A long, hard look in the mirror for Mike MacIntyre and the Buffs

Sep 1, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Buffaloes running back Phillip Lindsay (23) celebrates his touchdown carry with quarterback Steven Montez (12) in the first quarter at Sports Authority Field against the Colorado State Rams at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Consistency is something that has eluded the defending Pac-12 South Champion Colorado Buffaloes (4-4, 1-4) football team in 2017. Not from an individual perspective but as a team, the Buffs don’t come out and play consistently each time they take the field. One week the offense finds a rhythm, but the defense falls apart, and vice versa. At least that has been the case in 2017. One could make an argument, from week to week during this year, there has really been just one unit that has come out and consistently performed at a high level. Think about it. What’s the first (and only) thing that comes to mind when you think about things the Buffs do well consistently? Phil Lindsay.

Senior tailback, Denver native and Colorado’s all-time all-purpose yards leader, Phillip Lindsay has been sensational in 2017. On a pace that will shatter Colorado’s single-season carries record (set by Rashaan Salaam during his Heisman campaign in 1994), Lindsay has carried the Buffs on his back all year. He is currently projected for 337 carries (would be the most in a single season in CU history) and 1,637 rushing yards (would be 3rd-most in a single season). Lindsay currently sits third all-time in rushing yards (3,326), sixth in scoring (210 points) and number one in your heart. He became the first Buff to notch back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons in CU’s over a century old history.

Lindsay has carried the ball 98 times over the last three games. That is an average of 32.6 carries per game. Each and every week it has been priority number one to establish him early and often on the ground. This is all well and good until you have a coach like Mike Leach who comes along and forces you to beat his team through the air. This is what we saw last week when the Buffs got shutout, 28-0, by the (#15/#16) Washington State Cougars. Conditions were terrible, the rain fell long after the sun went down and wind stayed with it. Leach saw his chance and made his move. Wazzu stacked the box with eight, even nine guys at times and dared Co-Offensive Coordinators Darrin Chiaverini and Brian Lindgren to throw the ball.

All week long watching film ahead of that game, I expected the Colorado coaching staff to anticipate how fast the Wazzu’ pass rushers got up field and would dial up some quick tosses to their star tailback in an effort to diminish this pressure. Maybe we’d see a wrinkle like what they employed when the Buffaloes scored their first touchdown against the UCLA Bruins (4-3, 2-2) back in September. Maybe we’d see screens into blitz’s. They could force Leach and his Top 10 defense to at the very least, play honest. They didn’t do any of it. It wasn’t part of the gameplan again. Just like it hasn’t been all year, but for a select few occasions I could count on one hand.

Why? Most likely because the coaching staff wanted to give at least one of their tackles help with Wazzu’s talented edge rushers on any plays they weren’t rushing Phil Lindsay. However, if things aren’t working out, at some point you have to try something new. Or better yet, go back to what made you great again. After all, that was the motto of 2016, “Make CU Great Again”. MacIntyre and the Buffs did it for one year, they won the Pac-12 South. No one can argue with that. To really “Make CU Great Again” however, they had to build off of what we saw last year, they had to be consistent. They haven’t been. Not from week to week, and certainly not from last year.

Even though Lindsay’s usage percentage is off the charts, it may be surprising that there is one area however, that the Buffaloes haven’t utilized Lindsay nearly enough. It may be the key to unlocking their offense. The “Tasmanian Devil” is as lethal a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game as there is in the Pac-12, but you’d never know it watching the offense this year. He has just 17 receptions in 2017, totaling 150 yards and a touchdown. An average of 8.8 yards per catch, a very solid number for such limited opportunities. However in 2016, on a much more successful and consistent team, he had 53 receptions, totaling 493 yards and one touchdown. Lindsay averaged 9.3 yards per reception on the road to an appearance in Santa Clara. He is Colorado’s leader for ALL-PURPOSE yards for a reason, he can do much more than just run the ball. However, that’s all he has been asked to do for the most part in 2017.

