Category Archives: University of Colorado

One more game until CU’s misery ends

On the bright side, the University of Colorado football team will play only one more game with its current crop of quarterbacks.

No personal offense intended to any of these young men, all of whom are trying their best, but 2012 might have seen the worst quarterback play in CU history. Are you nostalgic yet for Cody Hawkins?

OK, maybe not.

Take this to the bank: If he can walk, 6-foot-6-inch redshirt freshman Shane Dillon will be the Buffs’ signal caller next season, “a kid that we’re very excited about,” coach Jon Embree said recently.

Of the current crop, perhaps only junior-to-be Nick Hirschman will even be in the mix to compete with him for the job.

The Buffaloes lost again Saturday, 38-3, at home, to the University of Washington. They are now 1-10 for the first time since 1984, Bill McCartney’s third season. That record prompted McCartney to switch from a pro-style offense to the wishbone, which produced an immediate turnaround. The Buffs went 7-5 in 1985.

“Obviously, a poor showing offensively,” Embree said.

Asked about the quarterback play, Embree was as explicit as he could be with one game left on this season’s schedule:

“We’ve struggled at that position,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to fix it.”

Unless CU beats Utah on Friday in the season finale, this will be the first season since 1891, when they played only five games, in which the Buffs go winless at home.

Completing his second season, Embree has offered plenty of hints about the changes he will implement after the season. Like McCartney, for whom he played, Embree plans to overhaul his pro-style offensive scheme, installing some version of the spread formation read option.

Based on his comments and the performance of the current crop of quarterbacks, last year’s prize quarterback recruit will almost certainly get the first chance to run it. Dillon redshirted this season after undergoing shoulder surgery following his final high school basketball season.

Hirschman, who gave the Buffs their best half of quarterback play last week in Arizona before suffering a concussion, has the best chance to be given a chance to compete with Dillon for the job.

“Shane has a real good arm,” Embree said recently on the Dave Logan Show. “In the summer prior to his senior year (at Christian High School in El Cajon, Calif.), he was ranked seventh in the Elite 11 quarterback camp. They take all the best quarterbacks from around the country and he came in seventh.

“He hurt his shoulder in the championship game, so he had surgery after basketball season. He’s a very good basketball player, plays on those travel teams and all that. So that tells you what kind of athlete he is. He can play point, he can shoot it, he runs the floor. As we talk about versions of the spread and the things we want to do to the offense, he’s a kid that can run. He’s got some shake to him.

“He’s a vocal leader. You watch him with the guys on the scout team, he knows when to get on ’em, he knows when to encourage ’em. He’s a kid that we’re very excited about. We do a lot of work with our young kids after practice. We’ll stay out and do things, whether it’s seven-on-seven or one-on-one. He makes some good throws. He’s shown his accuracy. That’s probably the one thing that separates him from these other guys right now is he’s an accurate kid, he’s a pretty naturally accurate kid.”

Another advantage Dillon will bring is that he’s been working on the scout team in practice with redshirt receiver Paul Richardson, the Buffs’ best offensive player.

Embree has played four quarterbacks this season — junior transfer Jordan Webb, Hirschman, sophomore transfer Connor Wood and walk-on freshman John Schrock.

Webb was consistently the best quarterback in practice, but you couldn’t tell from his play in games. He started the first nine, going 1-8. Hirschman started last week in Tucson, completing 12 of 13 passes for 123 yards and one interception before being knocked out of the game with a concussion.

With Hirschman unavailable this week, Wood started against Washington and threw two early interceptions. Webb replaced him and completed six of 16 passes for 33 yards, an average of 2.1 yards per attempt. In a sign of exasperation, Embree allowed Schrock to finish up.

Asked 10 days ago about the quarterback competition next year, Embree said this:

“For (Dillon), it’s just getting the reps. As we go through this season, we’ll figure out who he’ll be competing with, whether it’s one or two of those guys. Let those guys who aren’t going to be involved in the competition, let them know that. And then let those guys go compete.”

Based on their performances this season, I’m guessing Webb and Wood will be told they are not in the mix to start in 2013. That’s pure speculation; I could be wrong. Both have already transferred once — Webb from Kansas, Wood from Texas — so their options are limited.

But considering the hints Embree has dropped, it looks like Dillon’s job to lose. After all, he can’t be any worse than the this year’s cast.

As for the scheme he’ll run, it will almost certainly include some read option calls out of a spread formation.

“We’re in the process of trying to make that transition,” Embree said. “I’ll talk more specifics after the season but we’re going to change some things that we’re doing offensively, and how we’re doing some things. I’ve had some good discussion with some peers around the country that aren’t in our conference and a couple of them are in our conference. That’s something that I’m definitely looking to do.

“We’ve got to find a way to have an equalizer. When people load the box right now, they put one more than you can block down in the box to take away the run and they’re able to man cover you right now. That makes it hard to run the football.

