After getting blown out in back-to-back road games, taking perennial nemesis and Pac-12 South-leading Southern California down to the wire on Friday night was certainly a step in the right direction for the Colorado Buffaloes.
Moral victories don’t get the Buffaloes any closer to bowl eligibility and national relevancy, however, and leaving the friendly confines of Folsom Field with a 35-31 defeat was no less excruciating than the previous losses.
“We don’t want to get comfortable losing, no matter the point differential,” senior safety Mikial Onu said. “Losing sucks, period.”
USC freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Pittman Jr. with 2 minutes, 15 seconds to play and CU’s last-gasp effort came up short as the Trojans remained atop the South and extended the Buffaloes’ string of misery.
Colorado (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) lost its fourth in a row and fell to 0-14 all-time against the Trojans (5-3, 4-1), despite taking a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter.
“Obviously that was a tough one for us,” first-year Buffs head coach Mel Tucker said. “Give USC credit; they made more plays than we made.
“Just a very disappointed locker room right now.”
As it should be.
CU had three separate 10-point leads and one last opportunity to rally in the closing minutes. Steven Montez’s fourth-down pass to Alex Fontenot came up a yard short of the first down marker, however, and USC melted the final 87 seconds off the clock in victory formation.
“I’m not real big into moral victories, but I think we did some positive things, some things that we can definitely build on in the future,” Montez said. “But I mean, just got to do a little bit more and get it done. That’s just plain and simple, that’s what it is. Just got to do a little bit more and get it done.”
Adversity has hit the Buffs in waves of late, including a two-week stretch in which they were routed at Oregon, 45-3, and Washington State, 41-10. This past week, three veteran players, including former safety Aaron Maddox, who has been a regular in the lineup, left the team.
Seemingly on the verge of falling apart, the Buffs served notice Friday that they aren’t mailing it in this season.
“I think we always had the mindset that we can win any game with anybody that we line up against,” tailback Alex Fontenot said. “So it’s not really a mental thing; it’s just an execution thing.”
That execution thing was better on Friday, but not good enough.
Montez bounced back from two consecutive poor performances to throw for 324 yards and three touchdowns, while adding a season-high 45 yards on the ground, along with his first rushing touchdown of the year.
Star receiver Laviska Shenault played like the All-American candidate he is, posting season highs in catches (nine) and receiving yards (172), including a71-yard touchdown from Montez.
Junior KD Nixon caught two touchdown passes; the run game piled up 196 yards; and the much maligned defense got some big performances from freshman cornerback KJ Trujillo, senior Star Davion Taylor and junior linebacker Nate Landman.
That all led to CU building leads of 17-7, 24-14 and 31-21.
“There was some positives there,” Tucker said. “Like I told the players, I think they can see what type of team that we can have. And so that’s the goal from here on out is to keep trying to find ways to get the team to perform the way we know they can perform.”
With Tucker in the beginning stages of building the program, however, the margin for error is thin. Despite all the good they did against the Trojans, their mistakes were costly.
Penalties have been an Achilles’ heel for the Buffs of late and they were again, to the tune of 13 flags for 109 yards.
The Buffs also failed to capitalize on opportunities defensively. Late in the second quarter and again late in the fourth, the Buffs forced a Slovis fumble and both times CU linebacker Nu’umotu Falo got a hand on the ball before USC pounced on it to retain possession. Both times, the Trojans wound up scoring touchdowns. The game-winning touchdown came six plays after Slovis’ second fumble.
“When we get takeaway opportunities, we have to make those and take advantage of opportunities,” Onu said. “We didn’t do that today.”
For the Buffs, that’s becoming the theme of the season. The two blowout losses hurt, but the Buffs’ season also includes three losses a Folsom Field by a combined 16 points. In each one, they either led or were tied in the fourth quarter but failed to finish.
“Football is a game of inches and we just needed a few more inches,” Montez said. “That’s really what it was.”
USC 35, Colorado 31
Play of the game: Laviska Shenault took short slant pass from Steven Montez on the second play of the third quarter and exploded past the USC defense for a 71-yard touchdown that gave the Buffs a 10-point lead.
Turning point: Late in the third quarter, Montez scrambled to his left and threw the ball away, but was hit hard and left the game to get evaluated. He only missed one play before returning at the start of the fourth quarter. The tide turned after that play, however. CU lead 31-21 at that point. From there, USC outscored the Buffs 14-0 and CU’s offense struggled.
Top 3 Buffs of the game
- 1. QB Steven Montez: After back-to-back dismal performances, he was great for the Buffs, accounting for 369 yards in total offense (324 passing, 45 rushing), three passing TDs and one rushing TD.
- 2. WR Laviska Shenault: He had his best game of the season, with nine catches for 172 yards and a touchdown and one big run of 17 yards.
- 3. CB KJ Trujillo: Although he gave up a few passes, the freshman made big plays, including an interception, a sack and two pass breakups.
Southern California 35, Colorado 31
USC 7 7 7 14 — 35Colorado 3 14 14 0 — 31First QuarterUSC – St. Brown 37 run (McGrath kick), 14:01COL – Stefanou 22 field goal, 9:04
Second QuarterCOL– Nixon 7 pass from Montez (Stefanou kick), 14:55
COL– Nixon 7 pass from Montez (Stefanou kick), 5:52
USC – Christon 3 pass from Slovis (McGrath kick), 2:48
Third QuarterCOL – L.Shenault 71 pass from Montez (Stefanou kick), 14:15USC – Vaughns 21 pass from Slovis (McGrath kick), 12:15
COL – Montez 17 run (Stefanou kick), 9:16.
Fourth QuarterUSC – Pittman 44 pass from Slovis (McGrath kick), 11:25USC – Pittman 37 pass from Slovis (McGrath kick), 2:15
USC COLFirst downs 30 25Rushes-yards 26-112 34-196Passing 406 324Comp-Att-Int 30-44-1 27-43-0Return Yards 28 33Punts-Avg. 4-46.0 6-42.3Fumbles-Lost 2-0 0-0Penalties-Yards 5-50 13-109Time of Poss. 25:53 34:08INDIVIDUAL STATISTICSRUSHING – USC, Christon 14-76, St. Brown 3-50, Jountti 2-5, Slovis 4-(minus 6), Team 2-(minus 13). Colorado, Fontenot 16-57, Montez 7-45, Mangham 7-38, Stenstrom 1-27, L. Shenault 1-17, Brown 1-8, Nixon 1-4.PASSING – USC, Slovis 30-44-1-406. Colorado, Montez 27-43-0-324.RECEIVING – USC, Vaughns 8-104, Pittman 7-156, London 7-85, St. Brown 5-55, Christon 2-1, Jones 1-5. Colorado, L.Shenault 9-172, Brown 5-67, Fontenot 5-29, Nixon 3-30, Mangham 2-19, Stanley 2-1, Russell 1-6.MISSED FIELD GOALS – USC, McGrath 40.