It would also help the Buffs if rushing Lindsay on 1st and 2nd Down wasn’t all that their opponents were expecting them to do either. For a team that is in desperate need of a jumpstart, utilizing Lindsay as a receiver out of the backfield would be a huge benefit to CU in several ways. Quick dump-offs and screens out of the backfield would allow CU a chance to relieve some pressure off Montez. A quarterback who already has enough trouble staying in the pocket as it is. Opposing defenses would no longer be able to stack eight, even nine guys in the box which would ideally give Lindsay bigger holes to run through. The Buffs’ offense would almost instantly become far less predictable for opposing defenses to read. Most importantly it would provide a chance to solve the Buffs’ most pressing issue. Using Lindsay as a weapon out of the backfield would almost certainly aid Colorado in creating more room to complete big plays downfield through the air. The plays that they have been so inept at making this year. CU doesn’t have one pass completed over 50 yards on the season. It would, at the bare minimum, open the field up.

Phil Lindsay is a warrior, but he is also a human being. A human being that is only 5’8″ that has taken, and delivered for that matter, quite a beating over the last three months. To get the best out of him for the next four games, not just Saturday, it would behoove the coaching staff to find alternative ways to utilize him in an effort to diversify their attack. After all, Colorado needs two wins for bowl eligibility and their remaining schedule doesn’t get any easier. They are going to need all they can get from Lindsay to punch their postseason ticket over the next four weeks.

The Buffaloes are far too one dimensional and have been for the larger part of 2017. There are things that can be tried to shake the Buffs’ woes, but a lack of adaption has brought the offense to a screaming halt. Sure, the Buffs can compete against teams with below average defenses like the Arizona Wildcats (5-2, 3-1), the Oregon State Beavers (1-7, 1-5), and the Bruins. However, that’s not ‘Making CU Great Again’. That is not what the program’s expectations dictate. It is far from it.

MacIntyre’s team has more than enough talent on the offensive side of the ball to be scoring points against even the best defenses in the conference. This is a great time for a reminder that Colorado’s wide receiving core was ranked third in the country preseason by Athlon Sports. This is an offense that was supposed to be able to score on anybody. That’s all they told us all offseason long, up until the start of the season. However, that talented group of playmakers outside aren’t getting the ball. Montez has struggled and they have dropped passes, but nearly half the time the Buffs line up, they are going to run the ball with Phil Lindsay. Eight games into the year, teams get that, they’ve seen it on film plenty, they’re gameplanning for it. If you stop Phil Lindsay, you stop Colorado. That’s the recipe teams have been using, most recently Mike Leach’s team did a great job of executing it. As a sidenote, it should also put into perspective just how impressive it was that despite the offense absolutely sputtering in Pullman, Lindsay was still able to tally 98 yards on the ground.

To be fair, Colorado did try to stretch the field early against Wazzu. However, Montez struggled with the conditions and missed throws. The problem was, they didn’t set it up. In fact, that’s one of their biggest problems. The lack of use of the play-action pass in Colorado’s offense has been baffling to me. It has been one of their most effective ways to stretch the field in MacIntyre’s tenure in Boulder. If they would set up those shots by feeding Lindsay both through the air and on the ground, Colorado could find ways to convert 3rd Downs consistently and put points on the board. That was something they failed to do even one time against the Cougars. The stats may say 1-17 on 3rd Downs but the one conversion was the final play before the end of the half. I’m not counting it and neither should you. MacIntyre called a timeout with two seconds left and instead of throwing at the end zone, Montez threw a 10 yard pass to Jay MacIntyre on a 3rd & long as the clock expired.

It’s clear that these Buffs have more questions than answers at this point in the season. Yes, they’ve dealt with injuries, but who hasn’t? Yes, they’ve dealt with adversity, but who doesn’t? It’s delusional to think there aren’t things that can be done. What confuses me is something the Head Coach said this week. MacIntyre told myself and a few others after practice during one of our three opportunities for media availability during the week, “coaches are putting players in positions to make plays, they’ve just gotta make them.” Fair, the Buffs dropped four interceptions. Fair, Montez missed open receivers. Fair, it was a two-score game at half. However, the best coaches never stop coaching, they never stop evaluating. They don’t blame their players. They assume responsibility instead of point the finger at 18-22 year olds. Right now, Mike MacIntyre is slated to be the only coach to ever win the AP National Coach of the Year Award and not follow it up with eight or more wins the next season. The only one. He needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and evaluate what is really going on here. They’re too predictable. Even if you are right there, right on the verge of making the big play, the best never stop trying different things, bringing different looks, taking different approaches, learning from it and reflecting on the things that brought them success. In a way, running Phil into the back of the offensive line so many times this season is almost a metaphor for the offensive gameplan at the moment. Bash your head against the wall enough and hopefully you’ll break through. It’s a noble idea, but it’s clearly not working. Anyone who is watching will tell you that.