“And then obviously you’ve got a find a way to help your guys on the perimeter get open and create some space for them. Generally, in a pro-style offense, a lot of that’s predicated off of play action. That helps you with protection and also allows you to push the ball down the field. But obviously when you can’t run the football, play action really doesn’t do you any good.”

So while we wait to see what other changes CU makes — and there will almost certainly be a shakeup of Embree’s staff — of this we can be reasonably certain: The Buffs will feature a new quarterback and a new offensive scheme in 2013.


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.


Bad to the ‘bone: Should Colorado pull a 1985?

Colorado suffered its fourth consecutive blowout loss to a Pac-12 opponent today in Eugene, falling to 1-7 on the season.

Three days ago, Chaparral High School tight end Mitch Parsons, one of the state’s top recruits, withdrew his verbal commitment to CU.

Parsons posted his announcement (sans punctuation) on Twitter: “Well Im no longer committed to Colorado still going to stay in contact with the coaches but I need to figure some things out #SoMuchOnMyMind”

Parsons was one of three in-state commitments for the recruiting class of 2013, along with running back Phillip Lindsay of Denver South and offensive lineman John Lisella of Columbine.

Two days before Saturday’s loss in Eugene, I asked second-year CU coach Jon Embree if he would consider a radical change in philosophy similar to the one Bill McCartney adopted in 1985 after the Buffs went 1-10 in 1984 with a conventional offense.

McCartney moved his freshman tailback, Mark Hatcher, to quarterback and installed the wishbone. In McCartney’s fourth season, the Buffs improved immediately, and dramatically, finishing 7-4 and earning an invitation to a bowl game, the Freedom Bowl, for the first time in eight years. McCartney never presided over a losing season again.

“We were 1-10,” McCartney explained at the time. “At that point, we were ready to sink our teeth into something new.”

As his talent improved, McCartney’s offense morphed into a variation of the wishbone he called the I-bone in 1988 and finally back to a pro set for the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl as he looked ahead to the 1992 season.

Embree, who is now 4-17 in a season and a half as CU’s coach, remembers the feeling. He was midway through his Buffs playing career at the time.

“Coach Mac went to the wishbone the spring going into my junior year,” he recalled. “When you run option-type football, whether it’s the spread (or another kind), it does help you because you don’t have to block people. You read people. It gets you in space and allows you, if they make a mistake, a chance to make a good play.

“Last week against USC I put in some spread principles and we were able to move the ball. We moved it better. And we’ll do some of that this week also.”

The Buffs managed 150 yards rushing against Oregon, small consolation next to the Ducks’ 439 yards on the ground and 618 overall.

For years, the Air Force Academy has used a run-heavy attack based on some form of option football to compensate for generally smaller linemen and a smaller pool of potential recruits given the service commitment required of Air Force cadets. Not only does it force opponents to prepare for a style of play they are likely to see only once all season, it also eats clock and deprives opponents of possessions.

The Falcons rushed for 461 yards Saturday in a win over Nevada that improved their record on the season to 5-3. They came into the weekend ranked second in the country in rushing.

In another case, Bill Snyder has Kansas State ranked among the top five teams in the country just four years after his return to the Wildcats. He’s done it behind a read-option attack built around quarterback Collin Klein of Loveland, Colorado, who is suddenly a serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Without any star performers and a stable of uninspiring drop-back passers, the Buffaloes’ pro-style offense has floundered against faster, more talented Pac-12 opponents. In their last three conference games, the Buffs have given up 51 points to Arizona State, 50 to Southern Cal and 70 to Oregon, not to mention the 69 Fresno State piled up back in September.

Given these dispiriting results and their likely effect on recruiting, I asked Embree if he would consider going back to the future, as McCartney did nearly 30 years ago, and adopting some form of option offense for next year in an effort to restore the Buffs’ competitiveness. He didn’t rule it out.

“At the end of the season, we’ll sit there and evaluate everything that we’re doing on offense, defense and special teams and see what it is that we can do with the people we have and get an idea of really where we are and whether it’s wholesale changes or just implementing a little more or less, whatever it is, get those issues addressed,” Embree said.

Inevitably, seasons like this one sap strength from a program and support from a coaching staff. After going 7-25-1 in his first three seasons in Boulder, McCartney was ready to sink his teeth into something new. When this season is finally over, will Embree feel the same?


This just in: Turning around a college football program is hard

Our two pre-eminent state universities, Colorado and Colorado State, both sport football teams, although only the truly committed or slightly daffy pay much attention to them these days. From the outside, both appear to be stalled on the trip back from nowhere, spinning their wheels before hopeful fans who generally find an excuse to excuse themselves from the proceedings long before the game is actually over.

Each team saw its record fall to 1-5 with its most recent loss — Colorado’s to Arizona State by the woeful score of 51-17 on national television Thursday night, and Colorado State’s to Fresno State by the less embarrassing final count of 28-7 last Saturday.

