PULLMAN, Wash. -
Are we having fun yet? In a word, no, and three dreadful games into the 2012 season, that's among the major changes coach Jon Embree wants to see on his Colorado football team.
College football's main source of fun is winning. Embree's second CU team is a mirthless 0-3 and desperately needs to be reintroduced to the concept of a fun-filled Saturday.
"We're talking to the team about having fun," Embree said. "When they get into games, they get so robotic. With all the hard work you put in, the game is when you're supposed to have fun. We're not doing that."
So this week's message is: Relax, play smart, stay together and let the good times roll . . .
The Buffs appear focused on making it all happen here Saturday against Washington State in their Pac-12 Conference opener (2 p.m. MDT, FX). Not to undermine the message, but CU is a three-touchdown underdog after last week's south-of-sobering 69-14 loss against Fresno State.
In the wake of the Fresno flop, Embree met individually on Monday and Tuesday with each player on this week's traveling squad. The 10-minute listening/reassuring sessions apparently were well-timed, well-received and resulted in three energized practices before the team's departure for Spokane on Friday.
"Oh, yeah," said sophomore cornerback Greg Henderson, who is expected to start after missing the past two games with an ankle sprain. "Everybody is here for a reason, because of our athletic ability. Obviously you've got to just relax and play your game. Everybody is out there nervous and scared to make a mistake. They need to relax and play - that's all they need to do. If we do that, we've got a lot of playmakers on this team. So we do that, we'll start winning and having fun out there."
Of course, proof of positive results and a rerouting to good times must come Saturday afternoon in Martin Stadium, where a second consecutive sellout (33,522) is expected for the first time since the 2006 season. The Cougars (2-1) are eyeing their third straight win - another unprecedented achievement at Wazzu since 2006.
The guy generating September's good vibes in the Palouse is Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach who might have been a pirate in a former life and espouses a "Swing The Sword" (the title of his book) mentality in this life. Leach won't disclose his starting quarterback - it will be either sophomore Connor Halliday or senior Jeff Tuel - mainly because he's opposed to releasing injury reports to the media.
Earlier this week, he told reporters this on the starting QB subject: "You'll have to stay tuned and watch very closely. The anticipation is killing everyone, including me."
Of Halliday, who passed for 378 yards and four TDs in last week's 35-27 win at UNLV, Leach said: "He's way ahead of schedule for guy who played only a handful of games."
Of Tuel, the season starter who has been sidelined with an apparent knee injury, Leach noted: "He's ridiculously healthy. Tony the Tiger would be proud to have him be in a commercial and have him eat cereal."
Embree believes the Buffs defense, which surrendered 665 yards last week and is last in the Pac-12 in total defense (476.3 yards allowed a game), will see Halliday first. But, he added, it doesn't really matter. Whether it's Halliday or Tuel, the Buffs must be sound tacklers "in space" against Leach's spread offense and attempt to "shrink the field" and limit the Cougars to field goals.
In Leach's pass-heavy offense (42.1 pass attempts, 284.7 yards a game), his QBs "get rid of the ball so quick," Embree said. That can tire defensive linemen trying to bring pressure, so expect CU to frequently rotate its D-linemen when possible. "You try to figure out a way to get pressure," Embree added, "but if you bring too many (with blitzes) you expose yourself. (Leach) has a good blend of what he does."
As potent as the Cougars are with the pass, they've had problems defending it. WSU is last in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing 344.3 yards a game. (CU is No. 11 at 287.3.) Said Leach: "Some of that stuff (completions allowed) is just too easy. We've got to be tougher. Some of those kids in the secondary talk about being tough. They need to start proving they're tough."
Embree is looking for more energy from his players - on the field as well as the sidelines. In an attempt to address that, offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy will move from the coaches' booth to the sidelines on Saturday.
When the shift was announced at Embree's Tuesday media luncheon, former CU coach Bill McCartney called Bieniemy "a live wire." That's an understatement; Bieniemy is a small nuclear device. But CU's offensive players believe his trip downstairs should be beneficial.
"He'll bring energy," starting quarterback Jordan Webb said. "He's that type of person, that type of coach. Also, another set of eyes down there and he can be in our ears as quarterbacks, letting us know what's out there. And he's definitely going to be able to help the running backs."
Backup Connor Wood said when opponents scored early or came back on the Buffs in the first three games, "That was a little demoralizing. I think as an offense we let that get to us. We would kind of sink . . . I think having a guy like Bieniemy on the sidelines will help the overall energy of the offense, keep it up, keep it in the huddle. He's a fierce, competitive guy. He can bring that to the sidelines."
Webb, Wood and their teammates hope opening Pac-12 play offers a fresh start that will help regenerate them. "Conference play is huge," Webb said. "I think we all understand the importance of conference play - especially in the type of conference we're in. It's really strong from top to bottom. We feel we have to come out and start it off right."
The Buffs (or their fans) couldn't fathom going winless in non-conference play, but that's how they've defined themselves. As former NFL coach Bill Parcells often observed, "You are your record." Still, CU left guard Alex Lewis said "there's definitely a strong belief" the Buffs can be better.
"We're going to stand by our coaches . . . we've bought into this program and we need guys to keep buying into it," Lewis said. "The moment you have one person not believing, it becomes a cancer on the team and you have to remove the cancer. I believe this team still believes in each other; we're still going to have each others' backs no matter what happens. We're going to come out fighting; we're not going to go down easily. We'll be swinging."
So will Pullman's newly adopted pirate.