COLUMBUS, Ohio - Before his fourth game as Colorado's head football coach, Jon Embree had been intrigued by Saturday's rare trip into Big Ten country. The view from half a country away looked promising.
CU's venture was a scheduling anomaly made possible by opening at Hawai'i and being allowed to play a 13th game . . . with a nice, above-average ($1 million plus) payday promised. CU and Ohio State shared open dates in September and were willing to make this a one-day stand - with no return trip to Boulder for the Buckeyes in the foreseeable future.
This single shot had a sweet feel about it. If there ever was a time to spend a fall afternoon in "The Horseshoe" and believe a win was there to be plucked, Sept. 24, 2011 seemed to fit the profile.
Embree's Buffaloes were 1-2, but just as easily could have been 2-1 had a couple of plays in an overtime loss to Cal gone his way rather than Jeff Tedford's. And Embree was buoyed by the clock-chewing, fourth-quarter drive in a 28-14 win against rival Colorado State the previous Saturday, believing the Buffs might have discovered a layer of grit they might rely on in Ohio Stadium, a beast of a venue for visitors during good times in Columbus.
But these (allegedly) weren't good times. Ohio State was fresh off what should have been a confidence-eroding loss (24-6) at Miami (Fla.) and still was trying to unburden itself of the off-season scandal that cost the program its head coach, its starting quarterback and resulted in a multitude of suspensions.
There were enough quarterback issues in the loss at Miami for Buckeyes coach Luke Fickell to bench an ineffective fifth-year senior and present a true freshman with his first career start on Saturday. (Don't defensive coordinators usually salivate over such opportunities?)
It was all setting up so nicely for the Buffs . . . until the game started without them. Again. Just a month into his first season, Embree had hoped to use this game as a "measuring stick." It turned out to be a tough lesson administered with an ugly stick.
By halftime Saturday, after another horrendous first quarter, CU was behind 20-7. The four-game cumulative halftime score: 60-27 - with the Buffs on the low and lacking end.
"I don't know . . . I don't have a theory," senior safety Anthony Perkins, one of the defensive co-captains, said of the Buffs' glacial beginnings. "It's something that's been addressed, that we have to keep addressing. All I know is that we have to get it taken care of."
But creeping out of the gate wasn't CU's only shortcoming in the 37-17 loss. The running game generated just 76 yards, while the Buffs' defense allowed the Buckeyes 226 on the ground. The plan to bottle up freshman QB Braxton Miller, pressuring him into bad decisions in the passing game, didn't work. He ran 14 times for 83 yards in the first half, not really being forced to complete more than a couple of first-half passes (but one was for a TD).
Miller ran only three more times in the final two quarters, turning the running game over to tailbacks Jordan Hall (18 carries, 84 yards, 1 TD) and Carlos Hyde (6-40, 1 TD). Miller completed only three more passes, finishing a barely passable 5-of-13 for 83 yards (but with two scores).
All in all, his debut was more effective than flashy - but effective was what it took and the Buffs couldn't do much about it. CU linebacker Jon Major called Miller "a great athlete . . . he didn't surprise us at all" - which was more than he and his teammates could say with any degree of honesty after Hawai'i's Bryant Moniz surprisingly lit up CU with his legs in the opener. Now, the word is officially out: Running QBs present big problems for the Buffs.
Miller aside, the Buffs still will review this tape and trudge out of their meeting rooms with heads shaking. "Lots of mistakes . . . lots of self-inflicted wounds," Perkins said, already shaking his as he prepared to leave Columbus. "All we can do now is watch film and learn from the mistakes."
Compounding those self-inflicted wounds were those inflicted by the Buckeyes, who capitalized on a pair of lost Buffs fumbles (they had one turnover in their previous three games). Embree said tailback Rodney "Speedy" Stewart had a shoulder injury that pained him on almost every touch: "He hurt every time he gets hit . . . he still went out there and tried to play." And cornerback Parker Orms played early then was sidelined by either "a hamstring, calf or knee," Embree said, adding that another three unnamed players battled through their problems. (No word yet on anyone's availability for next Saturday's Pac-12 opener against Washington State.)
Can anyone pinpoint what ails CU's special teams? Will Oliver continues to hit his field goals (he's six-for-six in his first year). But there was another untimely out-of-bounds kickoff. Ohio State's Hall returned two CU kickoffs for 135 yards - including a 90-yarder to the Buffs' 5-yard line. A TD came one play later. CU's return game was barely visible. Darragh O'Neill punted six times, two of them rugby style kicks, and still averaged 38.5 yards, with a long punt of 51 yards.
On both of his rugby kicks, O'Neill said he saw an Ohio State player running downfield with his back to O'Neill - presenting what the CU punter believed was a target. "I thought I could tag him (with the ball) right there," O'Neill said, "especially on the first one."
And on his first punt, he did. The ball skittered into a Buckeyes player and appeared to be recoverable by the Buffs. But CU's Makiri Pugh apparently didn't see the ball make contact with the Ohio State player and backed away.
The Buckeyes covered it at the CU 43, and an afternoon of mostly bad field position for the Buffs was underway. O'Neill called that missed opportunity "definitely a play that could have turned the game around." Ohio State scored seven plays later, went up 7-0, built on that by halftime and was never caught.
Embree appeared more exasperated after this loss than the other pair. "Before the game," he said, "I felt like we'd improved . . . now I feel like we're back at square one." In trying to determine a reason for the step back, he said, "I don't know if it's a case of our guys trying to do too much . . . I want to continue to try and get as much as I can out of these guys and build."
The loss, he added, "doesn't make me feel any further away" from turning the program. "I'm pretty objective, pretty realistic. My staff realizes the hard work that's ahead. We've got Washington State coming in Saturday and we've got to find a way to get it fixed."
They've got six days, more than enough time - according to most Pac-12 observers - to get it all patched up, if not perfected, for Wazzu. The Buffs are a different team, sometimes a better team, at Folsom Field. But Embree's goal is to field a good team no matter where it lines up. Until Saturday in "The Shoe" he thought he was getting there.