Last weekend found Colorado offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy working his first game this season from the sideline. Contrary to what might be popular belief, Tony Jones was glad to have his occasionally volatile running backs coach within shouting distance.
It made for a good time, with a last-second win having a little something to do with that.
After Jones broke free around the right edge and scored on a career-long 84-yard run at Washington State, he returned to the CU sideline and good naturedly barked at Bieniemy: "Coach, was that a 4.4?" (Jones has been telling Bieniemy he can run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.)
"Nah," shot back Bieniemy, "it was maybe about a 4.58" - after which player and coach shared a healthy laugh as the Buffs were climbing back into their Pac-12 Conference opener with the Cougars.
"He's always done that," Jones said of Bieniemy dogging him about his speed. "We're always going at each other that way. He's saying I'm slow, that I run a 4.5 or 4.6. And he always calls me 'Shorty,' too - but he's got no room to talk. (They're both 5-7.) But it's great, man, to have him as a coach. We have fun, but there's business there, too. There's two separate sides and when it's business, it's all business."
Jones' long run brought CU to within three points (31-28), keeping the Buffs' fourth-quarter momentum intact in what would become a dramatic 35-34 victory. After being held out of the previous game with shoulder and ankle injuries, Jones finished with 105 yards on four carries and his long TD. In the Buffs' 70-yard game-winning drive, Jones had two carries for 14 yards, with his 9-yard, second-down run to the Cougars' 11-yard line as impressive in its own way as his 84-yarder.
"He brought a little juice to the table," Bieniemy said. "He'd been a little banged up . . . it was good to see him come back like that."
Jones says he's "good to go" Saturday against UCLA (4 p.m., Pac-12 Network) in Folsom Field, but he laughed when asked if he was physically back to 100 percent. "I don't think anybody playing football is ever 100 percent, unless you're a freshman just coming in," he said. "But I'm good to go. I told coach Bieniemy I was ready last week, but he didn't want me to play. That got me hungrier and started me watching more film since I wasn't playing."
The Buffs' ground game appears to be improving. Against the Cougars, they punched up a season-best 186 rushing yards, surpassing the 153 CU ran for in the 30-28 loss to Sacramento State. Through four games, the Buffs' rushing average is 126.8 yards a game, or 3.5 a carry.
Both of those statistics remain below what Bieniemy and his offensive staff have in mind, but as long as there is steady progress they'll take it. Quarterback Jordan Webb said Jones' return and the other available tailback talent "bodes well for the running game. You have to look at our offensive line, though. They're really getting a great surge, they were getting hats on everybody and our running backs were making great plays behind them. It bodes well for the future of the running game and we're going to continue to build on it. And it'll definitely help the passing game as well."
Defining another goal also was beneficial before the trip to Washington State. In individual player meetings last week, coach Jon Embree told his offensive group he wanted "four ugly yards" at a time, and against the Cougars the Buffs averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
Said Embree of the "four ugly yards" slogan: "It was kind of a motto we had around here when we were struggling. Basically, it was about how to get four yards, every time you are up, and one of the things we did when we were in the huddle is, you always looked at the chains to see if you got your four yards and if you didn't, you just tried to get four in that play and not do anything special."
He said huddling at WSU rather than using a no-huddle offense offered players an opportunity "to get together and be with each other; look in each other's eyes, see what the chains are, 'Did we do it?,' if not let's do it this play. It kind of helped us at the time for us, just focusing one play, just focus on the task at hand, and everything else will take care of everything else."
In four games, CU has had two 100-yard rushers - Jones last weekend and tailback/fullback Christian Powell's 147 yards against Sacramento State. Powell is averaging 66.3 yards a game, Jones 37.5. Josh Ford is third at 25.0. Malcolm Creer and Donta Abron also have gotten carries.
Bieniemy can't have too many productive tailbacks. With the 235-pound Powell and the smaller, shiftier Jones and Ford, he believes he can show a defense different looks and running styles. "It's tough to prepare for different types of runners coming at you," Bieniemy said. "We would like to get that mix going. Obviously it's been my background . . . I'd like to even add a third or fourth back in there, whoever steps to the plate."
Ford is trying to take that step. Other than Powell and Jones, he was the only tailback to get a carry last week, and he responded with a seven-yard gain. Whenever my number's called I'm going to be ready - one, fifty, whatever," Ford said. "I'm just going to be ready to help my team out."
Ford was one of three walk-ons placed on scholarship near the end of August camp. He is deeply appreciative of that, but he said earning a scholarship wasn't a primary objective: "Honestly, I'm very grateful for the scholarship, but that wasn't really my aim. I don't want to sound ungrateful, but my aim is to win and get to a bowl game . . . I wanted to come in, compete and win games. The scholarship is just icing on the cake. I'm very appreciative of the coaches recognizing my hard work, but I'm still on a mission."
"I see my coaches like 'EB' and coach Embree, they left something here. I want to leave something here that I can come back to. I want to help put Colorado back on the map. It's important to me. My uncle went here, my high school coach (Dave Logan) went here, I grew up here. It means a lot to me."
If Bieniemy decides he can effectively use three tailbacks, Ford is determined to be one of them. "We're all great backs," he said. "I just know since I got here I've just tried to be one of those guys that 'EB' can look at and say, 'I can trust him.' I pride myself on working and being a guy he can trust. I'm going to show him I won't get down, pout and quit."
Jones called the tailback-by-committee "a good mix . . . Christian is doing a great job, and me and Josh are good change-of-pace guys, bringing speed. All of us are working hard and staying together. Whoever is at the starting position, we're all making sure he knows what he's doing."
Whoever he lines up first at tailback and whatever substitution order he uses, Bieniemy wants to make certain his players know the weekly competition is rising at steeper and steeper angles. UCLA is ninth in the Pac-12 in total defense (CU is No. 11) and has allowed 173.8 ground yards a game - or 4.8 per rush.
The Buffs are hoping for more, but getting that on Saturday obviously would satisfy their objective of "four ugly yards."
Said Bieniemy: "That's the theme, the motto. I always tell everybody - not to knock what we did (at WSU) because it was a great accomplishment - but anybody can do something once. We've got to learn to put consistent behavior on tape. That's the challenge this week."