Colorado can’t dodge itself or the Trojans way when USC rolls

Ten games in one season to forget and one thing is for sure; Colorado is a team that just won’t give up. It doesn’t stop missing opportunities. It doesn’t stop inflicting wounds on itself. It doesn’t stop showing terrible quarterback play. It doesn’t stop dishing out first downs and touchdowns like Oprah. It just doesn’t stop playing very hard, very bad football.

The Buffs are halfway through the toughest four-game stretch of a season that chewed like a five-dollar steak. CU again failed to cover a massive point spread, which is the number of points the offense has brought to the board just once this season.

USC and its Heisman quarterback hopeful Caleb Williams got off to a slow start. Colorado unveiled a defensive turn that kept the Trojans’ offense down to just 8 yards and no points in the first quarter. Sandwiched between two three-and-outs, the Buffs forced Williams’ second interception of the season when Nikko Reed defeated former Buff Brenden Rice with a deep ball in midfield.

It was an early big game that Reed quickly followed with a big mistake. His celebratory throw of the ball warranted an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that pushed the offense back into the shadows of his end zone. A play and a JT Shrout error later, CU Southern Cal handed their first points of the game when Colorado’s quarterback was called to an intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety.

The Buffaloes managed to move the ball and score points for an early 3-2 lead late in the first quarter. After the replay overturned an apparent Montana Lemonious-Craig first down catch, USC was flagged for offside on Colorado’s fourth down punt. Head coach Mike Sanford threw the offense back on the field and Alex Fontenot converted a fourth and a carry before busting 37 yards into second behind a Brady Russell block in the subsequent game. It was a career-long rush for Fontenot and put CU in the red zone. Shrout threw an easy throw to a wide-open Russell two games later that the senior tight end would have gone into the end zone, forcing the Buffs to settle with a 28-yard field goal from Cole Becker and an early but short-lived lead to be satisfied.

Williams was beginning to settle in and the defense missed big chances in the Trojans’ subsequent drive that continued into the second quarter. CU’s defense was unable to get off the field in 3rd and 19th or 3rd and 23rd when the quarterback eluded Colorado’s three-man rush and locked in with tight end Kyle Ford under deep clearance routes for catch -and-runs of 24 connected and 42 yards. The Buffs were called on to interfere due to an interruption on the 3rd and 9th passes, and Williams scored his first of a series of touchdowns a game later.

Shrout had his first of two turnovers on Colorado’s next possession when the ball was taken from him while attempting to dodge a heavy 3rd-and-long pass rush and setting up USC at the Buffaloes’ 8-yard line. Williams went untouched into the end zone again two games later for the Trojans’ second touchdown in just over two minutes of play and a 16-3 lead.

Southern Cal held CU to another 3-and-out on his next possession when a personal foul put the Buffs behind the chains with 2nd-and-20 at his own 25-yard line. Williams then directed an 8-play, 67-yard drive that culminated with a 32-yard deep strike on Rice, giving the Trojans a 20-point lead with less than two minutes remaining at halftime.

The Buffaloes made a first down on their last possession of the half but couldn’t let the clock run out as two incompletions forced another Colorado punt that put the Trojans in good field position with 0:45 minutes remaining. With CU’s drop-eight strategy showing cracks, an 11-yard Williams scramble and another connection with Rice, that 29-yard put USC in the red zone. Denis Lynch’s 34-yard field goal on time set the Trojans a 24-point ceiling in the second quarter. The half was filled with missed opportunities for Colorado on both sides of the ball. Though Southern Cal was limited to just 25 rushing yards, the defense failed to get off the field on numerous key third downs, and the offense stuttered while going 0-7 on third down.

The second half got off to a promising start as the defense ended up third and fourth at CU’s 38-yard line. A fourth down sack from Williams, Colorado’s third of the contest, put the Buffs near midfield and Fontenot got to work, carrying 7 times for 51 yards and a touchdown while taking CU’s first two third downs of the contest transformed. The drive took the senior past the century mark for the game, his first 100-yard attempt since 2019, and reduced the Trojans’ lead to two points.

Much has been written about Colorado’s inability to play complementary football. After a big defensive stop and an impressive goal drive, CU’s special teams allowed what couldn’t happen – giving up a 40-yard return to freshman running back/returner Raleek Brown, who set USC up near midfield. Williams connected with Tahj Washington two games later for a 61-yard touchdown, and substitute Will Rose converted a fake extra-point kick for a two-point conversion that extended the Trojans’ lead to 24 points.

Colorado was in a good position to respond after Rose’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a backflip in the end zone. Nikko Reed’s 29-yard kickoff return put the Buffs near midfield. It was Reed’s second major return that night, and the sophomore year would end with 110 game-high return yards. In what has become a recurring theme, Shrout’s poor fundamentals once again let him down in the drive’s opening game of buffs. When RJ Sneed broke into the bubble between USC’s cornerback and safety, the junior quarterback never touched down and floated a ball that Calen Bullock caught at the USC 29-yard line for his fourth interception of the season.

Williams ended his night by capping an 8-play, 71-yard drive with his 3rd touchdown pass and 5th total touchdown of the night. Colorado had a chance to make a play and go off the field, but an offside call at the 1st and 10th spots at the Buffs 32-yard line negated a drive interception. When Austin Jones took a screen pass that Williams forcedly scooped to him 12 yards from the end zone, the loss was 41-10 with a quarter of the football remaining.

By three quarters, Alex Fontenot had piled up 103 yards. The remainder of the Colorado offensive had managed 52. The offense would add another 104 yards in fourth-quarter trash time and wedge a shrout-rushing touchdown between two second- and third-team USC scores. Colorado’s few bright spots that night were Reed’s interception and return yardage, Fontenot’s 124 all-purpose yards, and a season-high sack total.

USC’s late 0:45 touchdown in the contest ensured the Trojans covered the 34-point spread 55-17. Freshman Jack Hestera led the Buffs with 39 yards in three catches, the first time a walk-on led the Buffs since Scotty McKnight did so in each of the first four games of 2007.