Just when even the University of Colorado's most faithful loyalists were beginning to wonder about CU's football program, the Buffaloes put together a solid game last Saturday.
That wasn't just a lucky victory against Arizona. That was a convincing 48-29 romp for Colorado, which avoided the embarrassment of what could have been its first-ever winless home record at Folsom Field — it's been around since 1924.
Yes, Arizona is having a down year, and head coach Mike Stoops was fired last month. But the Wildcats did hammer UCLA (48-12) and played Southern Cal close in Los Angeles (a 48-41 loss). They also went to the Alamo Bowl last year.
Colorado should feel good about beating Arizona that handily. Finally, the Buffs looked capable of competing respectably as a member of the Pacific 12 Conference.
CU's first-year head coach Jon Embree has not hidden his frustration with this team, questioning older players' fortitude and their willingness to push themselves harder than in the past. In some losses this fall, the Buffs have given the appearance of expecting to lose. But not in the home finale.
Many of Colorado's stars Saturday were seniors: running back Rodney Stewart, quarterback Tyler Hansen, tight end Ryan Deehan, receiver Toney Clemons, cornerbacks Jason Espinoza and Travis Sandersfeld, and linebackers Josh Hartigan and Patrick Mahnke. And that's not counting seniors already lost to injury, such as receiver Kyle Cefalo, safety Anthony Perkins and cornerback Brian Lockridge.
In all, the Buffs will graduate 28 seniors, 22 of whom are fifth-year players. That's not how to start rebuilding. However, Embree, trying to rebuild the program after Dan Hawkins failed, had no choice but to use the seniors as much as possible, even if they wouldn't be around to help in the future.
Now CU is trying to finish on a positive note, led by Stewart and Hansen. But the final two games are on the road (UCLA and Utah), and Colorado has lost its last 22 road games since winning at Texas Tech in 2007. So that would be a helpful hurdle to cross for this team, instead of leaving the road streak for next year's Buffs.
There's also a lot of irony in Colorado's game this Saturday at the Rose Bowl (5:30 p.m., Versus). Embree, a CU tight end in the mid-1980s, was a UCLA assistant before returning to Colorado last winter. His son, Taylor Embree, happens to be a receiver for UCLA, a senior playing his final home game, with Dad on the opposite sideline. And the Bruins' head coach, of course, is Rick Neuheisel, who led the CU program from 1995 through 1998 before bolting to Washington and leaving many hard feelings behind. Now, with his team 5-5, Neuheisel is fighting to save his job, and his fate appears to rest on the Colorado game and UCLA's traditional season-ender against Southern Cal.
Already, Hansen has "guaranteed" that the Buffs will beat UCLA and Utah. But that doesn't mean much unless they can show the same kind of offensive balance and big-play defense as they did against Arizona.
Looking ahead, Colorado should have a legitimate quarterback competition next year, with sophomore-to-be Nick Hirschman pushed by Texas transfer Connor Wood, a former blue-chip Longhorn recruit who has spent this season impressively running the scout team in CU practices. They'll be throwing to receiver Paul Richardson, who had several injuries this year but still has big-time talent. Soph-to-be runner Tony Jones looks like a replica of Stewart, small but sturdy. The defense also should be decent, after so many underclassmen have had to play a lot already.
Will next year bring some kind of major breakthrough at Colorado? Probably not with a schedule that will include trips to Southern Cal and Oregon, plus home games against Stanford, Washington and Arizona State.
But now, even with so many outgoing seniors, the Buffs have a chance in their final two games to lay more groundwork for eventually rising up from the bottom of the Pac-12.
Until last Saturday, that looked like a mission that couldn't begin until next year.
Just one win later, though, next year starts now.
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