Colorado 31, Eastern Washington 24 - CU Undefeated, Untied, and Uninspiring

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Colorado 31, Eastern Washington 24 - CU Undefeated, Untied, and Uninspiring

September 6th - Boulder                          Colorado 31, Eastern Washington 24

Colorado overcame a 14-point halftime deficit, rallying for two touchdowns in the final 2:05 to pull off a 31-24 win over Eastern Washington.

Junior cornerback Cha’pelle Brown picked off Eagle quarterback Matt Nichols with 1:44 to play, returning the interception 27 yards for a score to give the Buffs their first lead of the game. A second interception of Nichols preserved the win a few minutes later, as senior safety D.J. Dykes pulled in a Nichols’ offering in the Colorado endzone with three seconds to play.

The game was not supposed to come down to the final play, as Colorado was heavily favored to defeat the Eastern Washington Eagles from the Big Sky Conference.

Reminded all week by the coaches and the media of their implosion against Montana State in the 2006 opener, the Buffs’ players, to a man, said that they were not overlooking Eastern Washington, ranked seventh in the FCS polls.

It was the Eagles, though, who came out ready to play. A methodical, nine-play, 84-yard drive to open the game gave Eastern Washington a lead it would hold almost the entire afternoon.

As 46,417 Buff fans looked on in disbelief, the Eagles converted three consecutive third down opportunities (Colorado State converted only two of 12 third down chances in the 2008 opener), culminating in a 43-yard touchdown pass from Nichols to Brynsen Brown to give EWU a 7-0 lead.

After an exchange of punts, Colorado strung together a drive which seemed to right the Buffs’ ship. Putting together a 12-play drive of their own, highlighted by a 22-yard pass from Cody Hawkins to Patrick Williams, CU got on the board early in the second quarter when Hawkins hooked up with sophomore wide receiver Josh Smith on a nine-yard pass to tie the score at 7-7.

The Buffs’ defense forced a punt in the Eagles’ next possession, and it appeared that CU would have the ball with a chance to take the lead for the first time all afternoon. Colorado gave the ball right back, however, as Josh Smith fumbled the punt at the CU 27-yard line.

Six plays later, the Buffs were behind again. A one yard touchdown run by Toke Kefu (no, I didn’t make that up) gave Eastern Washington a 14-7 lead with 10:20 to play in the second quarter.

A few minutes later, it was 21-7, as Cody Hawkins was picked off by J.C. Sherritt of the Eagles on CU’s next possession. Sherritt took the ball back 48 yards for an Eastern Washington touchdown, and the Buffs were suddenly down two scores. A missed field goal by Aric Goodman late in the second quarter left the score at 21-7 at the half.

The second half began ominously for the Buffs as well. If there were fire and brimstone speeches given in the CU locker room at halftime, they were lost on the Colorado offensive unit. The Buffs first drive of the third quarter actually went backwards. Three plays lost a total of seven yards (including two penalties), and the Buffs gave the ball right back to the Eagles.

Fortunately for the Buffs, the Colorado defense rose to the occasion. The next four Eastern Washington possessions all concluded with punts. The second of these was returned 51 yards by Josh Smith, setting up the Buffs at the Eastern Washington four yard line. On third-and-goal at the one, Hawkins hit true freshman tight end Ryan Deehan for a score. The Buffs were back in it at 21-14, with 5:30 still to play in the third quarter.

After the Eagles’ third punt of the second half, the Buffs put together one of their better drives of the day. Starting at their own 14, Colorado mustered an 11-play, 71-yard drive. However, CU could not push the ball over the end line, settling for a 32-yard field goal by Aric Goodman. 21-17, with 13:46 left to play in the game.

The Buffs were unable to capitalize on the Eagles’ fourth consecutive punt, turning the ball over on downs on an incomplete pass on fourth-and-three at the Eastern Washington 22-yard line.

The Eagles took advantage of the shift in momentum, mounting their only real drive of the second half, pushing the ball to the CU 35 before Felipe Macias hit a 52-yard field goal to give Eastern Washington a 24-17 lead with 3:52 left to play.

Gut check time.

With the game, and perhaps the season, in the balance, the Buffs took only 1:43 of game clock to tie the score. Colorado covered 57 yards in only five plays, with Cody Hawkins hitting junior fullback Jake Behrens from two yards out on third-and-goal to tie the score for the first time since early in the second quarter.

Only 1:57 remained when the offense for Eastern Washington took the field.

Overtime seemed imminent.

On the second play from scrimmage, though, Matt Nichols, who would connect on 32 of 51 passes for 303 yards on the day, made his first mistake. Nichols thought the Buffs were in man coverage; his receiver saw the Buffs were in a zone. Nichols threw to the spot where he thought his receiver would be, but instead found CU’s Cha’pelle Brown, who intercepted the ball at the EWU 27-yard line, then made some nice moves on his way to the endzone, giving the Buffs their first lead of the contest.

Down 31-24 with just over a minute to play, Eastern Washington mounted a final rally. The Eagles made it to the Colorado 30-yard line before CU safety D.J. Dykes picked off Nichols’ desperation toss in the endzone to end the threat with three seconds to play.

