BOULDER - The 2011 season began with Jon Embree wanting to restore Colorado's football tradition, and he knew it would have to be done in small pieces. One brick at a time . . .
Now, with three games remaining in Embree's first season as the Buffs coach - and only one more Saturday at Folsom Field - a single brick has been added to the hallway wall outside the locker room. It's black with gold lettering and it stands out, just as Embree intended.
But he never intended it to be the only one, to stand out in this way, and Friday night after his team's seventh consecutive loss - this one 42-17 to No. 21 Southern California - he was reminded that he and this CU senior class are running out of chances to make it right.
All that remains of the 2011 home season is Senior Day against Arizona on Saturday, Nov. 12. After that, there is a pair of road games - Nov. 19 at UCLA, Nov. 25 at Utah. The opportunities to add a brick or two have been whittled to three, but winning a final home game and ending a horrendous 22-game road losing streak should be the seniors' November goals. If not those, what? There's little left.
"These seniors have been through a lot," Embree said. "It's been a difficult four or five years for them. I wanted them to go out with some success. I wanted them to have an opportunity to win some big games and have them mean something. If we'd won tonight, it would have been great, beating USC. But you win one of those games and (ESPN) Gameday is here and it puts you closer to the Pac-12 division . . . being in those kinds of situations. I was hoping to have those for this senior class.
"They've done everything I've asked them to do. They've turned things around academically from when I first got here. They've turned things around in their habits, and I just wanted them to have an opportunity to see that hard work be rewarded."
Friday night started as if a reward awaited. Outfitted in all black, including black helmets for only the second time ever, the Buffs accepted the opening kickoff, marched 69 yards and took a 7-0 lead - a fairly amazing feat considering their recent first-quarter history in Pac-12 play.
But as Embree said later with a hollow chuckle, "The problem was, there were about 58 minutes left. I've known Lane (Kiffin, USC coach) for a while and I know some of the coaches on their staff. I know what they have in their locker room, and seven points weren't going to be enough. I was happy for our team because we finally started fast . . . there's little things we're doing better but we're not doing it all in one game."
That's been a two-month problem for the Buffs, but only one entry on a long list of problems. Heading the list are injuries, particularly on defense and specifically in the secondary. USC quarterback Matt Barkley can make most secondaries look deficient, but he has little problem carving up one manned by first-year players and others plugged into unfamiliar positions.
At a school renowned for its quarterbacks, Barkley now stands alone for most touchdown passes in a single game (6). If he turns pro after this season - not heeding USC fans' post-game chants Friday night of "One more year, one more year" - he'll remember his night in Boulder as being among the best in his college career.
Embree won't have any problem remembering it either. "He's a heck of a player," Embree said of Barkley. "He's very accurate . . . and he had some drops that probably hurt his numbers."
But his numbers still were pretty good; he completed 25-of-39 for 318 yards, was sacked once and intercepted once, only his sixth this fall. His six TD passes, giving him 28 for the season, broke a five-way tie he had moved into with Rodney Peete, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez earlier in the night.
Four of Barkley's scoring passes were thrown in the first half, when the Trojans quickly answered the Buffs' opening score and pulled away. CU wasn't without its chances to make a game of it. A drive to the USC 13-yard line ended with a blocked Will Oliver field goal, and another opportunity set up by Jason Espinoza's interception of Barkley ended with a successful 30-yard Oliver field goal.
Touchdowns on both of those occasions might have allowed the Buffs to at least stay in touch instead of trailing 28-10 at the half. "We left too many points on the board," quarterback Tyler Hansen said. "We missed opportunities . . . it's the same story as last week (against Arizona State)."
Actually, it's the same story that's been repeated weekly since September. The Buffs take to incomplete football games like the Kardashians take to publicity.
Oliver had another field goal attempt blocked on CU's first possession of the second half, and Embree said his freshman kicker inexplicably slipped out of character.
"We had some low kicks, and that's not like him," Embree said, adding that Oliver remains his placekicker even though Justin Castor kicked the Buffs' final extra point. "After the second (block), we weren't going to kick it anymore . . . I just didn't want (Oliver) to go out there and get in a complete funk.
"He feels worse than anybody . . . that's not him. He's been terrific for us this year. We've had a couple blocked, but that's the first time because we didn't get the ball high enough. I expect him to kick the first field goal for us against Arizona next week."
Oliver, whose first-half field goal was his 10th of the season and tied CU's freshman record, accepted blame for both blocks: "They were completely on me. For whatever reason, my head was not fully in the game when it needed to be and both kicks were too low."
But once again, it was that kind of disjointed night for the Buffs in several areas - and the continuing run of injuries in the secondary didn't help. "We got out of the man coverage business because of some of the matchups with the injury issues," Embree said. "We were playing zone and moving people around . . . when guys are playing out of position or not quite sure, you can't do that - not against a team like USC.
"There's a reason they've won what they have over the last few years, a reason why they're ranked the way they are. In our situation you can't be inconsistent like that."
When it was over, Embree's final assessment was that the Trojans "just wore us down." That hasn't been hard to do for any of the Buffs' opponents; they were not close to being deep in September and November now finds them beyond paper-thin at some positions.
Embree hopes his seniors can find a way to salvage a 'W' or two. "I've been talking to the team and the seniors in particular about Senior Day, so it doesn't surprise me about how quickly it's gotten here," he said. "It's their last chance to win one at Folsom. I expect a great effort out of them and their teammates to find a way to get a victory."
He was hoping for much more, but with the end in sight he doesn't want their efforts defined by a single black brick in the wall.