BOULDER – Hawai’i quarterback Bryant Moniz passed for an NCAA-best 39 touchdowns last season, but just one of them was thrown against Colorado. The Buffaloes didn’t stumble upon the secret to limiting Moniz’ productivity, they simply ran over it.
Fortunately, CU found its ground game in the second half of last season’s 31-13 win against UH. But first-year Buffs coach Jon Embree doesn’t want to wait that long in Saturday’s opener against the Warriors in Honolulu (8:15 MDT, ESPN2).
Since his hiring last December, Embree has emphasized the importance of the run, and in the final run-up to his CU debut he’s not backing away from that pound-it-out principle. It will be that way from Week 1 through Week 13, but against Hawaii a ground game that can control the clock and relegate Moniz to a spectator’s role would be very beneficial.
“The run’s important against anybody we play,” Embree said Tuesday during his first weekly media conference. “It helps us play as a team . . . when you play good defense you’re running to the ball, chasing the ball. If you’re on the field a lot, you’re not going to be able to chase it like you were in the first quarter. When you’re running the football, you’re allowing your defense to rest.”
Last season in Folsom Field, CU racked up 328 of its 452 yards in total offense in the second half. A pair of Buffs – tailbacks Rodney “Speedy” Stewart and Brian Lockridge – each ran for 100-plus yards (Stewart had 106, Lockridge 109).
CU’s 252 ground yards against UH turned out to be a season high – and returning Buffs players believe Embree’s and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s run game will be more physical and potent than the 2010 model.
“We’re more physical up front . . . that’s what this offensive staff has instilled in us,” senior quarterback Tyler Hansen said, adding he believes the fullback and tight end play have improved from a season ago. “It’ll help our defense out by keeping them off the field. That’s what we want . . . if we can control the game and the clock, especially against Hawai’i – they’re an explosive offense with a lot of weapons. If we can keep them off the field, they can’t get points on the sidelines.”
For the past month, said CU senior safety Anthony Perkins, he’s listened to his body tell him how much more physical the offense has become: “This camp compared to last camp, I’ve been a lot more sore after practices. The whole mentality the offense has right now is to come right at you and get after you.
“That definitely changes your mindset on defense because now on top of worrying about what my assignment is, you’re thinking about are they going to come and get after me on this play. You have that in the back of your mind, and as a defensive player the more you have to think about makes things a little less clear. I’m excited for our offense; I think they can have a great year.”
The Buffs’ running output against the Warriors last season proved to be an aberration. CU wound up topping the 200-yard mark only twice more in the final nine games, averaging 137.0 rushing yards for the season. If that number doesn’t improve this season, it won’t be because the ground game was underemphasized.
Offensively, Embree’s philosophy is to use the running game to “throw the first punch.”
“Part of running the football to me is can you implement your will on the other team,” he said. “We’re going to throw the first punch; throwing the first punch means offensively that we’re going to run the ball down their throat. They know what’s coming and they have to stop it. It’s been successful in the past here; I know we can get back to doing it.
“I know we have the right kind of kids in this program that buy into that and understand that mindset. And to have that mindset you have to be a selfless player . . . there are a lot of things that go into running the ball, but to me it’s the ultimate team aspect to say we’re running the ball. It takes all 11 to do that; it’s real important for everybody on this team.”
POINTS, NOT STYLE POINTS: In Embree’s last year as an assistant coach at UCLA, the Bruins averaged almost 40 points and won 10 games. Nice numbers, but he’s really not into them.
“I just want to win; I don’t care about the numbers,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s 3-2. We have to create that culture. I don’t care about style points and all that. I hope I can sit here and be called the worst 5-0 team in the country. I’d rather be that than the best 0-5 team any day.”
ALL BUSINESS, SOME PLEASURE: The Buffs leave early Thursday for Hawai’i, arriving in the islands at mid-afternoon (with the time change). Friday will offer “some down time,” Embree said, but not the beach time some might expect.
“The only beach they’ll see is when they land,” Embree said, adding if it’s beach time the players crave, “they can get married and have a honeymoon trip there . . . this is a business trip.”
ONE BRICK AT A TIME: Several players said their luggage for the Hawai’i trip will include the symbolic bricks Embree presented them when camp opened in August. (See column from 8/6/11; Brooks: This Is Not Just Another Brick In The Wall)
Among Embree’s overriding themes for his coaching debut is restoring the “big-game” bricks in the Dal Ward Athletic Center. “I’ve been fortunate to be part of a lot of bricks that have been put up,” he said, citing CU’s 20-10 upset of No. 3 Nebraska in 1986.
It was the Buffs’ first win against the Cornhuskers in 18 years, and Embree called it “a watershed moment for the program...I want our seniors to have that kind of experience.”
Saturday’s opener presents “an opportunity for us to bring the bricks back . . . it’s a big game because it’s the first game. There’s a lot of reasons this is a very big game. As far as setting a tone for the program, yes and no, it’s big in that manner, but these guys will find out that every game is a big game.”
MAC IS BACK: Actually, two Macs are back. Former CU coach Bill McCartney and Mark McIntosh, who did radio/TV work involving the Buffs during the McCartney Era, will host a weekly program beginning Thursday, Sept. 8 at Pasta Jay’s in Boulder.
The program, called “Coach Mac’s Football Fix and Feast,” features the ex-Buffs coach, McIntosh and his current Mile High Sports radio partner Jimmy “Doog” Doogan talking CU football. The event goes from 6-8 p.m., beginning Sept. 8 and running through Nov. 10. Dinner will be served, with the total cost for the 10 Thursdays set at $250. Only 50 season tickets will be sold in Year 1 of the event. Tickets can be purchased online at Macanddoog.com.
McIntosh said the weekly tickets are transferrable from person to person, meaning any number of Buffs fans can collaborate to purchase the package, then attend whatever Thursday night fits their schedules.
McIntosh bills the event as “sharing inside stories, interviewing special guests and supporting one another to embrace the truth: everything rises and falls with leadership - in football and life!”
He said McCartney will offer his coaching insight on the new Buffs staff, players, CU’s move into the Pac-12 Conference and more.
“’Mac’ knows the Buffs tradition and what Jon Embree and his staff are doing to restore it,” McIntosh said. “I can’t think of anyone better to have dinner with and talk CU football.”
Pasta Jay’s is located at 1001 Pearl St.