Colorado Football: A November To Remember

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Colorado Football: A November To Remember
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A November to Remember

November, 2010, will be remembered by Colorado fans as the month in which the Dan Hawkins’ era finally came to an end. It was also the month of an epic collapse and a month of redemption. Colorado’s final month as a member of the Big 12 Conference was anything but boring.

And, even though the Buffs suffered two disheartening losses, it says here that each game played a significant role – a positive role - in how the Buffs’ future as a member of the Pac-12 will take shape.

November 6th – Kansas 52, Colorado 45.

There is no other way to say it, the Kansas game was a collapse of historic proportions. On the first play of the fourth quarter in the game against the Jayhawks, Rodney Stewart scored on an eight yard run to give Colorado a 45-17 lead. It was unusual for the Buffs to post that many points – it was a season-high. It was not unusual, though, for the Jayhawks to be that far behind. In four previous Big 12 games, Kansas had given up an average of 46 points per game, and had scored only an average of ten points per game. In other words, it was situation normal for Kansas.

But then the extraordinary took place.

Colorado could not get out of its own way, giving up an onsides kick, a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and an interception. Before the Buffs knew what hit them, Kansas had a 28-point comeback, a 35-point fourth quarter, and a 52-45 victory.

Dan Hawkins was fired the next day.

Had Colorado held on in Lawrence, the Buffs would have been 4-5, with two home games coming up and a bowl bid within reason. How can you fire a coach after a victory? Instead, the Buffs were 3-6, on a five game losing streak, and with little chance at a bowl game. The loss was a perfect opening for CU athletic director Mike Bohn, and served as a perfect coda for the Dan Hawkins’ era, bracketing a disgraceful opening loss to 1-AA Montana State with an historic loss to Kansas. With a 19-39 overall record, it was time.

It may have not have felt like it at the time, but the loss was an important move forward for the Colorado program.

November 13th – Colorado 34, Iowa State 14.

This one was for the defense.

Certainly, the Colorado defense was not entirely to blame for the epic collapse against Kansas. A fumble return for a touchdown took place while the Buffs defense was on the sideline, and yes, the onsides kick and the interception gave Kansas good field position. But the truth of matter is that the Colorado defense, which had shut down the Kansas offense to that point, did not make a play in the fourth quarter when a stop – any stop – would have meant a victory.

As a result, the Iowa State win was an important one for the program, especially the defense. The offense built up a 17-7 lead at halftime against the Cyclones, then stretched it to 27-7 after three quarters. Still, the issue remained: Could the Colorado defense step up and make a play to keep the lead?

The answer proved to be “yes”. Early in the fourth quarter, senior linebacker Michael Sipili took a fumble recovery back 45 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reach. The only non-offensive score for the Buffs the entire season gave Colorado a 34-7 lead. Iowa State did get a consolation touchdown later in the fourth quarter, but it was to0 little, too late. The Buffs’ defense had nine sacks, and Colorado had its first victory in almost two months. For a day, at least, the stigma of the Dan Hawkins’ era was lifted. It was time to look beyond the Meltdown in Lawrence; time to look to the future.

The Colorado defense had come through.

November 20th – Colorado 44, Kansas State 36.

This one was for the offense.

Kansas State jumped out to a 14-3 lead on Senior Day in Boulder, but the Buffs did not quit. Instead, the Colorado offense methodically wore down the Kansas State defense, scoring 27 unanswered points to take control. Rodney Stewart rushed for a career-high 195 yards, and even threw a touchdown pass. Overall, the Buffs rolled to a season-high 476 yards of total offense.

The Colorado offense clicked on all cylinders, gaining 251 yards on the ground and 225 through the air. The Buffs went nine-for-14 on third down attempts, and were a perfect three-for-three in red zone opportunities. In addition to Stewart’s success, sophomore Will Jefferson, the converted wide receiver, had a career-high 73 yards rushing. Cody Hawkins went 14-for-25 for 202 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Buffs, at least for one day, had shown their critics – and themselves – that this offense could work. The Colorado offense, it now appeared, had the chance to be competitive in the new Pac-12.

November 26th – No. 16 Nebraska 45, Colorado 17.

It is difficult to see any good coming out of any loss to Nebraska, especially a lopsided loss with a bowl bid at stake.

Still, I believe that – in the long run – this loss will prove beneficial to the long-term success of the program.

A Colorado victory over Nebraska would have meant a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility. It would also have made Colorado 3-0 under interim head coach Brian Cabral – and that could have been a problem. With a surge under the long-time assistant coach, the nationwide search for a replacement for Dan Hawkins would have been made more difficult. The cries for Cabral to be named the permanent head coach would have intensified. Why go elsewhere when the answer is already under contract?

There would have also been the issue of bowl preparation. Recall that in 2005, after Gary Barnett was fired after the Big 12 championship game, the Buffs had to prepare for the Champs Sports Bowl under interim head coach Mike Hankwitz. The result was a lackluster performance in a loss to Clemson. The extra bowl practices? Yes, they are supposed to help prepare for the next season, but with a lame duck coaching staff, how much productive work is really being done? (The Buffs used the bowl preparation in 2005 to go out an lay an egg in 2006, losing the first six games of the Dan Hawkins’ era).

Don’t get me wrong. I would love to have Brian Cabral stay on as a linebackers coach. If  the new coach wants to name Cabral as the defensive coordinator, I would be fine with that as well. If the new coach wants to go a step further, and name Cabral as an assistant head coach – a title he served under during the Gary Barnett years – I would take no issue.

But to give Cabral the head coaching job based upon a resume of three games as head coach? The Buffs can – and should – do better.

With the loss to Nebraska, the Buffs’ season is over at 5-7. Yes, it is the fifth consecutive losing season – the only second time in history that such a streak has been endured. Yes, other teams on the Buffs’ 2011 schedule get to keep playing, including non-conference opponents Hawai’i and Ohio State, with 2011 conference foes Utah, Arizona, Oregon and Stanford all looking to play in the post-season.

Still, with the loss to Nebraska there is closure. The 2010 season is over. The Dan Hawkins’ era is over.

Each of the four games in November played a role in setting the Colorado football program up for success in the near and long term. The Kansas loss hastened the firing of Dan Hawkins, when a victory may have prolonged the agony until the end of the regular season. The victory over Iowa State showed that the defense had talent – and heart – and could put the Kansas loss behind them. The victory over Iowa State showed Buff fans that there is adequate talent on offense, and that Colorado can – and should – be a decent to good offensive unit in the Pac-12.

And the loss to Nebraska closed the door on an otherwise forgettable 2010 season, leaving no lingering issues as to coaching in the post-season.

Now the search committee can do its job, hiring the best candidate available to return the Colorado program to national relevance. Potential candidates for the head coaching job will see that the Buffs have talent which can win, and a program starved for the right man for the job. Colorado should be seen as a golden opportunity to quickly generate a winning program from one which has suffered five straight losing seasons.

The 2011 season begins today … after a November to remember.

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