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The Morning After, Part 8: UCLA vs Colorado

The W on the scoreboard ended up where we expected, but the path it took to get there has to be a huge concern to Bruin fans. In a game that came down to the final minute, one team was celebrating its efforts to make it close while the other was bemoaning the struggles that made it close. Which position would you rather be in as a fan?

Two of the players who who saved the day for Bruin fans. And maybe for Bruin coaches.
Two of the players who who saved the day for Bruin fans. And maybe for Bruin coaches.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Near the end of the game yesterday when a beleaguered Colorado Buffaloes football program once again went down to the wire with the once #7 ranked and 3TD favored and highly talented UCLA Bruins, I thought about the relative feelings of the two fanbases and a question occurred to me:

Who would you rather be today - a Buff fan or a Bruin fan?

A very similar question appeared in one of the threads, but I swear it was posted several minutes after I thought of it myself and wrote it down because much of my thought was inspired by the fact that I was watching the final minutes of the game on a computer stream in one of our satellite emergency departments with a new coworker who is a recent CU grad. As we rooted for the two teams on surprisingly equal footing late in the game, we couldn't have been more different in our mood. My quiet dismay and desperation at the end was tinged with a powderkeg blue sky of belief that we would still pull this game out anyway. For Bruin fans, a feeling of dread that we were once again teetering on the edge but would nevertheless succeed in the end. My CU alum-coworker's audible excitement and hope at the end was clouded with a gray (and what happened to black and gold?) from seeing his team come close and fail so many times. For Colorado fans, a feeling of dread that they were once again crawling to the edge but would nevertheless fall short in the end.

And that's exactly how it transpired.

Now we don't usually go for moral victories around here, but it seemed that the relative sentiment between the Bruin fans and Buffalo fans was pretty distinct. The conclusions of the Bruin faithful were blatantly obvious to anyone following the game thread: another underwhelming performance against an inferior team made possible by poor preparations and schemes by a coaching staff who was once again bailed out by the incredible grit and talent of the players themselves. Yes, a win, and thankfully so, but there wasn't a whole lot about it that was moral, and even less that was good for morale.

But on the other hand, the Buffs fan said that he was really happy with his team's performance, disappointed in the loss, yes, but proud that his team had done enough to win. And I'll say... Their offense generated 154 yards more than ours. They more than doubled our time of possession. They more than doubled our number of first downs. In the second-quarter alone, they ran 40 offensive plays to our 4, and had an obscene total of 114 offensive plays for the game. In retrospect, it is really quite extraordinary that we still outscored CU 14-6 in that second quarter, and that we scored 28 points in 19 minutes with the ball, and that won that game at all. But I'm getting used to winning games we shouldn't win. The Denver Broncos have done it 6 times already this year.

So there at the end, there was Buffalo fan holding his head up, and Bruin fan holding his pitchfork up. And I don't blame either one of them. Knowing the depths that CU fan wallowed in the last 3 years, I understand. And knowing the stagnation that Bruin fan has realized for the last 3 years, I understand that, too.

Typically, the phrase "Not to be disrespectful..." is immediately followed by some sort of disrespectful statement. So it is with that in mind that I sincerely mean not to be disrespectful, so...Not to be disrespectful, but given the choice, I don't want to be Colorado fan.

The Buffs were a perennial power in the late 80s and finally sat on top of the football world in 1990 when they were ranked #1 in the AP Poll at the end of the season, earning them the de facto national title that year. Of course it did take 5 downs in Columbia to get there, a fact not lost or left unmentioned by any Missouri fan ever, including my parents. Head Coach Bill McCartney's winning ways continued through the 90s with a string of major bowl victories and a Heisman trophy among the awards before he turned the program over to a certain former UCLA quarterback who then left the program in the hands of the only Coach ever to take Northwestern to a Rose Bowl. More winning ensued but off-field events did get a pretty questionable after a while, so the University decided to look in a new direction and hired a promising young coach with lots of success in a small pond who promptly started his son at quarterback and cratered the program. Weird how that sort of thing worked out.

