BOULDER - The Colorado Buffaloes dropped a heartbreaker in Tempe last night, forfeiting an early 10-0 lead to fall 41-30 to Arizona State. In what could have been a sigh of relief, an early ticket to a bowl, the Buffs instead demonstrated an issue that has plagued them all season - their inability to close.
With the loss, the Buffs sit at 5-5 with USC and Utah left on their schedule. They are one win away from sneaking into a bowl game, but last night made that dream much harder to achieve. ASU was the most winnable of their remaining matchups but despite a hefty lead, CU couldn't escape with a win.
The defense still can't stop the run, and it's killing them
The secondary had another solid performance on Saturday, despite the absence of future first-round pick Isaiah Oliver for the second straight week. Young cornerbacks Dante Wigley and Trey Udoffia were both impressive in coverage, as were safeties Afolabi Laguda and Evan Worthington. But the defensive line's inability to stop the run or get pressure to the quarterback once again put the entire defense in a bad position.
The Buffs had no sacks on Saturday, just a week removed from one of their best pass rush performances of the year. But more importantly, they allowed ASU to rack up 381 yards and three scores on the ground. The defensive line has struggled against the run all season, allowing running backs and quarterbacks alike to run freely for big chunks of yardage. That weakness is something the Buffs may not be able to correct at this point in the season, but it should be a huge focus of recruiting and adjustments for 2018.
Quarterback is not the problem on offense
Steven Montez was benched two weeks ago and had to fight for his starting job in practice. He has been impressive since then, putting together his best game to date against Cal and a 23-of-41, 345-yard, one touchdown performance against ASU on Saturday. But the majority of those incompletions aren't on Montez - they're on his line or on his wide receivers.
The Buffs' offensive line has struggled all year, partially because of a carousel of injuries and partially because they don't have the size or talent needed at every position to win in the trenches. With almost no depth and a handful of weak spots along the line, CU has been unable to protect Montez for most of the season.
The other problem has been the senior wide receivers, who have flashed incredible talent in a handful of games but have been unable to create separation or hang on to the football in others. On Saturday, both Shay Fields and Devin Ross dropped sure touchdowns. Both of those passes hit the intended targets hands, and neither could come down with the football, prompting one of the announcers to ask "are these the 'Black Out Boyz'?" Though Fields redeemed himself later in the game with a 54-yard touchdown grab, a game that was lost by 11 points almost certainly comes back to those two dropped passes. Bottom line - this loss is not on Montez, but on the players around him.
The Buffs of the future could be great
Montez's marked improvements this season, along with the spark provided by young talent should give CU fans hope for the years to come. Almost every week, one of the younger wide receivers has made a big play - whether it's Juwann Winfree, Laviska Shenault or K.D. Nixon, as it was on Saturday. The 'Black Out Boyz' should be even better next season as they also add Kabion Ento, who redshirted this season, and Tony Brown, a transfer from Texas Tech.
The Buffs also house a lot of young talent on defense, with Worthington, Udoffia, Wigley and Nick Fisher all returning to the secondary, and Rick Gamboa and Drew Lewis likely staying to shore up the defensive front seven. Lewis has been creating draft buzz with his impressive season, but he'd be a huge returning factor for the Buffs. CU has plenty of rising talent on both sides of the ball, and they have been laying a foundation for success in the future.
Saturday's loss was especially disappointing since CU held leads at the end of the first, at the half, and at the end of the third quarter. The Buffs still have a shot at a bowl, but that window is rapidly closing. CU is in a position now where they will have to beat a ranked USC at Folsom or upset Utah on the road to secure their eligibility.