Tag Archives: Jon Embree

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.


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.”


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.