This year, the University of Colorado football team has become well-acquainted with the words “anguish” and “frustration.” It can now undoubtedly add one more word to that list: heartbreak, as there is no better adjective to describe the Buffs’ 38-31 loss to Arizona this Saturday night.
Once again, the Buffaloes (3-4, 0-3 Pac-12) saw a winnable game slip through their fingers. Costly mistakes, a lack of offensive capitalization and the high-powered Arizona offense spoiled the Buffs’ chance to win the school’s 101st Homecoming game and the first Pac-12 game under head coach Mike MacIntyre.
“I thought our kids played extremely hard,” MacIntyre said. “We just came up a little bit short again.”
That “little bit” has proved to be the bane of this team’s existence this year, as all of the Buffs’ showings in Pac-12 play this season have been of the same breed.
After winning the opening coin toss and deferring, the Buffs ran into trouble quickly. On the second play of the game, Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon connected with wide receiver Nate Phillips for a 44-yard gain. The Wildcats would eventually kick a 48-yard field goal to cap their opening drive.
The Buffaloes got the ball back and started driving down the field after two consecutive first downs. But the Wildcats defense sniffed out a reverse play to sophomore wide receiver Shay Fields, tackling him for a loss of nine yards, eventually forcing a punt.
On their ensuing drive, Arizona tailback Jared Baker who was in for injured star running back Nick Wilson, exploded up the middle, blazing past all Colorado defenders down the field for a 79-yard touchdown run to put the Wildcats up 10-0.
But the Buffs answered Arizona’s big play with a big play of their own when junior quarterback Sefo Liufau hit Fields downfield with a beauty of a pass for a 74-yard touchdown.
Arizona responded quickly with another touchdown to go up 17-7. The game was looking like it might get out of hand quickly when Buffs’ junior kicker Diego Gonzalez badly missed a 43-yard field goal, giving the Wildcats the ball on their own 15-yard line about halfway through the first quarter.
But Lady Luck shined her light on Folsom Field. On second down and four, at the Buffaloes’ 42-yard line, Solomon bobbled a snap and fumbled it. After originally ruling Solomon down, the booth reviewed the play and reversed it, handing the ball back to the Buffs. Junior defensive lineman Jordan Carrell was credited with the fumble recovery.
Two consecutive holding calls stalled the Buffs’ drive, and they settled with a field goal, ending the first quarter of play trailing 17-10.
The beginning of the second quarter saw the Buffaloes and Wildcats exchange punts. Then, about nine minutes into the quarter, Fields caught a short pass from Liufau but fumbled, turning the ball over to Arizona.
Luckily for the Buffs, Wildcats would not capitalize, as kicker Casey Skowron knocked a 45-yard field goal attempt off the right upright.
Colorado would catch another break shortly following the missed field goal. After their next drive stalled and the Buffs were forced to punt, the ball ended up hitting a Wildcats’ player. Defensive end Jaleel Awini recovered the ball at the Arizona 24-yard line. Liufau would eventually score on a two-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 17 going into halftime.
The Buffs received the ball to start the second half and wasted no time, as Liufau scored another rushing touchdown to cap an eight play, 75-yard drive to give the Buffs their first lead of the day.
Liufau’s keeper would be the only offensive joy of the quarter. The Buffs’ defense held tight, forcing the Arizona offense to punt on three consecutive drives, but the defensive effort would prove to be irrelevant, as Colorado’s offense stalled as well, also punting on three consecutive drives.
“We want to be consistent throughout the game and we weren’t,” Liufau said.
The Wildcats would eventually break out of their offensive funk, tying the game at 24 late in the third quarter on a 45-yard touchdown run by Baker. From there, things began to unravel for Colorado. As has been tradition in recent weeks, the Buffs completely lost their groove in the fourth quarter.
“We just have to go out there and finish a game,” Liufau said. “It is as simple as that.”
After failing to answer on its next offensive possession, the Buffs punted for the fourth consecutive time. Two minutes, forty-four seconds and 94 yards later, the Buffaloes found themselves down 31-24. They again fell victim to Baker, who scored on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Solomon.
From there, the Colorado offense deflated even further, punting for the fifth-straight time and giving the ball back to Arizona, who again marched it down the field from deep inside its own territory to punch it into the endzone, taking a 38-24 lead.
Despite allowing 616 total yards of offense to the Wildcats’ offense, the injury-plagued Buffaloes defense played great for most of the game. Freshmen linebackers Rick Gamboa, Grant Watanabe and N.J. Falo all stepped up. It didn’t take a football genius to see that the Buffs’ defense was keeping things watchable for most of the game.
“Just letting the game slip away like that hurts more than getting blown out the whole game,” senior nose guard Justin Solis said.
MacIntyre added,“I hurt for my team and I hurt for those kids. I’ll be hurting more in the middle of the night to be honest with you.”
Liufau would connect with Fields for a 30-yard touchdown with 4:33 left in the fourth to pull the Buffs within a touchdown, but it came at a price. Fields appeared to have injured his leg on the play and was visibly in pain. After the game it was reported that he suffered a high ankle sprain, with not timetable for his return. Fields finished the day with eight receptions for 168 yards and two touchdowns.
The Buffs’ defense forced one final punt to give the offense a final chance from their own six-yard line with 38 seconds to go, but it was too tough of a task. They failed to score.
“[Tonight] was very frustrating, obviously,” senior offensive lineman Stephane Nembot said. “We fought hard and we thought we were putting ourselves in a position to win and it just didn’t happen.”
If there is any moral victory for the Buffs to take away from Saturday night’s game, perhaps it would be that under MacIntyre, this team arguably has never played a Pac-12 opponent so well.
In addition, Colorado rediscovered its run game Saturday night. Sophomore tailback Phillip Lindsay was electric, running for 91 yards on 23 carries.
Although the Buffaloes came up short yet again, the desire to win is right where it was at the beginning of the season.
“Don’t doubt our confidence,” Liufau said.
He would finish the game with with 339 passing yards, connecting 28 of his 43 attempted passes. He threw two touchdown passes and ran two in himself.
While appreciating this team’s desire to win may be a reasonable demand, doubting this team’s ability to play a full 60 minutes of high octane football in the Pac-12 Conference is another story.
The Buffaloes will look to prove naysayers wrong next week on the road. They play Oregon State at 8:30 MST Saturday.
Contact CU Independent football beat writer Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungryHippo