BOULDER – Colorado’s first spring football game under Mike MacIntyre ended Saturday fairly close to how the Buffs’ new head coach wanted – crisp, competitive and with all of his players well fed at the end of the day.
Let them eat steak.
But it took an unexpected tweak from MacIntyre in the fast-paced game’s final two minutes to assure that everyone (not just the winners) dined later on the same entree.
After leading a 90-yard drive that pulled his Black team to within two points with 1:38 to play, quarterback Nick Hirschman was given the ball back at midfield – a MacIntyre decision – with a chance to direct a game-winning drive.
Hirschman complied, pushing the Black squad to the Gold 6-yard line, where Justin Castor kicked a 26-yard field goal on the game’s final play to give the Black squad a 17-16 win at Folsom Field.
“I made it happen that way,” MacIntyre said afterward. “The Gold team was mad at me, but I wanted to have it happen that way. They all get to eat – that’s one good thing. I wanted to see everybody compete and keep fighting and that’s one thing we really did . . . it was great effort on both sides.”
Hirschman said his Black squad’s unanticipated late takeover at midfield resulted from the coaches not wanting to risk injury with an on-sides kick attempt. “It was cool that Coach ‘Mac’ allowed us to take one from the 50 in and have a chance to win the game . . . I didn’t know what was going on, but he said, ‘Offense is back up’ so we went back out there.”
Said Gold quarterback Connor Wood of the Black team being offered its final chance to win: “Oh, man . . . well, we all get steaks. I think (MacIntyre) was just trying to get everyone the same meal. The loser was supposed to get hot dogs.”
His late set-up aside, MacIntyre said, “Overall, I thought the effort was very good. We saw a lot of plays, saw the DBs making some plays, saw some good runs, saw the quarterbacks do some good things.”
AND THEN THERE WERE TWO: The QB competition has narrowed from six at spring’s beginning to two – Hirschman and Wood – as the Buffs head toward August camp. That pair, both juniors, and redshirt freshman Shane Dillon will be joined by incoming freshman Sefo Liufau, who will be given a chance to compete before a starter is named.
Hirschman completed 16-of-27 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns Saturday, while Wood was 11-of-16 for 196 yards and one TD. Dillon’s duty was fairly limited, likely giving MacIntyre and offensive coordinator/QB coach Brian Lindgren a more comprehensive look at Hirschman and Wood. Dillon completed three of six passes for 38 yards.
Lindgren said Hirschman and Wood “had their times (Saturday), but we’re still not where we want to be. I think those guys are making improvements and learning the system. I think they’ll tell you the same thing – we still have work to do. We missed some opportunities in the passing game, either (being) off in the throw, a dropped pass – and we have to make those plays.”
More specifically on the top two QB competitors, Lindgren said he was “really pleased with the development of Connor Wood. The last three weeks of spring he did a lot of things we asked of him. He started to make decisions and was able to throw the ball with some accuracy. I don’t think he’s anywhere where he needs to be for the first game yet, but I was pleased with him.”
Of Hirschman, Lindgren added he was impressed with Hirschman’s “competitiveness and the way he handles himself on the field . . . guys respond to it. And it was nice to see him in that two-minute drive at the end, take them down, manage the clock and get us in field goal range.”
Hirschman called his morning in the stadium enjoyable and productive: “I thought it went well . . . spring games are always a good time, everybody gets pumped up, great atmosphere. I love seeing guys making big plays and celebrating with them. That’s why it’s fun to me.”
Wood came away with the higher QB rating (197.0 to Hirschman’s 151.8) but said any talk of separation between the two must come from the coaching staff: “You’ll have to ask coaches that – that’s the best answer I can give. I think we both did well in the offense. That’s all the coaches have asked us – be consistent.”
But Wood did say he believes it is good for the Buffs to have a pair of leaders at the position – as well as on the team – heading into the summer. “Nick and I will be leading the charge,” Wood said. “It’s good to let the guys on the team know . . . it’ll be good for us in the summer.”
