BOULDER - Come Saturday afternoon, here's what Jon Embree wants his Colorado players believing to their cores: There's no such thing as a sure thing for the Buffs.
Sure, Sacramento State is not a Football Bowl Subdivision program, is 1-12 against FBS teams since 2002, and appears on CU's schedule at what fans and others might see as an opportune time - a get-well date following last weekend's distressing opening loss to rival Colorado State.
Not so. Embree scans every reason that the Buffs allegedly should win their 2012 home opener (on paper, at least) and offers this: "Look, there's nobody we play where we just say we're going to show up and win. I've said that to the team from last spring on. We're not in a position where we can just show up and beat anybody."
The Buffs might have believed that last Saturday when they arrived at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, but they boarded their buses later that afternoon mulling a 22-17 defeat. Showing up didn't suffice against the Rams. Neither did a 14-3 second-quarter CU lead; the Buffs were outscored 19-3 in the final minute of the first half and the final two quarters.
At least one lesson should have been learned, and Embree believes it was. His second Buffs team left Denver, he said, with more distaste for losing than his first. Last season, "It was more of being resigned to the fact they were supposed to lose or that's how it goes," he said. "It wasn't like that this time. As a coach, that's what you're more used to being around . . .
"To me it's easier to get them back or have them bounce back when there's that mentality as opposed to 'we weren't going to win anyway, we're supposed to lose, or an oh well mentality.' I didn't get a sense of that like I did last year."
Added sophomore guard Alex Lewis: "It's important not to dwell on (the CSU loss), but it's fuel for the fire. It's been put behind, but don't get us wrong: It's definitely still in our heads because we're not going to have that feeling again this year. That loss is going to drive us. We're ready to show that last Saturday really humbled us."
Showing disappointment rather than discouragement is a nice mental start, but the Buffs also have plenty of technical polishing to do in Game 2. With no running game (58 yards) to speak of, their no-huddle, hurry-up offense turned into more of the hurry-up-and-wait variety.
"We were a lot slower than what I want us to be," Embree said, pointing to his offense frequently not being able to get a quick read on CSU's defense and therefore being hampered from going up-tempo. He believes as defenses are identified - particularly blocking assignments after the middle linebacker is pointed out - the comfort level with the no-huddle will increase and the pace will quicken.
"I expect us to be faster in that regard this week," he said.
But Sacramento State, which lost its opener at New Mexico State 49-19 on Aug. 30, plans to have a hand in how fast CU operates. The Hornets, members of the Big Sky Conference, won 29-28 in overtime at Oregon State last season and were down only 28-19 in the third quarter at New Mexico State before three turnovers (two fumbles, one interception) led to 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter at Las Cruces.
Sophomore quarterback Garrett Safron set career highs in yards (308) and completions (23 of 35, two touchdowns, one interception). The Hornets' leading receiver was junior speedster Morris Norrise (seven catches, 84 yards), the leading rusher was former junior college All-American Ezekiel Graham (16 rushes, 47 yards). Defensively, Sac State allowed NMSU 468 yards in total offense - 367 of those in the air with three TD passes. Junior linebacker Todd Davis led Sac State with 11 tackles in the opener and was a preseason All-Big Sky selection.
The Hornets' offensive line features a pair of heavyweight guards (320- and 375-pounders) that Embree calls "not just big guys; they're big guys who can run. They use them on pulling, kicking out, stuff like that. And they've got a nice disposition about them. In other words they play with an edge and some nastiness. They get their hands on you, they got you."
CU has one of its smallest senior classes (eight) in recent years and Embree's message to that group is that Saturday is the first of their final six opportunities to follow Ralphie onto the field. Saturday also marks the second of five games in September - a month in which CU must get its bowl goal off the ground.
The Buffs haven't been a postseason participant since 2007, but Embree was still preaching the possibilities in the aftermath of last weekend's loss. He reiterated it at his weekly media luncheon on Tuesday: "There is a lot of football left to be played," he said. "I still (believe) and our players still do. So you have to get back up and you have to get going again."
"Even if we did get the 'W' last week we still would be motivated for a bowl game," Lewis added. "That's still our goal and has been from the beginning. It's going to stay that way."
By the end of Wednesday's practice, Embree and his players said any CSU residue had been flushed and that their focus was returning to their homefield and getting the first win of 2012. Junior linebacker Derrick Webb, who made a career-best dozen tackles against the Rams, said getting back into Folsom "means everything . . . first and foremost it's our first opportunity and our home opener; we need and want this win."