Fresno thumped Colorado by a score more common to children’s basketball games — 69-14 — a month ago, so losing to the Bulldogs by just 21 was something of an in-state victory for the Rams, their second counting their only actual victory, over Colorado, in the first game of the season, when hope still shone through the clouds of their common plight.

A year ago, Jon Embree, then CU’s first-year coach, was an emotional wreck after each of his team’s 10 losses. He was devastatingly honest about his team’s failings, enumerating them in what seemed a combination of public contrition and confession. Hired in large part because of his connection to the program’s better days — he played under Bill McCartney and coached under McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett — Embree seemed to take personally his inability to get his players to perform as well as those teams of yore.

This year, in Embree’s second season in charge, the results haven’t changed much but his demeanor has. He is much more equanimous after losses, owning up to his team’s failures matter-of-factly, often with a rueful smile, as if he has come to terms with the fact that good players make good coaches, and not the other way around.

When I pointed out this change of demeanor to him following Thursday night’s loss, he smiled.

“So you’re saying I’m boring now, huh?” he replied.

I asked if his greater calm in the face of adversity reflected merely the difference between a first-year coach unaccustomed to losing and a second-year coach facing reality, or more an understanding that his players — still college kids, after all, most if not all of them destined to make a living outside the sport — were trying as hard as they could, even if that effort didn’t mean much to the scoreboard.

“I think it’s a combination of those factors,” he said. “I do believe these kids are giving me everything they have, I really do. I see the hurt. The way they come out and prepare every week, what they do in the weight room, how they are pre-game. There’s no doubt that they’re giving us all we have. Like I told them, we’re not going to let up. We’re going to keep working hard. We’re going to keep preparing just like if we were undefeated.

“You can’t let your circumstances dictate how you prepare. It’s got to be an attitude, a mindset. It’s got to be who you are as a person. Because you’re going to have times that things don’t go your way, and if you don’t have that resolve about you, then you let those circumstances dictate what you’re going to be and how successful you can be. I know these kids want to have success and they know that they’ve worked harder and they’ve put in a lot more than they have in the past.

“But what we need to understand, and what I think they do understand, is that all that does is give you an opportunity. It doesn’t guarantee you anything.

“And now we have to find a way to play four quarters. I told the team right now we’re about a three-quarter team. We play well for three quarters, when it’s all said and done. And with the level of competition that we’re playing and the situations that we’re in, we’ve got to play four quarters to have a chance. So we’ll keep grinding. We’re going to keep working.”

Frankly, this is a kind assessment, and Embree knows it. Even if you take CU’s best three quarters of each game, it’s not good enough. That’s because, harsh as it sounds, the players aren’t good enough. In particular, the quarterback play isn’t good enough, and Embree knows that, too.

When I asked him what he thought of his offense, he stopped short of a John McKay condemnation, but he didn’t sugarcoat it, either.

“I’m not happy with it,” he said. “I’m not happy where we are offensively. There’s some things that you’d like to do and there’s some guys that (will) come in that we’ve recruited that’ll help some of it, but I’m not happy at all with what we’ve done offensively. So as an offensive staff we’ll take a look at some of that tomorrow.”

Whether that last line was his oblique way of saying he would look, again, at shuffling the depth chart, wasn’t clear. What is clear is that college football, like the professional version, is all about quarterback play. And Jordan Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas, is clearly a bridge at the position until Embree finds someone better.

Asked if he knew why Webb so often misses connections with open receivers, particularly on the deep routes that might produce big plays, Embree returned to his native honesty:

“I don’t. I know he’s had a thumb issue on his throwing hand. I don’t know if that’s it. That’s something maybe you’d have to ask him. But the way we are offensively right now, we don’t have a lot of room for error. So when you create those opportunities and matchups, you’ve got to hit on almost all of them, and right now we’re hitting maybe 25 percent of them. And it has to be the other way. It has to be at least 75, 80. But I don’t know why.”

Up the road in Fort Collins, first-year coach Jim McElwain is something of a cross between the first-year Embree and the second-year Embree. He shows the emotion and reverts to the philosophizing of the first-year Embree, but rather than lapse into despondency, he tries to laugh at it.

“How miserable am I?” he asked rhetorically after Saturday’s loss, the Rams’ fifth in a row. “I am miserable! You want to know how miserable? I’m miserable, OK? But I’m not ready to jump off the cliff because I saw in that room and I saw the fight in the comeback from what they should have been just embarrassed about the week before. So there was some resolve, I think is the correct word, even though I’m not sure I can give you the dictionary definition. But there was resolve. And there was a huge disappointment because I know what they put into it. But, as they know, we come back to work and we keep moving forward. And the guys that are on board, they’ll be out there.”