Colorado has been trying for about a decade now to get back to even a measure of competitiveness, and their move to the Pac-12 conference 4 years ago further delayed that path by wiping Kansas and Iowa State from the annual schedule. But they are making progress. Three years ago, CU was running QB sneaks on 1st down and losing everything by 40. They changed coaches and each year since, the Buffs are getting a bit more competitive. They're still finding ways to lose but the losses are closer, and sometimes, including last week at Oregon State, they're actually even wins. They are a program that is slowly trending upward, where as U.C.L.A. has pretty clearly hit a plateau under the current coaching staff. This season looks more and more like the like the last two, all the way from the promising start to the essentially scheduled two game losing streak to the last minute squeaker over Colorado. It should make the gambling easy. But all signs continue to point back at the Bruins coaching staff.

Now CU's coaching staff should not be immune to criticism in this game. The Buffaloes moved the ball up and down the field for 4 long drives in the first half and netted 6 points from it. Getting 1.5 points/drive won't cut it. especially when we got 7 points for ourselves on one of those drives. In this week's Q&A, the CU folks asked if Colorado could run the ball against U.C.L.A.'s defense and I said that if CU could replicate Stanford's run game, they could have some success. It seemed they did just that. Why CU ever bothered to throw the ball when every run was going for 5+ yards is a mystery, especially down near the goal line. That's exactly what they did on all 8 plays of their opening drive of the second half and they finally got their touchdown. But coaches like to try to prove they're smarter than everyone else and they start pulling random pages from the playbook instead of just sticking with what works. So we definitely got some help from the Buffs yesterday. Despite that, it sure looked clear that the Colorado coaching staff was better prepared on both sides of the ball. They knew how to attack our defense better than we knew how to defense them, and their defense which was near the worst in the conference stymied our offense save a few big plays for much of the day. And that ongoing inequity in the respective coaching efforts is a topic we have talked about a little bit, and we'll undoubtedly hear about it some more.

But in the end, the thing that ended up mattering the most on the field wasn't the coaches' game plan or play calls or substitution patterns. In fact all of that was shot to hell. All that was left were the guys in pads. The difference in the game was the players.

U.C.L.A. won that game on the heart and talent of our players. Our defense spent the first 50 minutes generally not stopping Colorado and our offense spent the first 50 minutes hitting an occasional big play or hitting big punts (and big props to our punter, by the way - hell of a comeback.). But when it came down to gut check time in the last handful of minutes, and when we absolutely had to get a score and then get a stop (and then another stop) to avoid the looming disaster, our offense devoured 69 yards in 3 plays for a dagger of a score to take the lead, and an exhausted defense bowed up and turned CU over on downs, and then came back in the final minute to take the ball away once and for all.

When the Bruins needed a play at the end, they got it. For a team that did much of none of that under the direction of its coaching staff and gameplan for the first 3 and 1/2 quarters, you tell me why that happened. When injuries limited the formations and fits and play calls and the game plan was gone, what was left? Just a bunch of beaten up Bruins in blue who refused to lose.

And those guys are why, year after year, from sky high hopes to crushing defeats, I'll always stick with this team. I'll stick with the backup linebacker who made 18 tackles. I'll stick with the special teams player who played his first snap at middle linebacker ever. I'll stick with the true freshman lineman who filled in at guard when our offensive line became musical chairs like the old days. I'll stick with the team leader who outran everyone for 82 yards on a bad knee that had him limping afterward. I'll stick with the true freshman safety who never even played corner once in high school then lined up at corner in crunch time and sealed the game with a pick because he'd studied that play earlier in the week. It wasn't just next man up. It was next next next man up in some situations. And those guys manned up big.

So in that sense, I agree with Coach Mora when he says this was one of the most satisfying wins he's been a part of, because it showed how tough and versatile and hungry these young men are. But part of sticking with those guys is sticking up for those guys to make sure they get the kind of leadership on the field and in the locker room that they deserve.The qualities of those young men are making up for some of the deficiencies in their coaches. It's not a recipe for long term ultimate success, but it's clearer and clearer that this is the Bruin way.

Of course, given the choice, I'll be the Bruin fan every day, even when it includes the strain of having to dig deep to beat last place teams. Moral victories don't fill you up. Frustrating victories are still better than the warmest losses, and the goal of finding our way to the top still exists out there. If the current coaching staff isn't proving to be the type of leader who can get us there, then its time to make some changes and get back on the path forward. We've realized our downs. We just played a team that is still a long way from recovering from their own. I don't want to give back any ground.

Does anyone doubt we have the players, even in the two and three and four deep, to be special? I think yesterday's game answers that.

So then, what's left?