The Buffs had their second win of the season, opening up 2-0 for the first time since 2005. The win, however, was certainly not as easy as had been forecast.

"I told you guys (in the pressroom) that they were a good football team, and they are" said Dan Hawkins of the Eagles. "We always try to tell our guys not to get caught up with the decal on the side of the helmet. It’s hard a lot of the time when you have young guys."

For the second straight week, Josh Smith had the chance of being the goat, but, for the second straight week, came out as one of the heroes. Against Colorado State, Smith fumbled the first punt of the game, but then redeemed himself with a 93-yard kickoff return.

Against Eastern Washington, Smith fumbled again, this time giving the opposition a short field in the second quarter, allowing the Eagles to take a 14-7 lead. Smith again redeemed himself, however, with a nine-yard touchdown reception for CU’s first touchdown, and a 51-yard punt return which set up the Buffs’ second score. "Once I start seeing color the ball gets away from my chest and that’s not good," said Smith of his fumbles. "I just have to keep the ball high and tight. It was a big learning experience."

The entire game was a learning experience for the Buffs. The stats sheet showed an even game. The Eagles had one more first down (18-17),while the Buffs had a one yard advantage in total offense (351-350).

Cody Hawkins hit on 28-38 for 261 yards and three touchdowns to offset his interception. The running game was anemic, with Colorado only rushing for 90 total yards on 33 carries (a 2.7 yards/carry average). Darrell Scott chipped in 39 yards on 11 carries, while Rodney Stewart, receiving his first start as a Buff, had 38 yards on nine touches.

There would be much to work on during the upcoming bye week. In addition to the two costly turnovers, both of which resulted in Eastern Washington touchdowns, the Buffs committed ten penalties (for seventy yards). Such numbers would not bode well with the upcoming slate of opponents.

Up next is West Virginia, one of the preseason picks to contend for the national championship. Led by a Heisman trophy candidate in quarterback Patrick White, the Mountaineers, coming off of an 11-2 campaign, were the consensus pick to take the Big East title and a BCS bid. At Greenville, North Carolina, though, West Virginia met its Waterloo against East Carolina, falling hard, 24-3. The loss dropped West Virginia out of the top ten in the polls.

The good news? The Mountaineers had been exposed, and were certainly not invincible.

The bad news? They would be coming to Boulder with an attitude and a chip on their shoulders.

 

Undefeated, Untied, and Uninspiring

The first drives of each half were just as you would script them:

Opening drive of the game—a nine-play, 84-yard drive finished off with a touchdown.

Opening drive for the opposition in the second half—three-and-out, with a couple of penalties and increased frustration thrown in just for fun.

Yes, the first two drives of each half were exactly the way the Buffs and their fans would have wanted them to be ....

except ....

It was Eastern Washington who took the opening kickoff and marched smartly down the field to take the early lead, and it was Colorado who looked inept and unprepared to open the second half.

What in the name of the Big Sky Conference was going on here?

I must admit, for much of the first half, I had the same attitude I did during the Montana State game in 2006. It wasn’t so much, "I can’t believe this is happening" as it was, "okay, the little kids have had their fun, now it’s time to take control and assert ourselves".

Only against Montana State, the assertion never came, and against Eastern Washington, it almost came too late.

What do we take from this game? In scanning the message boards on the internet after the game, Buff fans seemed to fall into two camps. There were the "This team is going nowhere / We can’t run the ball / The offensive line is a joke / The play-calling is not utilizing our talent / Cody hasn’t matured / The defense plays too soft" posts - you get the idea.

There were also the defenders: "2-0 is 2-0 / The team showed poise in coming back / The defense stepped up in the second half / The young players are maturing each week / Good thing we have a bye week to correct the errors / Thank God West Virginia got creamed."

So, where are the Buffs in 2008? I will admit to being shaken by the Buffs’ struggles against the "easiest" opponent on the calendar. After West Virginia, which will be coming to Boulder with something to prove to a national audience, take a look at the next five opponents for Colorado. They won their games on September 6th by a combined total of 261-26, or, if you prefer, by an average score of 52-5.

Yes, three of the five wins were over lower division opponents, but wasn’t that what the Buffs were supposed to be playing in Eastern Washington? If the Buffs can’t take charge against an Eastern Washington, how will they pull it all together against more talented competition?

I don’t know.

I do know that the Buffs are 2-0. I do know that "the Plan" for a winning season mandated that Colorado get through the first two games undefeated, and they have done so.

I do know that West Virginia is now vulnerable, and over the next ten days some questions may start to arise about the prudence of hiring nice guy and player favorite Bill Stewart as head coach, which could get into the heads of the Mountaineer players.

I do know that the Buffs only really need one win in the next three or four weeks to stay on track for a winning campaign.

And, I know that many of these same Buffs were on the field for the Oklahoma game from last season.

Hang tough, Buff fans. With all of this youth (four of the five starting on the offensive line this week were freshmen or sophomores), there will be some trying times, and perhaps some bad losses.

True. The Buffs are an ugly 2-0.

It beats the snot out of being an ugly 1-1.

More on CU football, including archived games, available at http://www.cuatthegame.com

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