A blocked punt in the final two minutes of the first half allowed Fresno to tack on a second score to what was a manageable 7-0 CSU deficit to that point. For McElwain, that symbolized everything he’s trying to excise from the program he found when he arrived.

“It’s like, ‘Now what? Here we go again.’ Right? Which is what you’re trying to bleed out of them. You know what I’m getting at? I mean, that’s what we’re trying to bleed out of the program right now. It’s not the ‘Here we go again.’ It’s not your dad’s same old Chevy, right? This is the new Rams. And we’ve got to bleed the bad taste, we’ve got to bleed the cancer, we’ve got to get rid of it.

“It’s just not how you think. To be successful, you just can’t think that way. So, you know what? Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down. My problem is I’ve probably been knocked down more than I’ve been stood up. But you know what? You keep getting up and you keep firing. And that’s what we’ll do.”

McElwain faces a challenge greater than Embree’s with respect to fan support. Colorado’s attendance is not what it would like, but Folsom Field, which holds 53,613, still draws roughly 40,000 fans for most of CU’s home games, even if the crowd tends to thin out in the second half of blowouts.

At CSU, Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium holds only 34,400 and usually draws considerably fewer. Saturday, the announced attendance was 25,814, but the stadium’s famed red-light brigade — three lines of taillights headed east, toward the only street that provides access — was in full force at halftime of a 14-0 game. McElwain goes out of his way to praise the fans who come out, trying desperately to cultivate a following for a program that hasn’t won more than three games since 2008.

This is at least part of the reason why university president Tony Frank and athletic director Jack Graham have launched a fund-raising bid to build a new stadium on campus. For students, faculty and staff, gathering at an on-campus stadium on an autumn day has an appeal that transcends the quality of the team they will see. Driving off campus to the egress nightmare and isolation of Hughes does not.

But in the meantime, they must make do with what they have, so McElwain encourages the few, the proud, the Rams loyalists.

“Very disappointed for the fans,” he said after Saturday’s loss. “I mean, this was a fantastic turnout, guys. It was the first cold night we’ve had and they were into the game. I want to really say thanks to the people who came out to the stadium because they helped on third downs and it was exciting. It’s disappointing that we’re not giving them something tangible to hang their hats on and feel good about, and, as I’ve said, I see what we’re doing and I see the guys we’re doing it with and you know what?”

He paused for a moment and frankly, I don’t know him well enough yet to know whether it was theatrical timing or actually needing a beat or two to check his emotions to keep his voice steady.

“The Rams are going to be a force to reckon with here in the future,” he said finally. “I can tell you that. And I guarantee that.”

As with Embree’s Buffaloes, the truth of the matter is disarmingly simple. CSU’s players aren’t good enough to comprise a winning team. Like Embree, McElwain found a cupboard full of holes when he arrived. His sophomore quarterback, Garrett Grayson, broke his clavicle two weeks ago, so M.J. McPeek, a senior who had never started before, got the call against Fresno. Asked how much responsibility McPeek bore for CSU’a anemic offense, McElwain went out of his way to absolve him:

“That’s a valid question, and I say none. M.J. did some good things; he’s going to want some things back. I’ll take the responsibility on that. We’re not doing what we need on offense to get it taken care of. And it’s obvious. I mean, shoot, let’s call it the way it is. And that’s my responsibility as a head ball coach. We’ve got to get a running game going, plain and simple, to be a successful football team. I mean, the team we just played, as much as they threw it, you know what, they ran the ball effectively, right? That’s where it starts and we’ve just got to get it going. And that’s not M.J. We’ve got to give him some help, all right?”

Like Embree, McElwain basically acknowledges his team’s lack of talent while honoring the effort of the kids in his charge.

“What you do is you keep working and you keep moving forward,” he said. “There are no quick fixes. I checked the waiver wire and they didn’t allow us to take any. I’m going to see if (Broncos) coach (John) Fox up in Denver might be able to throw us a couple, but you know what, I don’t want anybody else. I want these guys. I want these guys to get to where they’re going. That’s where we’re at.”

When he was finished dissecting the particulars of the latest defeat, I asked McElwain, whose last job was offensive coordinator for a national championship team at Alabama, to name his biggest challenge as coach of a 1-5 team.

“I think the biggest challenge is to keep them working every day and not stepping back,” he said. “That to me is going to be the challenge. And we’re going to be able to see the true character of a lot of individuals when you get in this situation. Everything you do in life throws you a challenge. Now, how you decide to step up and accept the challenge says a heck of a lot about who you are and what you’re all about. And there’s a lot of great lessons in that. And you know what? We’ll find out in those lessons who’s strong enough to persevere and see the things we need to make sure we get better at. And like I say, I’m not in any way, shape or form putting it on them. I’m saying, we’re going to do this together.”

