PASADENA, Calif. - In Colorado's two-win football season, it might be difficult to determine which of the nine losses was more painful and/or perplexing. Or it might not be difficult at all. We'll try and help you out here.
In September, there was the 36-33 loss to California. Painful enough, considering it was in overtime and would have been a nice bounce-back home win after convincingly losing the opener at Hawai'i.
In October, there was the 31-27 come-from-ahead loss against Washington State. Also painful enough, considering it was the Pac-12 Conference opener and the Buffs allowed two scores to lose it in the final 3 minutes.
On to November and UCLA's Senior Day in the Rose Bowl . . . and an afternoon of bewilderment of a different sort. CU was coming off maybe its most heartening Saturday of a sad season - a 48-29 rolling of Arizona that offered some indication of the Buffs perhaps getting it and of their exiting the murderous portion of their schedule and having something left.
At least they talked like it.
But somewhere between the final whistle at Folsom Field and the whistle's first burst in the Rose Bowl, whatever was gained from the previous weekend was lost. One step forward was rewarded with three steps back.
Here's what hurt most: this 45-6 smackdown wasn't delivered by a Top 25 team, it was dealt by a team with five losses that has been as schizophrenic in the Pac-12 Conference as Newt Gingrich has been as a presidential candidate.
UCLA is not to be mistaken for Stanford, Oregon or Southern California - three teams that blew out CU by a cumulative score of 135-26. Throw in the Arizona State result (and you might as well, because the Sun Devils were No. 23 before they began their death spiral) and the combined Buff kicking was 153-40.
But this was UCLA . . . and CU went to the Rose Bowl believing it could win - or so the Buffs claimed during the upbeat six-day run-up. It's pretty close to ridiculous to think a two-win team could develop swagger after Win No. 2, but the Buffs appeared to have something extra in their steps after last weekend.
Quarterback Tyler Hansen "guaranteed" CU wouldn't lose again on the road. Coach Jon Embree said CU's 23-game out-of-state losing streak would end in the Rose Bowl. After it didn't happen, didn't come close to happening, receiver Toney Clemons was asked when that newfound confidence was lost.
"Saturday," answered Clemons. "Today. We had a great week of preparation. We prepared for (UCLA) better than we prepared for Arizona. We had a way better week of practice . . . guys were more into it, more enthusiastic. We came out flat; I don't understand why we came out flat on the road. It's mind-boggling to me."
Embree's mind was no less boggled, but there were reasons other than his team lapsing back into its horribly familiar road self. Saturday was Senior Day for UCLA, and Embree's eldest son, Taylor, is a senior Bruins receiver. Of course, this game's buildup included the father-son angle, and Embree handled it well during the week.
But by Saturday night, it had worn on him. "I never want to do it again, never want to do it again," Jon Embree said. "I'm just glad it's a one-time deal. It's very awkward . . . just awkward."
The father congratulated his son after the game, told him he loved him and he was glad he and his team would be playing in a bowl game. That was an important accomplishment in Taylor's final year. There was no good-natured jawing during the game or even after the Bruins had blown out the Buffs.
"He'll wait til Christmas before he starts on his stuff . . . he knows how I am," Jon said, adding his son had earned "bragging rights - for life."
But Jon knows there are more critical issues to be dealt with than holiday barbs from his son and a lifetime of bragging rights. His painful first CU season is within game of completion and the long, ugly road losing streak remains. Last chance for this team to break it is Friday at Utah, which is 7-4 (4-4 Pac-12, still in the South race) and also celebrates its Senior Day against CU.
If the Buffs don't respond any better against the Utes on Senior Day than they did against the Bruins, the road losing streak gets handed off to the 2012 seniors. Like a virus, it's been passed from class to class since 2007.
"When you're talking about Senior Day, you've got to come out and match their energy and passion - and we didn't do that," Embree said of his son and his son's teammates jumping the Buffs.
Added Hansen: "They came out with the passion and intensity and we didn't match that . . . I don't know (why). We had all the reasons to do it and it just didn't happen."
That's what makes this loss more stupefying than the others. Then again, it was a road game, and CU's average margin of defeat on the road this fall is now 29.5 points. The closest the Buffs have come to winning away from home this season is their 34-17 opening loss at Hawai'i. Who knew?
Embree further explained that after his team faltered in the first 5 minutes and fell behind 21-0 to UCLA, it failed to capitalize on a stop here, a turnover there and "could never sustain anything offensively."
Defensively, poor tackling helped the Bruins rush for 328 yards - second only to the 371 the Buffs allowed Oregon in October. "The defense played OK in spurts," Embree said. "But we just didn't tackle; the last three or four drives they had, they just wore us down and we were poor tackling."
Embree believed his offense, which ran for a season-high 273 yards against Arizona, could once again run the ball - particularly against the Pac-12's No. 12 rushing defense. The Bruins entered the game allowing 190.2 ground yards a game; the Buffs ran for a paltry 87.
Said Embree: "I thought we were starting to find (the running game) with our offensive line. I felt like we could come in and be balanced, run and throw."
The Buffs threw for 142 yards and their lone TD (a 20-yarder from Hansen to Clemons), but Hansen was intercepted three times. He, too, believed the running game would be more proficient, particularly after last week: "I thought we could run the ball, I was confident in the O-line . . . but (UCLA) came out and played well - give them credit."
A season-long failure to deliver a consistent ground game will be among the most perplexing issues Embree and his staff will address in the off season. They'll attempt a three-day fix before heading to Utah, but a real solution requires more time than that.
Embree believes a foundation has been put down this season in several areas, but not in consistent play - which was apparent Saturday. "I don't know what it is," Clemons said, noting unless players are honest in their self-evaluations self-improvement in the final game won't come.
"I think it comes with a confidence thing; it comes down to the players," Clemons continued. "Individually some of us play with passion, some of us don't. In this game everybody has to have it. If you don't, games like that will come up.
"Hats off to UCLA; they had all the intensity and passion and they played like it for four quarters. If you want to be a good team and play with elite teams, you have to come out and play with intensity on every snap and be passionate about your work."
The Buffs' last chance in 2011 to do those things is Friday in Salt Lake City. "We've got one game left to try and end the road streak," Embree said. "We've got three practices left . . . four days of football left for the majority of those guys; they'll never play again."
That would seem to be motivation enough for their final trip, but then the Buffs also appeared motivated for their next-to-last trip. If they show up flat and start as they did Saturday in the Rose Bowl, they'll be better off staying on their side of the mountain.