Wood also said the second half of spring drills “really showed the coaches we would compete between positions and between offense and defense. It makes it more fun. Practices go by so much faster, they don’t drag. We’re having fun out there and people are getting better – especially in this last week and a half it’s been great.”
GOING DEEP AND DEEPER STILL: Receiver Paul Richardson played in his first spring game in a couple of years and made an immediate impact stretching the field. He caught five passes for 169 yards and a touchdown, got his hands on another Wood pass and was open but overthrown by Wood on another.
Wood thought that was impossible. “That’s the first time in my life that’s happened,” he said. “I was trying to get it where he could get it, not the defense.”
Richardson, who missed last season rehabbing a knee injury that required surgery, said he and Wood “connected for a lot of yards. I was just happy to be out here. Connor’s not afraid to make those passes now, but it wouldn’t happen if the line wasn’t blocking.”
It took two long misses before Wood and “P-Rich” got in sync with an 85-yard scoring play. MacIntyre said Richardson “kind of makes them all sync up a little bit. He’s so fast and does things. It’s good to see ‘P-Rich’ back out here. There’s one (pass) he wishes he would have had back – where he could have laid out for. That’s just getting used to the depth perception, the full speed, the stadium and everything else. I thought they hooked up and did some good things. And I thought the other receivers did also.”
With Richardson and, among others, newcomer Jeff Thomas, MacIntyre expects the Buffs to be have more of a deep-threat presence come fall. “That’s something you can count on,” he said. “If (the secondary) is playing deep coverage, we have to be able to run the ball and dink it. If they some and try to stop our short game, which we hope they have to do at times, we have to go over the top.”
That’s fine by Richardson and the QBs. “We’re a lot more comfortable now,” Richardson said. “We have a lot of receivers now and we all think we can go downfield. The fact that they’re giving us opportunities to go downfield and we’re doing well with it . . . we’re completing those passes. When we’re making plays downfield, teams can’t just ‘man’ us . . . they’re going to have to play off of us a little bit and that’s going to open up our running game.”
Thomas, a 6-3, 195-pound freshman, finished with three catches for 52 yards – including a 33-yard scoring reception from Hirschman. “He’s so incredibly fast,” Hirschman said of Thomas. “He looks slow because he runs so perfect. He’s big and fast when he gets moving. And he’s got great hands. Once he gets the ball in his hands he’s going to make plays with his feet.”
LIKING THE SPRING FORMAT: Saturday’s game drew a crowd of 10,244 and featured four 12-minute quarters. A running clock was employed except for the final two minutes of each half. It was all wrapped up in less than 90 minutes (1:28).
MacIntyre divided the squad as evenly as possible – and the players liked the concept.
“This was really smooth in the way it was run,” Hirschman said. “Last year we really didn’t have a spring game per se. I’ve always thought it was a lot more fun to split up the teams and go with a regular game. We did it my freshman year and I’m really happy about it.”
Added linebacker Paul Vigo: “I liked it . . . it was very different from what we’ve had (in the past). It was more competitive, more game-like.”
SPRING DEFENSIVE EVALUATION: About 25 percent of CU’s defensive scheme is in and coordinator Kent Baer says the remaining 75 percent likely won’t be installed by the time the Buffs open on Sept. 1 against Colorado State.
“We’re not close to what we normally do,” Baer said. “A lot (of the remaining 75 percent) marries into other things we do. I don’t think it’s that tough, but we’re still a long ways away from doing a lot of things we want to do. But we’ve got the basics in.”
Baer said defenses rarely enter a season with an entire package installed: “You never go in with the whole deal. Colorado State is certainly different (schematically) than lining up against Central Arkansas. We’ll try and gradually teach those things. And there will be other things to teach when we play Fresno. Some of the stuff (to teach) is impossible right now because our offense doesn’t do some of the things we’ll see down the road.”
And what was shown Saturday was basically vanilla because the game was televised (Pac-12 Network), “so there are a lot of things we didn’t want to show,” Baer said. “But I think we played pretty hard and flew around.”
