HONOLULU – Turns out, the big preseason question of whether Colorado’s rebuilt secondary could hold up to Hawai’i’s passing game wasn’t the biggest one for the Buffaloes.
Instead, as they prepared for Jon Embree’s CU coaching debut, the Buffs should have been asking themselves this: Can UH quarterback Bryant Moniz beat us with his feet rather than his arm?
In a word, the answer was yes – although CU didn’t go away quietly into this breezy, balmy Pacific night.
Known on the islands as “Mighty Mo,” Moniz made sure that Embree’s first night on the sidelines would be a memorable one for all the wrong reasons, leading the Warriors to a 34-17 win Saturday in Aloha Stadium and extending the Buffs’ road losing streak to 18 – 19 counting postseason play.
“I don’t know if it was first-game jitters or what,” Embree said. “But that wasn’t us...We’ll figure it out. There’s no magic solution; we’ve got to get better.”
Trailing 17-0 at half, CU finally shook its offense awake and pulled to within 24-17 early in the fourth quarter. But the Warriors, set on avenging last season’s loss in Boulder, put away their mainland visitors with a touchdown and a field goal in the game’s final 6:17.
The Buffs (0-1) return to Folsom Field next Saturday to face Cal in their 2011 home opener.
In opening the Embree Era, the Buffs did little right in the opening half, falling behind 17-0 after allowing Moniz to shred them with his feet rather than his arm.
In last season’s 31-13 CU win in Boulder, the UH quarterback was limited to minus-5 yards rushing on just six attempts. A year later, with three of the Warriors’ top four receivers gone, the UH coaching staff obviously wanted to use Moniz differently – and CU’s defense allowed it.
By halftime, Moniz had rushed nine times for a career-high 120 yards, including a career-long 57 yarder in the second quarter. That dash through the middle of CU’s defense resulted in a touchdown, as did a 14-yard option carry later in the same quarter.
The Warriors’ other first-half points came on a 38-yard field goal by Kenton Chun that pin-balled its way through in the first quarter, caroming off the right upright before bouncing off the crossbar and falling on the correct side.
Moniz passed for 330 yards (27-of-41, one TD, one INT) last season against CU. In Saturday night’s first half, he completed 10-of-19 for 100 yards and was sacked three times. He finished with 121 yards rushing and 178 passing, with one passing touchdown. All total, he accounted for 299 yards in total offense and four TDs.
“We knew No. 17 (Moniz) was a heck of a player,” Embree said. “We knew he could run...he just made two plays where he was better than us.”
Added junior linebacker Jon Major: “I never thought he’d beat us with his legs . . . he’s a great competitor; hats off to him.”
CU’s offense went stagnant early and stayed that way through the first half. The Buffs rushed for only 54 yards in the first two quarters – a huge comedown from the season-best 252 yards they rolled up last season against the Warriors. The Buffs drove only as far as the Warriors’ 32-yard line in the first half before that march fizzled when senior tailback Rodney “Speedy” Stewart was thrown for a 7-yard loss when he couldn’t turn the left corner. Stewart finished with 52 yards on 18 carries, and CU was outgained 343-240 in total offense.
Senior quarterback Tyler Hansen said “little things” in the first half helped the Buffs “beat themselves.” A fumbled snap on the first play from scrimmage set an ugly tone for the first half, and the loss of left tackle David Bakhtiari a little later might have further disrupted the offense.
CU’s passing game numbers were even bleaker than the first-half running stats, with Hansen completing 5-of-12 passes for 46 yards. He finished 16-of-30 for 223 yards and two scores. He was intercepted once and sacked seven times for 35 yards in losses, which reduced CU’s rushing total to a mere 17 yards.
But, said Hansen, “We got ourselves back in the game, but we’ve got to be better. (UH) made a good defensive adjustment with their pass rush in the third quarter. They put our tackles and our O-line on their heels.”
The best the Buffs could hope for was a second-half rejuvenation like they fashioned last season in Boulder. In that game, CU trailed UH 10-0, but took over the afternoon with a punishing ground game and stiffened on defense, allowing the Warriors only three second-half points while the Buffs offense punched up 31.
But that was at home – and on this Labor Day Weekend, the comforts of home seemed very, very far away for CU.
The Buffs, who had won the opening coin toss and deferred to the second half, made that decision appear fortuitous. They opened the half with a six-play, 73-yard drive that was highlighted by a Hansen-to-Stewart run-and-catch on a screen for 52 yards to the Warriors’ 15. A play later, Hansen hit Paul Richardson for the touchdown and after freshman Will Oliver’s PAT – the first of his college career – the Buffs had pulled within 17-7.
If there was a hint of momentum shift, it evaporated on CU’s ensuing kickoff, which was returned the Buffs’ 48-yard line. From there, Moniz needed 10 plays to stake UH to another 17-point lead. He scored his third rushing TD of the game – adding another career-best in a night already bulging with them – untouched on a 1-yard keeper that pushed the Warriors ahead 24-7 with 5:53 left in the third quarter.
But two series later, the Buffs – primarily Hansen and “P-Rich,” with another assist from Stewart – made some more noise. After another successful Hansen-to-Stewart screen, Hansen and Richardson again teamed for a TD strike – this one covering 21 yards, and with Oliver’s extra point, drawing CU to within 24-14 with 1:51 left in the third quarter.
On the first play of the Warriors’ next possession, Buffs defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe blasted Moniz from the blind side, forcing a fumble that was recovered by nosetackle Conrad Obi at the UH 34-yard line. CU moved to the 15 on a Hansen-to-Tyler McCulloch pass, then lost 3 yards to set up a critical third-and-12 as the fourth quarter began.
Hansen was pressured into a throw-away on third down, and Oliver kicked a 34-yard field goal on fourth down, pulling the Buffs within a touchdown (24-17) only 9 seconds into the last quarter. Time was on the Buffs’ side if they could successfully cope with Moniz – and the next series they did, forcing a three-and-out.
“We came back... we were there,” Embree said. “Then they hit us with the shovel pass...”
And just as quickly, the Buffs were reeling once more.
With 12:53 remaining and needing a touchdown to tie, CU took over at its 22-yard line and promptly lost 17 yards, including 11 on back-to-back sacks of Hansen. Freshman Darragh O’Neill was forced to punt from his end zone, and at the CU 45, UH had the field position it needed to possibly put this one away.
The Warriors pushed to the Buffs’ 24, where on fourth-and-one Moniz – who else? – sneaked over left guard for 2 yards and a monstrous first down. Three plays later, Moniz took advantage of CU’s inside rush and flipped a shovel pass to running back Joey Isofea, who ran 22 yards for his first career TD. Chun’s PAT sent UH up 31-17 with 6:17 left.
The Buffs needed something big in a little time – but they couldn’t make it happen. Going for it on fourth-and-six at their 29 yard line, Hansen was intercepted by linebacker Art Laurel, giving the Warriors a first down at the Buffs’ 11-yard line.
Five plays later, Tyler Hadden kicked a 22-yard field goal, giving UH 34-17 advantage and sending CU on its way with the unsightly road losing streak intact.
Asked about his coaching debut in general, Embree said, “It was not good, we lost . . . I’m not a moral victory guy. We’ve got to break this losing streak on the road.”
But first comes Cal, which buried CU 52-7 last season in Berkeley, then in-state rival Colorado State (Sept. 17) before a trip to Ohio State (Sept. 24) closes out the month. By then, Embree hopes the Buffs will have found themselves, or whatever was AWOL in his opener.