While speaking to media on Tuesday, redshirt-senior wide receiver Bryce Bobo was asked what it would take for the senior class to leave their mark on the 2017 season. He responded simply, “win the next four games.” The first step is on Saturday. The day the University is retiring the number of 1994 Heisman Winner, and Colorado-legend, Rashaan Salaam. How ironic that on the Homecoming to honor the best tailback in Colorado history following his passing, arguably the best since Salaam may be taking another step towards breaking one of his storied records. The single-season carries record of 298, set the season that Salaam won the Heisman. For a team that has found nothing but frustration and repitition in having to go back to the proverbial “drawing board” after each game, this day may be able to provide the emotional spark the Buffs are so desperately seeking. It will also provide the second to last opportunity to watch the real ‘Mr. Colorado’ take the field. Cherish and honor Phil Lindsay while you have the chance. He deserves every last cheer.

It is time to mix it up. It is time to go back to what helped you find success in the first place. Colorado was a big play offense in 2016 until they started relying on Sefo to run the ball as much as he did at the end of the season. Teams began to anticipate it and it eventually led to two blowouts against elite level competition who feast on predictability. They don’t have the defense that they did last year. They have to run the ball to keep it away from opposing offenses. However, they can’t expect to win games without scoring and they better start doing a lot more of it consistently over the next four weeks if they want to make a bowl game. The best at their craft evaluate the challenge they’re presented, determine the best course of action and adapt in response. The message is getting repetitive and you can feel it all over campus. Losing sucks. It always does. It always will. However, it is one of life’s constants. Someone has to win and someone has lose.

Fans are upset and justifiably so. Some of the coaching decisions or lack there-of, have been head scratching and frustrating. It is time to believe in what you preach. Each week I listen to Coach Mac tell me how good things are in practice and how everyone is doing “some good things”. Each week, I believe him less and less. How could you not? Nine out of 10 times he is short and defensive rather than open and honest when discussing an issue. I always laugh when people in public positions choose to act that way in this day and age. Transparency is always a better option when things aren’t going well. You come off poorly when you react in a more volatile manner. We saw this on the sideline in Pullman. Things will change after this season, even though MacIntyre won’t be fired (his buyout is his total contract) and now I don’t think he could find a job to leave even if he wanted. CU may be ‘stuck’ with the reigning National Coach of the Year even if they wanted to make a move. However, some assistants will be replaced I’d imagine. They have to. There are glaring holes in recruiting still. Rome wasn’t built in a day but some have whiffed on quite a few. The message is clearly getting stale. I would believe what MacIntyre said more if I saw the evidence of a search for answers to in Colorado’s play, but I don’t. Neither do fans. I think most of his players still do, but this week I saw doubt in some of their eyes for the first time since he’s been on campus. Doubt that Colorado was on the right path.

In today’s sporting culture, head coaches are hired and fired at the drop of a hat. Mike MacIntyre should not be fired, not yet at least. I’m not advocating for that. He changed a toxic culture in Boulder and brought success to a program that had been nowhere close in over a decade. Football is in his blood, he is a coach’s kid and so is his son. I do not believe he is a bad person or a bad coach. However if talented players aren’t consistently making plays, it does not necessarily mean it’s mostly on them. He’s acknowledged that to a small extent. He’s said this week he knows they have to coach better. He gave one small example, by adding more ball drills to the defensive backs’ schedule. He better have a lot more up his sleeve otherwise this thing could spiral. We haven’t seen that yet, but we may. If Colorado suffers a loss to the California Golden Bears (4-4, 1-4) on Homecoming weekend, you will be able to hear the panic sirens ring through Boulder like the emergency signal tests around The Hill do once each week.

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