It takes four years for a college coach to populate his team with his own recruits. This is the minimum timeframe required to determine if he has the wherewithal to attract players good enough to build a winning program. Whether Embree and McElwain are destined to turn around their respective programs remains a mystery. But there are no shortcuts. Both of them are learning that the hard way.


Looking for a silver lining in another CU loss

BOULDER — Let’s start with a heartwarming individual story because, frankly, there’s not that much to say about the University of Colorado’s 42-14 loss to UCLA that you don’t already know.

A fifth-year CU senior, a walk-on until this year, caught the first touchdown pass of his college career Saturday. Dustin Ebner of Arvada was so excited he forgot to hold onto the ball when the play was over.

“At halftime some of the guys were giving me crap, saying I should have kept the ball,” he admitted afterward with a smile. In fact, he wasn’t quite sure what he did with it.

“I don’t know, I think I was so excited in the celebration, I think I just dropped the ball. It was more important for me to celebrate with the team than remember to hold onto that ball. Maybe I’ll talk to J.T. (Galloway, director of equipment) and see if I can get ahold of one.”

In the media, college football is often reduced to its marquee players, the ones likely to go on to careers in the NFL. But the vast majority of college athletes are more like Ebner than the well-known players in the green room at the pro draft each year. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Ebner looks like your basic college kid.

After a nice football career at Pomona High, he walked on at CU and red-shirted in 2008. He caught three balls for 15 yards his second year in Boulder, broke a fibula his third year and played mostly special teams his fourth.

Saturday, he caught the first two passes of his final season, the fourth and fifth of his college career. The first of these was a 17-yard, second-quarter touchdown from quarterback Jordan Webb that cut UCLA’s lead to 14-7 at the time.

“It was awesome,” Ebner said. “I felt like all my hard work kind of finally paid off. When I lined up, the corner was in press (coverage). As Jordan made his calls, the corner kind of backed off and had outside leverage. Then I saw the safety kind of in the middle of the field. So my eyes got really big because I knew that I was going to be his choice.”

“He’s a kid that’s been here and worked hard,” coach Jon Embree said. “I put him on scholarship this year. I was happy for him. He made a few plays out there. We don’t have a lot of depth at receiver so you’ll obviously see more of him. But he runs good routes and does a good job of catching the ball with his hands, so it was good for him to make that play in traffic. It wasn’t exactly a gimme.”

Ebner graduated last December with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, but he stuck around for his final year of eligibility and was rewarded with a scholarship. With the Buffs making do without Paul Richardson, their best receiver, Ebner has been rotating in whenever sophomore starter Tyler McCulloch needs a blow.

His teammates knew what the first touchdown of his career meant to him.

“They were really excited; they all gave me some love,” Ebner said. “It was a great experience for me. I had my mom, my dad and then a couple other friends in the stands. After the game, I went to the sideline and gave them big hugs. They were really proud of me.”

When Ebner is in the game on offense, he’s usually asked to block downfield in the run game, which he’s happy to do. But he admitted that finally seeing the end zone for the first time since high school made him eager to do it again.

“The thing with run-blocking is that it’s all effort,” he said. “That’s what I really strive for — just go out there and put all my effort into each play. So being rewarded with pass plays is awesome, to get that recognition, because not everybody recognizes when you’re blocking. Now I’m hungry for those touchdowns.”

Outside of Ebner being rewarded for five years of dedication to CU football, there wasn’t much good news Saturday. UCLA, which was ranked No. 19 in the country before being upset by Oregon State last week, is a lot better than CU in pretty much every respect. The Buffs’ defense kept them in the game until back-to-back turnovers by the offense near the end of the third quarter allowed the Bruins to put them away.

“We’ve got to get better in all facets of the game,” said Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas.

Alums from CU’s football glory days, Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook, joined the team on the sideline. This turned into a bittersweet experience for Embree’s young crew, which couldn’t turn their words of inspiration into inspired play.

“I always remember watching Kordell for the Steelers; such an exciting player,” Webb said. “But you know, it sucks to lose. With those guys on the sideline, it really sucks to lose. Those guys, they started the tradition here, and it’s not a good feeling whenever you feel like you let someone like that down.”

Rebuilding a college football program takes time, and the temptation is strong among fans, alumni and media to get discouraged and rip everybody involved. But the truth is CU is going to take its lumps in the Pac-12 this season. That’s pretty obvious, despite last week’s memorable come-from-behind upset at Washington State.

“I actually was disappointed,” Embree said. “I thought our kids competed hard and played well in spurts. We didn’t do a good job tackling. We had two critical turnovers that they converted to 14 points and then never really were able to recover from that.”

Embree’s charges get next weekend off to work on their numerous issues before playing a nationally-televised night game at Folsom Field against Arizona on Oct. 11.

Who knows? If Dustin Ebner catches a touchdown in that one, maybe he’ll remember to keep the ball.


