Brian Howell’s Rewind: CU Buffs gaining comfort with Pat Shurmur calling plays
BOULDER,CO November 4: Colorado assistant coach Pat Shurmur before the Oregon State game at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo. on Nov. 4, 2023. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
The first week of Pat Shurmur calling plays for the Colorado offense wasn’t so good.
Week 2, however, wasn’t so bad.
Although the Buffaloes lost, 34-31, to then-No. 23 Arizona last Saturday at Folsom Field, they looked much better on offense than they looked in the previous couple of games.
Head coach Deion Sanders made the surprise change before the Buffs’ Nov. 4 game against Oregon State, promoting Shurmur from an analyst role into the co-offensive coordinator role. With that, he took the play-calling duties from Sean Lewis and handed them to Shurmur.
In this edition of the Rewind, we look at Saturday’s improvement, as well as …
• Short yardage calls
• Best of the Buffs vs. Arizona
• Notes and quotes
Prior to the Oregon State game, CU’s offense had been struggling – outside of the first half against Stanford on Oct. 13.
The Buffs had just 295 yards of total offense at Arizona State on Oct. 7. They had 532 against Stanford, but just 169 and seven points in the third and fourth quarters. Then, they posted only 242 yards at UCLA on Oct. 28.
After a switch to Shurmur was made, CU had a miserable first three quarters against Oregon State, with 78 yards and three points on the board. In the fourth, however, the Buffs posted 160 yards and two touchdowns.
That momentum carried over to Saturday against Arizona – which has been one of the top defenses in the Pac-12 this season. The Buffs finished with only 339 yards, but put 31 points on the board.
Yeah, tremendously. I think you saw it,” Coach Prime said when asked if another week with Shurmur helped the offense. “I mean, we’re not doing tempo. We’re not as tempo as we once were because instead of going fast, I want them to get it right. And they did a phenomenal job. They did a good enough job for us to win. We’ve just got to support them defensively. That’s it.”
Sanders then corrected himself, as he was sure to give Lewis some credit, too.
“I think (Shurmur) called it phenomenal game. He really did,” he said. “They called a phenomenal game because it’s a collaborative effort. When you hear it on the set, they’re really working together as one and they’re unified. So it was a great effort.”
Regardless of who is running the offense or calling the plays, it’s clearly not just Lewis running it and quarterback Shedeur Sanders is gaining more comfort in the new arrangement.
“Overall, it’s just spending more time (with Shurmur),” Shedeur said. “Him understanding, like, my thoughts and stuff like that, how I see stuff. So that’s really the main thing.
“With anybody, even with coach Lew, you gotta go through real work together for it to be able to be successful. Last week it was coach Shurms first week. We definitely messed up on a lot of things. It’s not just him and that’s what I told them. I like both of them; it’s not on y’all. It’s on us as players. We got to be able to execute no matter what. Nobody is gonna be able to be perfect. So we’ve got to be able to have the type of mindset that no matter what, we’re gonna get this.”
Of course, it’s still not perfect. After 24 points and 237 yards in the first half, the Buffs had just seven points and 102 yards in the second half. Three of the five second-half possessions ended with punts and another with a missed field goal.
But this week, the Buffs will face a Washington State team that’s not as stout as Arizona (or Oregon State or UCLA) on defense and they’ll hope another week with Shurmur can lead to more improvement.
From the start of his tenure at CU nearly one year ago, I’ve agreed with a lot of what Coach Prime has done to turn the Buffs around. Contrary to what a small portion of Prime fans think, I like the guy and think he’s done great things for CU.
One area where I disagree with him, though, is with the Buffs’ run game.
Statistically, of course, the Buffs are a bad running team. They average 69.9 yards per game on the ground, which is last in the country.
Sacks, of course, play a big part in that. CU has lost 449 yards on 49 sacks – more than any team in the country by a lot. Old Dominion, for example, is the only team that’s been sacked more than CU (52 times) but the Monarchs have lost just 300 yards on their sacks.
Take out the sacks and CU has gained 1,148 yards on 251 carries (4.57 per carry). So, I think the Buffs are a better running team than they allow themselves to be, which is part of why I questioned a pivotal play call late in Saturday’s game.
