under Rich Brooks.

So, in the year he turns 40 (later this month), Helfrich ascended to one of the best jobs in college football — head coach at Oregon. He is in charge of a program that will have no financial restraints so long as Phil Knight is alive. He is part of a tradition of innovative offensive football. Each of the Ducks’ last three coaches — Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich — was the offensive coordinator under his predecessor.

A year ago, Helfrich was in his fourth and final season as Kelly’s coordinator when the Ducks beat CU 70-14 in Eugene, a game not as close as the score might indicate. It was 56-0 at halftime.

Saturday, the Ducks came to Boulder and beat the Buffs 57-16. From a purely arithmetic point of view, that’s about 15 points of progress for the Buffs. They even led for a minute. Actually, a minute and 49 seconds on the game clock the first time, a minute and 34 seconds the second and final time. Oregon does everything fast.

The Ducks demonstrated yet again how important the whole quarterback thing is. Helfrich called his guy, sophomore Marcus Mariota, “a stud,” which is exactly right. If you were going to build an elite college quarterback from scratch, you would build a 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound athlete with a rocket arm, runner’s legs and a brain that figures out really fast when it’s time for which. Oh, and you might give him some Samoan blood, given the disproportionate number of great football players that tiny island and its descendants have produced.

“He’s such a great person, first and foremost, and then he’s, oh, by the way, an incredible football player,” Helfrich said. “The stuff he does in practice, we look at each other and kind of shake our head. And that shows up in games. That’s the neat part about him, about (running back) De’Anthony (Thomas), about some of our best defensive players, is they’re great practice players. Not good practice players, but great practice players. And that’s infectious.

“Physically, he’s very gifted. Obviously, his size, his speed, his release, his timing, his knowledge, he’s a smart guy, he’s a tough guy. Is that enough? He’s a superlative machine.”

The Buffs, on the other hand, are trying to preserve yet another redshirt year. Last year, you might remember, it was not worth burning Shane Dillon’s redshirt year on a lost season. Dillon is no longer with the program. In fact, his experience at CU so turned him off to football he now wants to play basketball. In retrospect, it might have been worth burning his redshirt year to see if he could improve on the most dreadful season CU football has seen.

This year, it is not worth burning Sefo Liufau’s redshirt year. Liufau is the prized first-year recruit of CU coach Mike MacIntyre, a 6-4, 215-pound high school star of, yes, Samoan descent.

For a minute there, before CU began its conference schedule, it looked as if junior Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas during the short-lived Jon Embree era, could bridge the gap adequately.

But Wood was not good Saturday, and he suffered in comparison to Mariota, who was sensational. The respective stat lines are a close enough approximation. Mariota completed 16 of 27 passes for 355 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also carried seven times for 49 yards and two touchdowns. His afternoon was finished before the fourth quarter began. Wood completed 11 of 33 for 205 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His net rushing yardage was minus 8.

Granted, there are talent gaps between these rosters at many positions, but in Paul Richardson the Buffs have one of the most talented receivers in the country, so it’s not as if Wood has no weapons. At some point, the excuses have to stop.

The performance at quarterback was the key difference in the game, and allowed Oregon to turn it into a blowout as quickly as it did. The Buffs’ defense gave them a chance even after MacIntyre elected to begin the game with an onside kick. Granted, you need some wrinkles if you’re going to beat the Ducks, but giving Mariota the ball at midfield to start the game might be out-thinking yourself.

Nevertheless, CU forced a three-and-out and Wood drove the offense into field goal range — the big play a 55-yard pass to Richardson — and a short-lived 3-0 lead. One minute, 49 seconds later by the game clock, Mariota scored the first of his seven touchdowns — two rushing, five passing. The Buffs responded with a beautifully conceived option pass off a reverse, in which Richardson, split wide left, came in motion to the right, took a pitch from running back Michael Adkins and lofted a pass to a wide-open D.D. Goodson in the right flat, who rambled 75 yards to give CU a 10-8 lead.

This was the first time this season an opponent led Oregon twice. So that’s something. But not much. By the end of the first quarter, the Ducks led 29-10. At halftime, it was 43-16. In the Oregon locker room, they were not happy.

“We kind of challenged them at halftime,” Helfrich said. “Other than the scoreboard, we didn’t play our way in the first half, and who knows (why) that is. I don’t know if it’s altitude or thinking about something else or whatever it may have been, we responded well, and that’s encouraging.”

Oregon shut down the CU offense in the second half, and for the first time this season, MacIntyre’s team looked nearly as helpless as Embree’s team of a year ago. MacIntyre said he saw improvement in Wood from the week before at Oregon State and you can only hope he said that because he has to. If Wood doesn’t improve a lot more, and soon, CU will have to decide whether it is willing to be the Pac-12’s punch line for yet another season in the interest of some prospective four-year career that may or may not work out as planned.

