As Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre continues his rebuilding project in Boulder, there will always be benchmarks, regardless of whether they are spoken or simply understood.
It’s not just about wins and losses. Part of the process is seeing how his team reacts to the good and bad. And with the news earlier this week that outside linebacker Derek McCartney (knee) and kicker Diego Gonzalez (Achilles) would be lost for the season -- plus quarterback Sefo Liufau being day-to-day with an ankle injury -- MacIntyre is eyeballing his team closely to see how the Buffaloes respond to this latest adversity.
For Colorado teams of old -- regardless of opponent -- news like that would have been completely disheartening. And in the past, if it was going into a game at Oregon, the mentality would have been that the Buffs would lose by 50 instead of by 40.
But if you hadn’t noticed yet, this is not the Colorado teams of old. Losing McCartney is a blow, of course: He’s a veteran, an outstanding player and a great locker-room guy. His presence on the field will be unquestionably missed. And then there’s the field-position game of losing a player like Gonzalez, who had 16 touchbacks on 19 kickoffs this season.
To climb from the basement of the Pac-12 South, the Buffs need to be able to absorb injuries. That means depth and player development. MacIntyre said Colorado is in better shape depth-wise then when he took over. But that will be put to the test Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium.
“We’re a little bit further ahead,” MacIntyre said. “But when you lose your starting kicker, who is kicking it out of the end zone, that’s tough to replace. And we lost our best outside linebacker. A big, strong guy that started for two years. We have guys who can do it. But only one kicker that has kicked in a game. We have some other outside linebackers I feel comfortable with.”
Colorado (2-1) isn’t alone in its injury woes. The same day the Buffaloes delivered the news of the pair of season-enders, Oregon (2-1) did the same, announcing that wide receiver Devon Allen and offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby would also be gone for 2016.
“They will be huge, integral parts of rallying everybody up,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said. “As far as football is concerned, we move on.”
And just as Colorado’s centerpiece on offense -- Liufau -- is day-to-day, so is Oregon running back Royce Freeman, the headliner of Oregon’s attack. Both coaching staffs are taking the inward-looking approach rather than partaking in the "who's playing" guessing game.
“It doesn’t matter,” Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke told the media when asked if the Ducks were preparing for Liufau. “We have to worry about us. They’ll have a quarterback. They’ll have a good quarterback, whoever it is. If it’s the starter, it’s the starter. And if it’s not, it’s whoever is next.”
Since conference expansion, Oregon is 5-0 against Colorado, with an average margin of victory of 38 points in those five games (last season was the closest at 41-24). But Helfrich noted that even with injuries he sees a different Colorado team.
“They are really good defensively and have been for several years,” Helfrich said. "This year I think they are significantly different and better offensively and in special teams. ... They are playing with a bunch of confidence.”