November 11, 2023




BOULDER -- There for a moment, Deion Sanders Saturday evoked memories -- at least for me -- of former Colorado State coach Steve Addazio.


Following what turned out to be his final game with the Rams in 2021, Addazio held the tips of his thumb and index finger centimeters apart and proclaimed: "We're that close."


Uh ... they weren't.


After the Buffaloes' 34-31 loss to Arizona at Folsom Field Saturday, Sanders said of his skidding team: "We're so close, is what I told the team, yet so far."


The "yet-so-far" kicker -- plus the fact that this had come down to the Wildcats' final-play, chip-shot field goal -- salvaged his credibility.


"We just simply, truly, don't know how to win yet," Sanders said. "We just can't get over that hump. . . I mean, we're right there in all of these durned games, except for one when we got our butts slaughtered at Oregon. We've had opportunities to win."


Much of what I wrote after the Buffs' previous loss, to Oregon State, still stands. Now, although the Buffs are an ugly 1-6 in the Pac-12 and 4-6 overall with road games at Washington State and Utah remaining, this still can go down as a successful transitional season, both financially and artistically. Yet think back to the 3-0 start. The Buffs were the top story in college sports, and maybe in sports, period. The CU campus was a national network television set. Sanders made the cover of Time. It all hasn't come crashing down to earth, but realism set in.


Sanders said he could classify the season as progress.         

"In many aspects, certainly," he said. "I'm trying to watch my words. Certainly. I feel as though every time these fans come into this stadium, there's an expectation of us to win. I think that's progress. I wasn't here last year, but I've talked to some people I know pretty well. I think there's tremendous progress. We have consistency in several positions that is phenomenal. I really feel there's progress. We have inconsistency at some positions that we can fix. We know the problem. We've identified it and we're going to fix it....


"There ain't no lose in me. It don't sit well with me. It don't rock well with me. I have no lose in me. We have some phenomenal men in that locker room that feel the same way. We just have to be a lot more disciplined and understand what's at hand and stand up to the task on every durned play. And we're going to get there. I promise you we're going to get there."

This was the second week of Pat Shurmur taking over the play-calling duties from Sean Lewis. The calls come from Shurmur upstairs, to Lewis on the headset, and there has been surprisingly little media and public recognition of how awkward that is, especially for Lewis. Sanders' hints about what's going on behind the scenes add to the drama. No matter the semantics, Lewis has been demoted. "We're not at odds here," Sanders insisted, but some tension is inevitable. That's going to have to be sorted out in the offseason. 


The other surprise to me is that Sanders, so flashy, so blunt-spoken, so unconventional, has demonstrated an aversion to taking chances in in-game strategizing -- most notably in fourth-and-short situations.


It's not as much about the actual validity of the Deion Sanders decisions as it is about how uncharacteristic it seems. 


Against the Wildcats, CU punted twice on fourth-and-one plays.


The first was from the 50 in the third quarter. Mark Vassett's punt pinned Arizona back to its own 2. The Wildcats punted the ball back after making one first down. Then the Buffs drove 65 yards, scoring on Shedeur Sanders' 7-yard pass to Michael Harrison.


The second fourth-and-one was at the Colorado 44 in the fourth quarter. This time, Vassett's punt went out of bounds at the Arizona 8. After a Wildcats three-and-out, CU got the ball back in in good shape at its own 49 and the possession ended with Alejandro Mata's unsuccessful 44-yard field goal attempt.   


When the fourth-and-one decisions came up, Sanders made valid points.   


"What if you don't get those?" he asked. "What happens? The other team gets momentum. They go down and score, now you're saying, 'Oh my god, he should've...' You're going to second-guess every durned thing. I'm at practice every day. I know these young men. I'm on the headsets. I hear the calls. I know what's transpiring right there. I know the mood of the team. It just so happens, I think we punted the ball to, what, the 2? And then we held them and they had to punt.


"What happened after that? We score? Why you say nothing about that? I think that was a pretty good decision, wasn't it? Can we start off with that? 'That great decision you made, coach?' I don't need you to slap me on my back because my arms can reach back there. I really just want you to understand these decisions are based on knowledge. We're not guessing. They're based on what we do in practice and the situations we have in practice. I will say 'fourth and 1 on this yardline.' If we don't get it consecutively, what do you think I'm going to do in the game? That's what I did."                 


Translation: He has little faith in his beleaguered offensive line -- and has considerable faith in his punter.  


Additionally, the Buffs punted on a fourth-and-two from the Arizona 47 in the first quarter. Vassett's punt left the Wildcats at their own 2. They didn't get a first down, CU started its next drive at the Arizona 46, and Shedeur Sanders finished it off with a 20-yard TD pass to Jimmy Horn Jr. with 14 seconds left in the first quarter. So that "decision "worked," too.


So, again, this isn't criticism. It's surprise. 


The Buffs' home season is over. They went 2-4. All six games sold out. The only real embarrassing loss was the ugly second-half collapse against woeful Stanford. And even that led to considerable attention, including jabs in a "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update interview of Kenan Thompson as Sanders. So what it comes down to is that short of winning the final two (extremely unlikely, especially the season-ender at Utah), to become bowl-eligible, the Buffs goal should be avoiding anything happening that raises doubts about the Sanders program moving forward. This season wasn't -- and still isn't -- about record. It's about restored credibility ... for the future.

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