Jon Embree will line up his football program on Saturday against the program he envisions his becoming. For a long, long time, Embree has had Cardinal envy, and it has little to do with Stanford now featuring a quarterback he calls "the Payton Manning of the college game."
That reference, of course, is to senior Andrew Luck, the odds-on choice to become the first player selected in the 2012 NFL Draft. But Embree's desire for his Colorado Buffaloes to one day emulate Stanford is rooted more in the way the Cardinal was constructed and how it plays than this season's marquee player.
"I don't think people who don't go against them and don't watch them don't realize that it's a street fight when you play them," Embree said Tuesday. "If you don't have that mindset, they'll run you out of the stadium. They'll throw four passes. You have to stop the run and try to make them be balanced. Then when (Luck) is throwing it, you have to do a good job of tackling and containing their tight ends. They'll make big plays down the field."
Need proof? Stanford's top three tight ends have accounted for nine of the Cardinal's 12 touchdown receptions this season and 13 of the past 16 dating to the 2011 Orange Bowl. Senior Coby Fleener has caught five TD passes in four games, junior Zach Ertz three and junior Levine Toilolo one.
The undefeated (4-0) Cardinal, which inexplicably slipped a spot (No. 6 to No. 7) in this week's Associated Press Top 25, also runs pretty efficiently. Stanford averages 197.5 yards rushing, and with 274.0 passing yards a game, averages 471.5 - third-best in the Pac-12.
Said Embree: "That's the misnomer about having Andrew Luck; you think you have to go in there stopping the pass. If you don't stop their run, look out. They're a power running team and a very physical team."
Like CU, Stanford also has a first-year head coach. David Shaw worked on Jim Harbaugh's Cardinal staff as offensive coordinator for four seasons, then was promoted when Harbaugh left last winter for the San Francisco 49ers.
Embree said Stanford's system "seems to be the same" under Shaw. "I think David probably didn't get as much credit as he deserved for what he did when Harbaugh was there. His fingerprints were on it, and those guys had a great relationship. They think the same way. It's just continuing on."
A former CU tight end, Embree covets the Cardinal for more than how his former position is utilized. He likes the physical offensive line play, the pass-run balance and the ultra-aggressive, but smart, defense.
"It's a program I've always admired from a distance, ever since Tyrone (Willingham) was there," Embree said. "I always felt like if I was building a program I would want to build in a similar manner."
An up-close and personal opportunity to observe it comes Saturday (5:30 p.m. MDT, Root Sports) when the Buffs play at Palo Alto, Calif., in their first Pac-12 road game. It's also a chance for CU to end its long road losing streak (20, postseason included) against the team with the nation's longest overall winning streak (12).
CRITIQUING 'B-LOCK' AT CORNER: Embree was complimentary, all things considered, about senior Brian Lockridge's defensive debut against Washington State. 'B-Lock' played left cornerback, spelling another recent offensive transfer (senior Jason Espinoza) who opened at that spot. An ankle injury makes Lockridge's availability for Stanford unknown until probably Thursday.
Of Lockridge's position switch last week, Embree said he told the team that Lockridge "might give up some completions, maybe some touchdown passes," then added, "Who cares? We've got your back.
"I don't think he went out there feeling any pressure, like he had to be Deion Sanders or anything. He did well . . . a good job of tackling. He had mistakes at time, as we all do. I was proud of him, but he didn't surprise me. I expected that of him."
Embree said he also was pleased with the first-game performances of Espinoza and Tyler Ahles, who now is available in a dual role of fullback/outside linebacker (he previously played linebacker).
"There's a lot of selfless guys on this team," Embree said. "Those guys . . . it's important to them. When it's important to you, you'll generally play well. I thought all those guys did admirable, and the team did a great job of picking them up, letting them know they don't have to do it by themselves. I was encouraged by it; they just really want to play."
SPECIAL TEAMS UPGRADE: The plan to use more starters to beef up special teams play was a success, with Embree calling those unit's performances "dramatically improved." Front-line players who also contributed on special teams included tailback Rodney Stewart, linebackers Jon Major, Doug Rippy and Josh Hartigan, among others.
But Embree also said he was aware of not wearing out his starters on special teams: "We're going to have to spell them some during regular part of the game; we're not going to take them off of special teams . . . We'll continue to work those guys and keep making that area more of a strength than it is a weakness. Those guys stepped up and wanted to play. They went out there and it wasn't just lip service; they did a good job."
ON LEARNING HOW TO WIN: Two of the Buffs' four losses have occurred despite them having fourth-quarter leads. Embree says his team must "learn how to win" and his players agree.
He told of "a couple of watershed moments" when he was a CU player in the late 1980s. One was against Missouri when he was a junior, coming after the Tigers had beaten CU 52-7 the previous season. Another was in a loss at Ohio State that put the Buffs at 0-4 to start Embree's senior season.
He also referenced that season's game at Oklahoma State, which followed the Buffs' win against Nebraska in Boulder the previous week. The Cowboys led the Buffs at the half, and Embree recalled, "There was a guy there that had a tantrum - and we somehow came out and won. I'll let you guess who the guy was who had the tantrum at halftime and rallied guys to get going. That's who I've been; we'll see if we can change it (now)."
WHEN IS ENOUGH ENOUGH? Embree was calmer when he asked his players that question after the come-from-ahead loss (31-27) to WSU. But his decibel level went up in his post-game press conference when, in answer to a reporter's question, he recounted that locker room conversation.
A number of emails followed, some suggesting he had assigned too much blame to his players. Asked about the impact of that widely used sound bite on his team, Embree deferred questions to his players during Tuesday's media conference.
"I'm not going to speak about the team . . . I'll let you ask those guys, because every time I say something it's construed in a different manner," Embree said. "I'll let them tell you. We're just going to keep preparing for Stanford."
Espinoza and senior quarterback Tyler Hansen said no negativity was taken from Embree's "enough is enough" dialogue with the team or the media afterward.
"No, we've talked about that . . . when is enough enough?" Espinoza said. "I don't think anyone should take it the wrong way. It has been enough. We've been so close so many times, and that just brings out the emotions . . . it should be emotional and I think people should take it that way. We just need to take that next step to finish the game.
"He came here to win and he's very passionate about that. That just shows he's sick of losing and I definitely am, too. I've been here a long time; there's been a lot of ups, downs. I think it's a good thing. He's so passionate and hopefully it'll instill that in our players."
Added Hansen: "We know where he's coming from . . . he wasn't trying to attack us at all. He's relaying that message to us - and we know that. We've been here for four or five years and enough is enough. We've gotten tired of this and he's just relaying that message. He's 100 percent right."
Hansen called Embree "a stand-up guy who's going to tell it like it is. I think a lot of guys respect that and like that, because in the past maybe it wasn't like that. I think we all generally enjoy what he has to say and what his opinion is."
The Buffs, said Hansen, "have to believe . . . we may not have the depth that other teams have, but we have guys who can get the job done. We have to believe that. When we have a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter we have to believe we can make that first down to win the game. I think guys are waiting for someone to do something, I think we as a unit have to believe we all can do it."