For CU football, it’s always Groundhog Day

BOULDER — The University of Colorado post-football game press conference needs only an appearance from Bill Murray to earn the title Groundhog Day II. Whether the coach is Dan Hawkins or his successor, Jon Embree, it has been a painful, repetitive routine for too long now.

Saturday, after CU fell to 0-2 on the young season by losing 30-28 at home on a last-second field goal by a team called Sacramento State, Embree was asked what he would say to long-suffering fans of the CU football program.

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m going to do everything I can to make it right and fix it, just like I tried to last week. You guys that know me, are around me, I’m competitive. I’m going to fight ’til there’s nothing left. It’ll start here in 14 minutes when we go upstairs and figure it out, or start to.”

This is more or less what he said last week, after losing in Denver to Colorado State — another game his team was favored to win. It’s also pretty much what he said after many of CU’s games last season — Embree’s first as head coach — when the Buffaloes went 3-10. The problem for many CU fans and alumni is they don’t see any signs of progress.

The Buffs were favored by three touchdowns over a former Division II cupcake put on the schedule specifically to give them a running start into the meat of their Pac-12 schedule. They surrendered 466 yards of offense to a school many students in the stands had probably never heard of.

For all that, they still had a chance to eke out a 28-27 win until they gave up a killer 72-yard drive to the winning field goal in the game’s final 2 minutes and 26 seconds.

“For them to go out there and do what they did to us today, it’s embarrassing,” said Buffs defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe. “They came out here with the mindset they had nothing to lose. This was not a game they were supposed to win, so they came out here and just gave it their all.”

The question left hanging in the air was this: Why didn’t the Buffs?

“I did not come in this game thinking we were going to dominate,” Embree said. “I came in thinking this was going to be a football game we were going to have to fight and win. And that’s how they were coached all week and how they were talked to. No one thought we were just going to come in and win.”

Any way you look at this, it’s bad for Embree and his program. Either his players took Sacramento State lightly and got burned or they took them seriously and got burned.

To his credit, Embree does not blame Hawkins for the sparsely-populated cupboard of talent he found when he arrived, but his choice of personnel Saturday made his opinion of many of the holdovers pretty clear. He started four freshmen on defense, including three in the secondary, and used freshmen liberally on offense as well.

After his running game ground to a halt against CSU, he installed 235-pound freshman Christian Powell at tailback. Powell finished with 154 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. Those numbers look a little gaudier than they felt because Powell scored the Buffs’ first touchdown on a 64-yard ramble just over a minute into the game. After that, the yards came harder.

Still, he’s more likely to provide the power running game Embree has advertised than the back he replaced, sophomore Tony Jones, who is quicker than Powell but weighs just 190 pounds.

The last time a CU runner scored three touchdowns in his first start, his name was Bobby Anderson and the year was 1969. “I thought he did a lot of good things,” Embree said of Powell.

He was less complimentary discussing his quarterback, Jordan Webb, a junior transfer from Kansas, who completed 12 of 24 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times.

“We missed some throws,” Embree said. “We missed some critical throws. I’ll have to see the tape overall, but there’s two that really jumped out that were some big-time plays for us and we weren’t able to make the throw.”

Asked if that means he will re-evaluate his decision to start Webb over sophomore Connor Wood, Embree said:

“Everything will be re-evaluated. Everything will. All positions. Yes.”

Webb suggested that protection breakdowns were at least partially responsible for his misses.

“I missed a couple, but every quarterback does,” he said. “A couple of them, I was just trying to get the ball out of my hands to avoid a sack. A few times the receivers were not even breaking into their route and I had to get rid of it. It is hard to be accurate and I guess I missed a couple.”

Wood danced nimbly around the possibility he’ll be named the starter this week, although he said he’s competing for that job every day. He entered the game for a single play — on third-and-18 — when Webb’s helmet came off and he was required to leave the field for a play. Wood completed a short pass to freshman Gerald Thomas that Thomas turned into a 28-yard gain and a first-and-goal.

“A lot of guys had their hand in the loss; it wasn’t just the quarterback position,” Wood said. “I think it was everyone. Right now, I’m not really thinking about the job. I’m still mad just as a teammate after a loss like that.”

Of course, when you lose to a team you’re favored to beat by 21 points, more than one thing is going wrong. When I asked Embree if all those freshmen in his lineup reflected a decision after last week’s loss to go with his own recruits, he demurred.

“It’s not necessarily my guys or someone else’s guys,” he said. “We’re just trying to play our best players and get guys going that we feel give us our best chance. In some cases, it’s true freshmen. So it wasn’t like, my guys or their guys. We’re all University of Colorado football players and it’s about trying to play those guys that give us the best chance and I thought those young kids played well.”

Maybe, but two of the true freshmen in his secondary — safety Marques Mosley and cornerback Kenneth Crawley — were called for pass interference on Sacramento State’s final drive.