With just under 9 minutes to go, CU faced third-and-1 from its 44-yard line, with the game tied at 31-31. On first down, Anthony Hankerson had an 8-yard run. On second down, he had a 1-yard run. On third down, however, the Buffs ran a pass play. Under pressure, Shedeur’s throw fell incomplete.
After the game, I asked Coach Prime why CU didn’t run the ball in that situation.
He said, “You’ve been watching us all season right?”
Yes, I said.
His point, of course, is that CU can’t run the ball, so it was better to put the ball in Shedeur’s hands. I didn’t know it at the time, and judging by Coach Prime’s answer to my question he didn’t either, but the stats actually show that it would have been much better to run the ball.
This season, CU has faced third-and-1 or 2 on 25 different occasions. The Buffs have converted 16 of those into first downs – a solid 64%. Here’s the breakdown:
• Run plays: 12-for-14 (85.7%), successful on the last 10 tries
• Pass plays: 4-for-11 (36.4%), failed on three of last four
We’ll never know what would have happened, but I think that one play call could have changed the game for CU. Run it and get a first down and perhaps the Buffs march down and take a lead and win the game.
Best of the Buffs
My take on the top Buffs from the loss to Arizona:
TE Michael Harrison: He’s not getting as many chances to make plays lately, but he got a few on Saturday and came through. He caught two passes for 19 yards. One catch was for a touchdown and the other for a first down on a drive at the end of the first half that resulted in a field goal.
WR/CB Travis Hunter: Caught five passes for 74 yards on offense. On defense he gave up a touchdown – on a great one-handed grab by Tetairoa McMillan – but was good otherwise. He had six tackles and a tackle for loss.
DL Amari McNeill: Finished with five tackles and a tackle for loss.
DL Leonard Payne Jr.: He’s been playing good football lately. He teamed up with Chazz Wallace for a sack and put some pressure on the QB at other times.
QB Shedeur Sanders: Completed 22-of-35 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score while leading the Buffs with 29 rushing yards.
P Mark Vassett: Another exceptional game, as he averaged 45.8 yards on six punts and three times pinned the Wildcats inside the 10-yard line. Twice he pinned them at the 2.
WR Xavier Weaver: Caught five passes for 84 yards and had 66 yards in punt returns, setting up the offense in great field position a few times.
Notes and quotes
• CU wound up going 2-4 at home this year, with a four-game losing streak to end the year (the first four-game skid at home since 2015). The losses were brutal, too, with the Buffs losing on last-play field goals to Stanford and Arizona. In both games, CU never trailed until the last play. And, they lost by seven points against USC and Oregon State.
• Three times on Saturday, CU punted on fourth-and-short near midfield. I saw one journalist refer to them as “cowardly” punts. I didn’t like Coach Prime’s call on that third-and-1, but I wholeheartedly agreed with them punting each time. In a close game, why potentially give the opponent – which has a good offense – the ball at midfield? On each of those punts, Mark Vassett pinned Arizona inside the 10 (twice at the 2), and each time, the defense responded with a stop, forcing a punt that gave CU’s offense good field position. The Buffs scored two touchdowns after those sequences (and missed a potential go-ahead field goal on the other). Being aggressive at times is great, but sometimes playing the field position game is vital. Coach Prime and the Buffs made the right calls in those situations.
• Head coach Deion Sanders with more on his decisions: “I’ve got to do what’s best for this fan base, for the school, for our AD, for our team. The decisions I make I feel like it’s best for us going forward and that’s why I make them. It’s OK for you to second-guess. I don’t mind that at all. Because I’ve been second-guessed my whole life. I don’t give a darn really. I’m not gonna lose a wink of sleep because you second-guessing what I did and what I do, but I make decisions not based off emotions. I make decision based off of facts and based off feelings and based off of knowledge and understanding and tremendous wisdom. That’s why I make decisions.”
• QB Shedeur Sanders on the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he got after a second quarter touchdown: “It had nothing to do with celebrating. When I see someone on top of (a teammate), we already scored, we already did we had to do. So whenever you doing extra I’m not going for that. If somebody’s doing extra I’m gonna get him off them because I’m not gonna sit there and watch my brother anything happening to him. I’m not gonna do that. So that’s just me as a person. I told coach Prime, I understand, but that’s just the attitude I have as just a human being.”