Close Call at Colorado

The USC vs Colorado showdown left me unsettled and unsure about the Trojans and the Buffaloes. To be honest, I was unsettled before the game. We all knew what this game should have been based on the season thus far.  Colorado had just come off a bludgeoning beatdown at the hands of Dan Lanning and the Oregon Ducks and USC won last week by two touchdowns over a depleted Arizona State team.  The Trojans allowed the Sun Devils to score 28 points even though they had major uncertainty at quarterback. ASU put up 28 points despite starting their third string QB Drew Pyne after original starter Jaden Rashada and backup Trenton Bourget went down with injuries. The Buffaloes of Boulder took a decisive 36-point L, where they could not do anything because of breakdowns at the line of scrimmage. This was major fall after the crescendo climax against the Rams the week prior. Dan Lanning declared that the Hollywood script he claimed Colorado had been following was over even though the Hollywood strike has ended, and the scriptwriters are officially headed back to work. One thing we knew for sure was that the reigning Heisman trophy winner and current Heisman front-runner Caleb Williams would be a major factor in the game and so would the matchup of the USC defense versus the electric Colorado offense.

The Trojans did just enough to squeak out with the win and the Buffaloes came up just short as the clock hit zero and the scoreboard read 48-41 in favor of the University of Southern California. USC continued their undefeated campaign by improving to 5-0 while the successive defeats dropped CU to 3-2 after their Cinderella undefeated start to the season. Even as I write this, I find it hard to believe that the game ended up being that close considering the circuitous route we took through what looked like it was shaping up to be a blowout and ended up being a nail-biter.

In football we usually don’t believe in moral victories and bad wins; but college football is a different country with a divergent perspective of its own and if you’re a program with big post season ambitions like USC, you would do best to remember that. So, Saturday was not a moral victory for Colorado and it was not a bad win for USC.  However, if there was one game where the defeated could leave the game with additional confidence and the victor could leave with more unanswered questions, this was that game.

Southern California started off blazing hot!  Suddenly that unsettled feeling that I had before the game transitioned into a more familiar feeling of, “oh ok, the close game that I anticipated actually might end up being the beatdown others were expecting.” It sure did look like the game would end up as another debacle because Colorado’s defense couldn’t stop a nosebleed. Colorado started the first drive off with some nicely designed blitz packages, but Caleb Williams and his magical right arm quickly took over and neutered the blitz. It led to quick scores for USC as Colorado did not have a lot of manpower on the backend to make tackles in space. Marshawn Lloyd took a run designed to go left off guard and completely reversed field, running 27 yards up the nearside boundary and in for the opening score. It was a play you usually see in Madden when the bot on “rookie” over pursues. You almost never see a play like that in real life eleven on eleven. That one play was a case and point of how the Colorado defense was simply not ready to play early on. USC was driving and scoring at will.

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams, left, jumps in the air while throwing a pass before Colorado defensive lineman Bishop Thomas applies a hit in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

If you were one of the people who turned off the game when Brendan Rice caught a 26-yard strike from Williams to score on his old team and send USC up 34-7, you missed a hell of a show in the 2nd half. The Colorado offense led by Shedeur Sanders and Omarion Miller absolutely lit it up in a performance reminiscent of their 4th quarter comeback a fortnight ago against their hated rivals, Colorado State. After a dominant 1st half, the Trojan defense started to look like they were the ones who couldn’t stop a check from bouncing even though they had an account full of money.

When you’re up big, you generally augment your defensive stats because the offense predictably has to throw the ball. Pass rushers pin their ears back and go get the triggerman. However, Colorado showed an unusual commitment to still running the ball as evidenced by their 27 rushing attempts after this point in the game. That number is remarkable when you think of it. Some will say this cost the Buffs the game as they did not have enough time left at the end of the game to complete the comeback. Running the ball, while keeping the defense off-balance, eats up a lot of the clock. Others will contend that if not for this continued balanced attack, the Buffs wouldn’t have come back in the first place because USC would have been expecting an unbalanced pass heavy attack. We will never know for sure, but we do know that the game ended up being way more interesting by the end. USC was up 41-14 with 5:59 to go in the 3rd quarter. At that point in the game, it looked like USC would surely run away with it but Colorado kept fighting.

When the playoff committee begins convening, they will certainly be considering all of these performances and score lines in their ranking tabulations. Caleb Williams put up an unreal stat line of 75 percent completions (30 for 40), while throwing for 403 yards and (in my LeBron voice) not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, but SIX touchdowns! However, in the 4th quarter when the Colorado defense turned up the heat and brought pressure, it seemed to impact Williams’ protection schemes and he was far less effective. Conversely, the Colorado offense, namely Omarion (not to be confused with the former lead singer of B2K), caught Johnny Storm fire and became unstoppable. It was a “too close for comfort but not close enough to be fearful” kind of finish.

The playoff committee was undoubtedly watching this Trojans-Buffs game and the last two weeks could hurt USC for lacking “impressive wins” over opponents who many will say were inferior in quality. I would contend that while Colorado was not as good as people thought they were during their 3-0 start, they are also not as poor as people perceive them to be now that they have endured back-to-back losses against west coast heavyweights. Colorado is not a top 10 team in my opinion, but I do think they will end up ranked in the top 25 when it is all said and done. They are a quality opponent for USC. This is the worst version of Colorado that we will see under Coach Prime. Deion will only improve the Buffs from here and if Caleb decides to bolt for the NFL after this season, Lincoln Riley could be under major pressure to find another beast of a triggerman to continue this level of success moving forward. USC needs to go for it this season. All of this could be moot however, because USC has one of the toughest schedules in the country and if they continue winning, they will undoubtedly represent the conference formerly known as the Pac-12 in the NCAA’s College Football Playoffs.



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