The Hornets used a read-option running attack that might have reminded Broncos fans of the offense designed around Tim Tebow’s skill set last season in Denver. Like many of the Broncos’ opponents, the Buffs failed to maintain gap discipline too often, biting on fakes and giving up an average of 7 yards per carry to running back A.J. Ellis.

Sacramento State also burned the Buffs in the passing game on a series of quick slants that CU seemed unable to defend.

Most CU fans know that legendary coach Bill McCartney started his career in Boulder with three losing seasons, culminating in a dreadful 1-10 mark in the third. But there was no Twitter or Facebook in the 1980s. It’s not at all clear Embree could survive such a start to his head coaching career.

He was widely expected to be 2-0 at this point in the current season. Instead, he’s 0-2 and 3-12 overall. With only one non-Pac-12 game remaining — at Fresno State next week — CU has botched arguably the two most winnable games on its schedule. CU fans have not been shy about expressing their displeasure.

Whether it’s scheme or talent, coaching or coordination, the Buffs don’t look any better than they did a year ago.

“For whatever reason, the team that’s practicing isn’t necessarily coming consistently to Saturday,” Embree said. “That’s one of the things I need to look at and figure out why.”

And soon.


A new day for Colorado State football

The president of Colorado State University grew up a Cubs fan on a farm in rural Illinois, so he knows to a certainty that no matter how promising things look, they can always go horribly wrong.

As Tony Frank and his wife, Patti, stood on the CSU sideline in the final minutes of Saturday’s Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver, they were the last to celebrate. When green-shirted Rams personnel leaped in the air at an apparent interception by strong safety Trent Matthews with just over a minute to play and the Rams up five, Frank watched warily as the interception was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty that gave Colorado a first down at the Rams’ 47. Could it all still slip away?

“As a Cubs fan, we’re always skeptical, right?” Frank told me afterward, aware of our shared affliction. “As long as Steve Bartman’s out there, you’re never sure it’s over.”

“Did you see him anywhere?” I asked.

“Well,” Frank said, smiling, “maybe a hallucination here or there.”

CSU’s recent haplessness on the gridiron has been the blink of an eye compared to the Cubs’ historic run of pity and sorrow, but Frank, who was named the school’s 14th president in June 2009, was hoping for a sign that he, his new athletic director and new head coach were headed in the right direction. He got it with the Rams’ 22-17 upset of the Buffaloes to open the college football season for both schools.

The celebration by CSU hands old and new was reminiscent of the Sonny Lubick years, when every victory over Colorado was a triumph by the little brother over the big brother. As CU’s disconsolate student section streamed out of the Broncos’ stadium, the Rams went to the northeast corner to celebrate with their small but raucous student section, as if to announce that CSU football is back.

“I know that maybe they’ve been a little down about not being able to really give those students something to cheer about, so I was kind of excited when they ran over there,” said first-year coach Jim McElwain, now 1-0. “I mean, that was kind of cool, wasn’t it? It wasn’t planned.”

For most of the first half, it looked as if the Rams would be thoroughly overmatched. When McElwain inexplicably declined to punt on fourth-and-1 at his own 47-yard line trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, he set up a short CU touchdown drive that made it 14-3.

“Stupidest decision ever, isn’t it?” McElwain said.

But what was your thinking behind it, I asked him.

“I don’t know, but my dad was looking down and saying, ‘Boy, Jimmy, you messed that one up,'” he said.

“I guess the biggest thing is showing faith in your guys. I have faith in them. And I told the defense, ‘Look, if we don’t get it, I’ve got faith in you to stop them.’ So it’s about showing trust in your guys. And you’re going to see on video, we came off a double team too soon getting to the second level, which, always block the line of scrimmage first. I’ll beat myself up over it, but I know this: Our guys knew that we trusted them.”

On CSU’s ensuing possession, CU went for an early knockout, putting on a punt block. They didn’t get there and, to make matters worse, return man D.D. Goodson muffed the catch.

“We were supposed to fair-catch it and obviously we didn’t do that,” said CU coach Jon Embree.

CSU had new life at the CU 20 with 33 seconds remaining in the half. They needed only seven of those seconds for quarterback Garrett Grayson to hit a wide-open Dominique Vinson for the touchdown.

“Half the guys heard one call, the other half didn’t,” Embree said of the blown defensive coverage.

Even after the extra point was blocked, CSU went into the locker room at halftime back in the game, trailing 14-9.

When they came out after intermission, neither team looked quite the same. The Rams drove 89 yards on their first possession, culminating in a brilliant misdirection screen pass for 32 yards and the touchdown that gave them a 16-14 lead.

McElwain, in his second riverboat gamble of the afternoon, called for a “bunt onside kick” in which his kicker bunts the ball — kicks it softly on the ground directly in front of him — runs alongside it for 10 yards and falls on it. It worked, too, except the officials said they never blew the whistle to signal the ball was ready to be kicked. That’s a delay-of-game penalty. So McElwain was 0-for-2 on riverboat gambles, but he signaled that life as a Rams football fan just got a lot more interesting.