Meanwhile, Oregon is rolling, averaging almost 60 points a game, giving up fewer than 12. I asked Helfrich if his team is where he wants it to be.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re 5-0, and that’s our best statistic. We haven’t played remotely to what we can in any phase in any game. So that’s encouraging. The guys that we have on this team know that. They’re excited to get better and excited to come to work and get ready on Monday.”

If anybody in the CU administration really wants to know what has happened to the program since Hawkins was hired in 2006, he or she should place a call to Helfrich and find out how the program lost one of the most impressive young coaches in the game today.

Maybe he would have gone home anyway. That would certainly be the movie-of-the-week narrative. But Helfrich had already demonstrated a coach’s nomadic instinct for the best way forward, moving from Eugene to Boise to Tempe to Boulder. Maybe Hawkins’ nepotism is part of the answer. Maybe there were other factors.

Helfrich’s decision to go back to Oregon and Saturday’s game have one thing in common: The Ducks had a much better quarterback than the Buffs both times. So long as CU is willing to live with this, its football program will not appear on any map.


Meet the No. 1 receiver in the country

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.


Who is this Connor Wood and what did he do with the other one?

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.


Time for a little leadership at CU

Considering how many smart people they employ, it is surprisingly difficult for universities to come up with strong institutional leaders. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the University of Colorado.

The generic problem is that academic administrators are generally academics and prone to forms of academic expression that, surveys show, put about 85 percent of the population to sleep. They are not accustomed to the public spotlight and seldom blossom there. When it comes to sports, they often have the additional handicap of knowing and caring little or nothing about them.

Confronted by skeptics who have inexplicably devoted their careers to these extracurricular activities — sports reporters, columnists, talk show hosts and so forth — this combination of pedantic generalities, topical ignorance and lack of passion often makes university administrators appear clueless when it comes to their athletic departments.

At Colorado State, they got lucky. A doctor of veterinary medicine hired to chair the pathology department and subsequently promoted up the administrative ladder happened to be a devoted sports fan. Early in his presidency, he named an athletic director from outside the university who, among other virtues, speaks plain English. Jack Graham wasted little time in firing the incumbent football coach and replacing him with Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Graham and Dr. Tony Frank are now embarked on the ambitious pursuit of a new football stadium on campus.

At CU, there hasn’t been that sort of leadership from the top since Gordon Gee was president, and that’s more than twenty years ago now. When CU hired Bruce Benson as president nearly five years ago, it appeared from the outside that it was seeking strong, non-academic leadership. Benson is an alumnus who made his money in oil and gas and once ran for governor, a man much more practiced in the art of public relations than most academics.

It turns out the reason CU hired Benson was to raise money, which he has done prodigiously. But his interminable fundraising makes him virtually invisible to the public at large. When former coach Bill McCartney essentially accused CU of institutional racism in an emotional reaction to the firing of his protege, football coach Jon Embree, all you heard from CU was the sound of crickets.

When athletic director Mike Bohn’s pursuit of Butch Jones, head coach at the University of Cincinnati, imploded following a false newspaper report that Jones had accepted, the only sound from CU was a prepared statement of pedantic generalities from chancellor Phil DiStefano. It’s not his fault. DiStefano is a career educational administrator, a professional pedant, if you will. It’s what he does.

Leaks to the media made Bohn’s pursuit of Jones much more public than it should have been and its implosion a much more public defeat than it need have been. Whether those leaks came from Jones’ side, to increase his bargaining power with Cincinnati, or from CU, to counter the bad press McCartney was generating, doesn’t really matter. They put the courtship — and the specifics of CU’s contract offer — on the public stage.

When it was reported in Denver on Wednesday that Jones had accepted the job, the president of the University of Cincinnati, Santa Ono, put in a call to his football coach. Jones denied the report, and Ono tweeted that he trusted his coach. That made it virtually impossible for Jones to turn around and accept the CU job a day later without looking disingenuous.

This is not the CU athletic department’s first public relations embarrassment in recent weeks. Its decision to hold a press conference around Embree’s firing blew up in its face when Embree came off as the emotional, genuine guy he is and Bohn came across as a bureaucratic caricature weighed down by jargon and talking points.

When Benson was hired, some academics at CU feared an oil and gas man would run their school more like a business than a respected teaching and research institution. By serving as a tireless ambassador and fundraiser, Benson has quieted those concerns.

Well, he needs to think of his job in business terms now. No business in its right mind holds a press conference with an executive it just fired, in a room full of his former charges. No business in its right mind leaks details of an executive search in order to curry favor with the media or public. No competently-run business responds to a public relations crisis by putting front and center spokesmen who are quite clearly not up to the task.

Benson is currently the only person with the power and ability to give the impression that a capable hand is on the tiller. It is time to take a break from fundraising and provide some plain speaking and truth telling. It is time for a little leadership at CU.


CU stumbles to first winless season at home in 92 years

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.”