What Baer and his staff sought to teach during spring drills started with effort and physical play. “I’m not going to compromise that,” he said. “I understand if a guy’s not athletically gifted enough to play a technique or do something was ask him to do, but I won’t compromise about being physical and tough. We’re trying to get that across and I think we’ve made progress. But we’re still not where we need to be.”
Areas that need to be improved in come August include “tackling, learning to play harder still and learning how to leverage the football,” Baer said.
Vigo said he sees overall progress with the defense: “I’m very encouraged. I think we have more of a solid identity on defense. We have to put more emphasis on getting better at our details, but I think everything is going to fall into place.”
CENTER OF ATTENTION: Senior Gus Handler is listed as No. 1 on the depth chart at center, with sophomore Brad Cotner backing him up. Junior Daniel Munyer can play center and guard, but his absence (leg) for most of spring drills prevented Lindgren and O-line coach Gary Bernardi from getting an accurate look at the center spot.
One offensive concern, Lindgren said, is at center: “We need to keep developing; we’re not sure who to put there. We’ve had some snap trouble, one or two (Saturday). We can’t have any issues as much as we’re in the gun.”
Lindgren said Handler, Cotner and Munyer will get August looks before a starter is settled.
Elsewhere in the O-line, Lindgren said he was impressed with Jack Harris at left tackle and with Stephane Nembot’s progress at right tackle.
BUFFS’ GOALS GOING FORWARD: MacIntyre’s offensive goals in August and beyond are more accuracy from the QBs, better attention to detail by the offensive line and finishing and communicating at the line.
Defensively, he wants a better effort in running to the football, better understanding of gap responsibilities and daily improvement in the secondary. “We tell the DBs, you’re not beat until they catch it,” he said.
MacIntyre said he was pleased with his kickers, punters and long snappers.
KEEPING IT POSITIVE: With the Buffs finishing 1-11 in 2012, MacIntyre believed the last thing needed as that page was turned was negativity heaped upon negativity. There has been an abundance of positive reinforcement since his hiring. The team’s psyche, he believes, is on the upswing.
“We’re on the way, but not where we want to be,” he said. “Every scrimmage and every practice from the first on, they’ve had more fun playing, congratulated each other, applauded each other, enjoyed coming out and doing the work. If you enjoy your work, you get better. If you don’t enjoy it, you don’t . . . as you enjoy the process you get better.”
Coaching under Bill Parcels with the Dallas Cowboys, MacIntyre said Parcells “was really nice to the guys and the coaches” when the Cowboys lost. “But when we won he was all over us . . . I kind of watched and learned there; he knew what he was doing.”
Wood said in the team’s first meeting with MacIntyre and his staff, “They said they would encourage us and they believed in us. Over time, through spring ball, we’ve started to believe that. They don’t get down on us. Obviously it’s football and they’ll yell at us – but they do it in a positive way.”
BUFF BITS: Two injuries were reported Saturday – an ankle sprain to O-lineman Jeromy Irwin and a possible ACL tear to linebacker Tommy Papilion . . . . Saturday’s scrimmage saw only one interception, one lost fumble and a blocked punt, which MacIntyre called the product of miscommunication on special teams. “Better (Saturday) than on Sept. 1 . . . we’ll keep teaching that.” . . . . The day’s leading tackler was freshman defensive back John Walker, who missed last season with a hand injury suffered early in August camp. Walker was credited with eight unassisted tackles . . . . Freshman linebacker Addison Gillam played the outside and middle spots – the latter position after only two practices there. “I made a few mistakes, but once my nerves calmed down I started feeling better,” he said. “I’m starting to pick up on the defense more.” The 6-4 Gillam said he hopes to weight about 235 – 10 pounds heavier than now – by August camp . . . . Saturday’s top rusher was Gold tailback Tony Jones (four carries, 43 yards). Black tailback Josh Ford, who had enjoyed huge spring game productivity in seasons past, gained 13 yards on eight carries . . . . MacIntyre saved his 15th – and final – spring practice for Tuesday. It will feature a review/wrap-up walk-through. A spring-ending depth chart is expected to be released at week’s end. Said MacIntyre: “The pencil depth chart is now a little more in erasable pen now. So they’ve got to keep pushing.”