BOULDER - The calendar will say he was a day early, but shortly before 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jon Embree waved goodbye to September. It was not anywhere close to the month Colorado's second-year football coach envisioned when it started.
Before the 2012 season began, Embree reminded his team that September would be critical, with nearly half (five) of the schedule's 12 games played in the opening month. A good start was a must. In reality it was a bust.
His Buffaloes bowed out of the month just as they started it, bookending the 22-17 loss to Colorado State on Sept. 1 with a 42-14 loss to UCLA on Saturday. CU will enter October with a 1-4 record, surely not what Embree had in mind in August camp when his team broke its daily post-practice huddle with the chant, "Bowl Game!"
For whatever reason (and you can come up with several), we're not hearing that anymore. With seven games remaining, the bowl goal - five more wins minimum - isn't dead, but it will stay on life support until the Buffs develop a more consistent running game, become consistently better tacklers, get more consistent on third down, get more consistent pass protection, consistently protect the ball . . . see a theme developing here?
CU does a few things consistently well, but not enough to avoid being 1-4 and being labeled inconsistent. On Saturday, the Buffs ran for a mere 83 yards, whiffed on too many tackles to count without having instant replay available as this is written, converted just two of 15 third-down attempts, yielded four more quarterback sacks (now 22 for the season), and suffered two game-turning turnovers in the third quarter.
CU's 15 possessions on Saturday ended with 10 punts, two touchdowns, back-to-back third-quarter turnovers and also giving the ball back to UCLA on downs in the third quarter. The Buffs' offense was hit-and-mostly-miss - and Embree was left searching for a solution.
Asked if he had an answer, he answered: "I don't. I wish I did, but that will have to be something that over this bye week period we will have to address . . . for whatever reason, we have not played well. We have eight to ten plays that we know we're going to start with and we practice it against the looks we are going to get. But for whatever reason we're just not able to do anything."
Despite what the scoreboard might say, the Buffs' defense - poor tackling aside - had its moments.
"Up until a certain time frame in the third quarter," said CU defensive coordinator Greg Brown, "we kind of felt as a defensive staff that our players felt, 'we're in this, we can play, we can stop the Bruins, let's get them off the field and give the ball back to our offense.'
"But obviously, it didn't hold up and we didn't finish what we started. The bottom line is, we're not there. We're a work in progress and we have a long way to go."
Brown began the season knowing his defense would be young - and then senior safety Ray Polk was hurt in the first quarter of the CSU game and senior linebacker Doug Rippy was injured a game later. Neither has played since. On Saturday, Rippy's good bud and fellow senior 'backer Jon Major - the team's leading tackler - was mostly MIA due to injury.
Said Brown about the loss of precious experience due to injury: "You better adapt, you better have a little adaptability in you. Like the saying goes, there are no excuses. Whoever we put on the field are Buffs . . ."
Albeit young Buffs, and the hope of Embree, Brown and the other coaches is that they mature as football players at warp speed. Embree said he can see growth: "We are, we're growing up, we don't have a lot to show for it, but we have taken strides . . . . There were tears in the locker room; guys still care and are still competing and fighting. At times they were just overmatched, but we have to find a way to create some plays or create something to help us."
In that same vein, they can't afford things that set them back and snuff whatever momentum they might be capable of. Not getting any points out of recovering a first-quarter UCLA fumble and consecutive third-quarter turnovers (the Bruins scored TDs after both) when the score was still 21-7 were the afternoon's killers.
"We are not at the point where we can overcome mistakes like that," Embree said. "Our defense gave us a chance in that third quarter, they gave us opportunities and we didn't take advantage of it. We needed to get points, somehow offensively, and we weren't able to do it."
Quarterback Jordan Webb said the offense's repeated inefficiency on third down was on him: "I'll take the blame for that; third down is a quarterback down. If you don't have good quarterback play you won't convert a lot of third downs."
Webb was the Pac-12 Conference's offensive player-of-the-week following CU's 35-34 comeback win at Washington State. He accounted for four TDs (two passing, two running) against WSU, but he had a hand in only one of CU's two scores Saturday - a second-quarter TD pass to Dustin Ebner.
Webb threw his lone interception in the third quarter after tight end Vincent Hobbs had the ball stripped from him following a reception. UCLA recovered and ultimately scored the first of back-to-back TDs to begin pulling away.
Junior linebacker Derrick Webb said the turnovers didn't demoralize the CU defense: "It's a part of football and you have to be prepared for sudden changes. That's something we train for all season . . . the mentality of our defense was to get out there and get the ball back for our offense, give our offense another chance. We don't hang our heads on turnovers."
After five weekends of games, the Buffs have next weekend off. Coaches see bye weeks as further healing and teaching time. Embree and his staff need both. Brown said it will be back to fundamentals for his defense - "Fundamentals and tackling . . . the amount of missed tackles we had (Saturday), we left a lot on the field simply by missed tackles.
"There were a lot of plays underneath that turned into big plays because of the missed tackles. That would have to be first and foremost. The bye week is all about fundamentals - get better and improve on the fundamental aspects."
The Buffs don't play again until Thursday night, Oct. 11, when Arizona State visits Folsom Field. Embree said it "would be nice to go into (the bye week) with a win."
It would have been nice, too, to win September's first three games - allegedly the easiest before the schedule really takes a rugged turn. It didn't happen, and as a former coach said at about this time last season, the only way out of something like this is straight through it.