BOULDER, Colo. — The field goal attempt swung to the right of the goal post and kept Colorado’s comeback bid afloat, at least briefly.
The sideline bled on the field. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly pumped his fist and slapped several players’ helmets with an animated attaboy as the players skipped back to the sideline.
Deion Sanders stood alone, 15 yards away from the fracas in his black hoodie with “COLORADO” written in black script across a white bar across his chest, black Colorado hat and sunglasses day.
He was busy talking to the coaches in the booth, his back to the celebration was playing on the field.
Next moment, next game.
Sanders’ sideline stoicism has become one of his trademarks, quite the opposite some of his teaching colleagues which often turn into red-faced, red-necked lunatics on the side before turning into factory cliches with microphones in their faces.
For lack of a better term, Sanders is bored when he wanders the sidelines and, as has been his career, with nothing but a camera and a microphone capturing his thoughts.
Sanders’ even-handed approach will be needed after his team failed to overcome a 27-point hole in Saturday’s 48-41 loss at No. 8 U.S.C. Colorado trailed 34-14 after two quarters.
“We challenged them hard at halftime. Everyone says they love the light until they love the light,” says Sanders. “The thing about light is that it resonates with your blemishes.”
— Colorado Buffaloes Football (@CUBuffsFootball) September 30, 2023
Colorado’s blemishes, both in the secondary and on the offensive line, were on full display the past two Saturdays, including a 42-6 loss to No. 10 Oregon.
What does a close comeback against USC mean?
“Nothing,” said quarterback Shedeur Sanders, who threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 50 yards and another score while constantly being chased in the pocket. “We just lost. Just because it’s a big team doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted our cap and it’s time to get discouraged now. A loss is a loss.”
After facing two top-10 opponents back-to-back — being outscored 69-14 combined in the first halves — the toughest test for this team may yet lie ahead.
His roster added 57 players after spring practice and 69 new scholarship players overall. Friendship does not come overnight.
And all offseason, the Buffaloes preached belief. It was wearing their team gear. It keeps coming out of Deion Sanders’ mouth: Believe.
Believe in what, exactly?
“Championship — that’s our goal. That’s what we want to accomplish for our first year, no matter what,” defensive lineman Shane Cokes told me in August at the team’s media day in Boulder. “We’re all working together to reach a common goal, and this comes from the top down, having coach Prime’s idea in mind to win that championship. It’s not a bounce-back year, go 6-6.
For realists — Sanders might loudly call them non-believers — 6-6 should be enough to earn Sanders legitimate Pac-12 or national coach of the year consideration. By any measure, 2023 would be considered a success for a program that went 1-11 last season. Vegas oddsmakers thought the Buffs would win three or four games.
But it’s still the same program with a giant picture of the national title trophy hanging in its team lounge. This roster dreams big. Saturday’s loss pretty much officially took that goal off the table, no matter what business the Buffaloes took care of on the field. The same is almost certainly true of Vegas earning a ticket to play for a Pac-12 title in their final season in the league. No matter how many people thought the idea was ridiculous at the start of the season, Colorado’s locker room certainly believed it was possible. Now the Buffs are 3-2 and are coming off their opening wins over TCU, Nebraska and Colorado State that have caught the attention of the sports world.
Sanders, 56, who spent 20 years playing college and professional football and coached high school and college football for the past 10 years, has the experience and level head to know when a goal comes out of vision. board, the only option is to continue working and investing the same way you did when that goal was still possible.
“We have to believe no matter what,” Sanders said.
Is his team wired the same way?
“I know what they have in them. All they have to do is believe,” he said. “No matter what color the opposing team’s uniform is, they just have to believe. And that’s one thing they do week in and week out. This is growing.”
Sanders’ task ahead is to make sure his roster, built in just a few months and made up of players who have known each other almost as long, understands and embraces that idea.
“Now we’re getting a little glimpse of who our identity is when we’re playing good football, and we really haven’t had a taste of that since Week 1,” Shedeur Sanders said.
Saturday, Colorado’s sideline might as well have been covered in a red carpet. Rapper DaBaby gave the team a pep talk, led it onto the field and went to the student section to hype up the crowd. Rappers Lecrae and Tobe Nwigwe roamed the sidelines along with several Denver Nuggets players and former Boston Celtics players Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Da’Vinchi from “All American” and Storm Reid from HBO’s “Euphoria” also had sideline passes.
LeBron James and his son Bronny, who plays basketball for USC, were reportedly planning to attend but did not show.
Colorado credentialed a school-record 892 media members for Saturday’s game, even more than the 848 when the Buffaloes hosted Nebraska in the home opener.
Colorado, as a spectacle this season, has almost certainly risen in popularity over the past two weeks. An easier schedule awaits, but it also means The Rock probably won’t give the Buffs another pregame speech.
The Buffs are definitely the most watched team in America every week this season. Attention will still be high, but after two convincing losses and with blue-blooded opponents behind them, the spotlight won’t be as bright. We may have seen the last time 10 million people watched Colorado in 2023.
This increases the difficulty of keeping the roster fully invested and playing to its potential, a task that will be more difficult for Deion Sanders than any other coach in the country who has spent more than nine months coaching 90 percent of their roster .
“Everyone has problems. All have new players. There is no reason,” said Shedeur Sanders. “It’s up to us individually to come together as a team.”
And with Colorado’s schedule loosening up a bit, that means expectations will come as well. Sanders’ team has been a huge underdog in three games this season and won once. It was a narrow favorite before hosting Nebraska, now 2-3. But in a game where it was a heavy favorite, against Colorado State, Colorado fell behind by double digits and needed fourth-quarter heroics and two overtimes to escape with a victory.
With opponents like Arizona State (1-4) and Stanford (1-3) looming over the next two weeks, the Buffaloes will face similar expectations that have rarely been present during their splashy introduction to America inside for five weeks.
The best news for Colorado is that Travis Hunter, perhaps the best player on the roster, should be back soon from a lacerated liver suffered in the win against Colorado State. The Buffaloes didn’t have him in both losses, and while he probably didn’t affect the outcome in either, he added a dimension of speed that was missing from the offense and returned the defense to its best defensive back. Safety Shilo Sanders also didn’t play Saturday with a knee injury, coming off last week’s loss at Oregon.
All week, Deion Sanders preached accountability, honesty and being the same no matter what the record or scoreboard.
In the coming weeks, as the Colorado supernova cools and the grind begins, we’ll find out if his team got his message.
(Photo: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)