On the Rams’ next possession, running back Tommey Morris fumbled at his own 15-yard line. The stage was set for another reversal of fortune, this one to benefit Embree and the Buffs.

On third-and-goal from the Rams’ 3, Buffs tailback Malcolm Creer tried to reach the ball over the goal line as he went down. The ball hit the ground and bounced into the air. CSU defensive back Austin Gray grabbed it in stride and raced 100 yards the other way for an apparent touchdown. Upon further review, officials ruled Creer’s knee was down before he lost control. Instead of a possible 23-14 CSU lead, the Buffs were back in business.

In fact, both coaches thought the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line before Creer lost control, meaning the play might have been ruled a Buffs touchdown instead of a Rams touchdown. But officials said Creer’s knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane or came out, so the Buffs were awarded a fourth-and-goal at the Rams’ 1, still trailing by just two.

Embree eschewed the field goal that would have put CU back in front, if only by a point. When I asked him why, he replied:

“Because I didn’t think it was going to be enough, to tell you the truth. I thought we were going to need touchdowns if we were going to win.”

What he called was a play fake into the line and roll out by his quarterback, junior transfer Jordan Webb. CSU read it and pressured Webb, who had to retreat behind the 10 and finally heave the ball out of the end zone.

“We felt it just gave us more options,” Embree said of the play call. “We had three options on that — a run and then two guys to throw it to. They did a good job of defending it. But we felt that was better for us. Our backs, Tony (Jones) was out with a shoulder and then Malcolm got dinged a little bit on (the previous play), so we just felt like our best option at that point was doing that.”

Still, the Rams took over at their 1-yard line. Although they made a first down, their ensuing punt gave the Buffs excellent field position at the CSU 35. Four plays later, CU’s Will Oliver kicked a 30-yard field goal and the Buffs had a 17-16 lead.

This is when McElwain, Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama the past four seasons, brought out his Alabama playbook. Not counting his quarterback taking a knee on the last two snaps of the game, the Rams ran 16 plays in the fourth quarter. Thirteen of them were running plays.

Despite the Crimson Tide’s reputation for conservative offense under Saban, McElwain likes to point out that ‘Bama tended to throw more than run through the first three quarters of games. But in the fourth, having beaten down the opposing defense, they would “run to win.”

That’s what the Rams did to the Buffs. After possessing the ball for more than 6 minutes on their first series of the fourth quarter, McElwain’s bunch faced a third-and-13 on the CU 34. That’s the very edge of field goal territory, particularly for a college kicker. Nine out of 10 coaches would attempt to throw for the first down in that situation. McElwain called his seventh consecutive running play. I asked him why.

“We were in that (field goal) range,” he said. “I mean, let’s face it, we weren’t throwing the ball well. It’s not like Joe Namath was out there slinging it around. But Garrett did a great job, he did a great job of managing the game. What we ask our guys to do is let the people around you help you be successful because of how they’re playing, because of how hard they’re working. We just felt right there, look, our defense was playing pretty darn good. And that look in their eyes, I felt really comfortable with our defense.”

The running play gained three yards. On fourth-and-10 from the 31, McElwain sent out sophomore kicker Jared Roberts, who drilled the 48-yard field goal with 10 yards to spare. The Rams were back on top, 19-17.

McElwain’s defense, the one with that look in its eyes, forced the Buffs into a three-and-out. That’s when the “run to win” philosophy paid off. The first running play produced a 37-yard scamper from Donnell Alexander. It led to another field goal and the final 22-17 margin. After that, all CSU had to worry about was Steve Bartman.

“We did not play a good football game by any stretch of the imagination,” McElwain said. “Plain and simple, we have a long way to go. And this, at the end of the day, as good as it is for Colorado State, for our students, our faculty, our fans, it’s great. But at the end of the day, it was one game. And as excited as I was for them, they have to realize that we have a long, long ways to go before I consider us a decent ball squad.”

The story is pretty much the same for the Buffs except they didn’t get to celebrate going 1-0.

“Obviously, we didn’t play good enough,” Embree said. “We had too many turnovers. We talked about that, protecting the ball was going to be a key for us in a game like this. We didn’t do it and they were able to take advantage of it. And we weren’t effective running the ball. So we’ve got to get that fixed, because it’s been too long now, too many games of us not being good running the ball. So we’ll get that figured out.”

On the field afterward, CSU’s new leadership soaked in the unfamiliar feeling of winning a showdown with a big brother.

“It’s a great start for the coach and the staff and the players,” said Frank, the school president, his smile as wide as anybody’s. “It’s fantastic. It’s good for the fans. It’s nice to have a good competitive game back in Colorado college football.”