BOULDER – If it was blurry early, it’s all coming into focus now: The first win of Colorado’s Jon Embree Era in football isn’t going to come easy – not after the way things went up, down, up again and finally way, way down Saturday in his home opener.
Maybe a third change of venue in three weeks will help. The Buffaloes have lost at Hawaii (34-17), lost in Folsom Field (36-33 in overtime to California) and now take theirs and their first-year coach’s now-desperate quest for ‘W’ No. 1 to a neutral site in Denver next weekend.
Waiting, and no doubt salivating, will be CU’s northern, ah, neighbor – unbeaten (2-0) Colorado State, which pushed around Northern Colorado 33-14 Saturday in Fort Collins.
CU rallied from a 10-point third-quarter deficit against Cal to take a four-point fourth-quarter lead and led again by three in OT, but the spirited comeback didn’t leave Embree in an “attaboy” mood.
He conceded his team “fought their butts off” before reminding a questioner that even in Season 1 of what has been called a reclamation project by outsiders that he, his staff and his players “expected to be 2-0. I don’t want to sound sour, I don’t want to diminish what these kids have done (vs. Cal), but we came here to win. We prepared and we trained to win – not to be close, not to be ‘oh, next week.’ It’s too much work and it’s too hard, so close ain’t it.”
But close against Cal, which bludgeoned the Buffs 52-7 last season, will have to do until they play next in a game that counts in the Pac-12 standings. Saturday’s didn’t, and among Embree’s biggest concerns in the Boulder rematch was his team being assessed a dozen penalties for 98 yards.
Nine of the flags were thrown against CU in the first half, which ended with CU trailing 16-6 and Embree frothing at his team’s “self-inflicted wounds . . . there are no excuses for that. I’ll get that fixed.”
The corrections began at intermission in the Buffs’ locker room, where senior quarterback Tyler Hansen said his coach asked the team, “When is enough enough? When does someone step up and say, ‘this is enough, I’m tired of this; we’re going to win.’ The message was simple; he was fired up.”
Of the Buffs who stepped up, Hansen went front and center. He passed for a school single-game record of 474 yards and added another 26 rushing for 500 yards in total offense – another CU single-game mark. Then there was sophomore receiver Paul Richardson, whose 284 receiving yards also set a single-game school record. Two of Richardson’s 11 receptions were for touchdowns (66, 78 yards).
“I’d rather have a win . . . I’d be OK with 20 (passing) yards and a ‘W,’” said Hansen, who spoke of seniors crying in a devastated CU locker room. “We were up, down, tied . . . it’s tough, a tough way to lose.”
After an anemic offensive showing last week at Hawaii, Embree said his quarterback didn’t look or play like himself on the trip to the islands. Late Saturday afternoon, Embree said, “That’s the Tyler Hansen I expected last week,” and the unit Hansen was directing “started looking like an offense.”
But, Embree added, “We have to find a way to win . . . we have to.”
The Buffs appeared to have done that in overtime, running more effectively in the middle than they had in the previous four quarters and moving from the 25 to the 4 on a pair of Rodney Stewart runs.
But just as quickly as “Speedy” had punched the Cal middle for runs of 9 and 12 yards, he was stuffed for no gain and a yard loss. A Hansen incompletion on third down brought on freshman Will Oliver for the last of his four field goals – a pressurized 22-yarder that gave the Buffs a 33-30 lead.
Hansen said Cal’s interior D-Line “did a great job of plugging the holes.” But Embree said those crunch-time downs in OT, as well as an unsuccessful fourth-and-one run at the Cal 9-yard line on CU’s first possession of the game, “have got to be no-brainers. We have to convert those.”
The Buffs also have to learn to capitalize when the game is all but in their grasp – as it was in overtime when the Bears were flagged for 20 yards on consecutive downs (false start, personal foul) and backed up to their 35-yard line.
Facing a first-and-30 there, quarterback Zach Maynard found Keenan Allen open on the left side for a 32-yard completion to the 3. Maynard lost 2 yards on the next play, then found Allen on a fade route for the 5-yard pass that ended the game and started the Buffs’ heartache.
“I thought we had good coverage,” said CU linebacker Doug Rippy. “Their receiver just made a good play . . . we played our hearts out in overtime.”
Fellow linebacker Jon Major, whose first career interception in the first quarter led to Oliver’s first field goal and a 3-0 lead, called Maynard’s game-winning pass to Allen “a great throw . . . we’re one inch away from winning that game. But that’s football; they made one more play than we did.”
Major finished with six total tackles, one fewer than cornerback Parker Orms and three behind the fast-improving Rippy, who added a quarterback sack and a pair of tackles for loss. Bouncing back against CSU, said Major, is mandatory: “This is going to be a pivotal moment in the season. We’ve got to respond.”
Embree expects that – but then he expected to be 2-0 rather than vice-versa at this point. Come Monday, he said, he will “point out the good, the bad, the ugly” from the Cal loss then move on. “When they see me on Monday, I’m going to be optimistic . . . I’m not going to let them drag around (but) I’m not going to lower the standard. We’re not going to give them the old ‘attaboy.’ I keep the standard where it is . . .
“Nobody’s going to let them feel sorry for themselves. CSU doesn’t feel sorry for us at 0-2. The showdown at Mile High, we have one team undefeated, we have one team coming in without a win – so let’s go.”