Colorado gets another crack at Fresno

Think of your worst moment as an athlete. Recall how it felt. Maybe you missed a free throw to win a game. Maybe you blew out your knee. Maybe you lost the state championship game.

Most often, it's about falling just short of something good. Feel lucky to have that sort of pain, for there's something much worse in sports: Knowing you didn't even try. That you quit.

It's not much of a stretch to say that the worst moment for every member of the 2012 Colorado football team took place on Sept. 15 of last season. That's when the Buffaloes went to Fresno State and got vivisected 69-14. It was a quintessential white-flag performance for a team that already was riding a horrible 0-2 start, having lost the previous weekend to an FCS team.

When critics of former coach Jon Embree want to counter those of us who cringed over firing a coach in just his second year, that Fresno State game was exhibit A.

Fresno State led 35-0 after one quarter. The Bulldogs, a good team but hardly Oregon or Alabama, led 55-7 at halftime. Colorado was outgained 665 yards to 278. The Bulldogs rolled up 288 yards rushing.

AP writers are typically restrained when describing a game, but the story on this one noted, "The Buffaloes got there by playing perhaps their worst half of football ever."

New Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre is the sort who tries to fill the present moment with a surfeit of enthusiasm. He's not a look-back-in-horror sort of guy. He's what's right now and what's next. His team is 2-0 and playing better than just about anyone imagined it would.

And yet... he knows exactly what happened last year. And he's fairly certain his present players who experienced the Fresno State meltdown haven't forgotten. Yes, what happened last year matters for Colorado as it prepares to play host to Fresno State on Saturday.

"I think with any competitor it does," MacIntyre said. "For them to say it doesn't, I think they'd be lying. It's got to be sticking in the back of their minds, hopefully motivating them to prepare this week for the game."

It's not unreasonable to expect Colorado to look completely different on Saturday compared to last year. This team has found its mojo. Not only has it won its first two games, it has stared down critical moments in both victories when the momentum appeared to be turning against the Buffaloes. They also seem to be enjoying themselves. That matters a bunch, particularly for a team that's not going to overwhelm anyone with its physical talent.

MacIntyre traces the program's frown being turned upside down to the midpoint of spring practices. Football practices are not supposed to be dour affairs. And yet that's what MacIntyre saw.

"It was just like pulling teeth. They weren't enjoying it or having fun," he said, adding that during a scrimmage, "Nobody got excited, nobody congratulated anybody."

So after said scrimmage he gathered his players.

"I told them, 'Hey, guys, we got better on the football field but we didn't get better as a team. You're not enjoying what you're doing. You've got to find some passion and have fun playing,'" he said.

Things changed thereafter, as leaders stepped up and the players remembered that they were, egad, playing football, which is fun.

Fresno State, however, represents a substantial step up from Colorado State and Central Arkansas. The Bulldogs are led by quarterback Derek Carr, a third-year senior starter who is a future NFL draft choice. He's completing 71 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and just one interception. He leads an offense that doesn't attack downfield very often but instead uses a precise array of screens and short passes. Carr is hard to pressure because he gets the ball away quickly, and he's very good at finding an open guy.

The Buffs defense will have to pick its spots. So far, the unit has been opportunistic, particularly at creating turnovers at critical moments. The offense can't afford to waste too many possessions. The Bulldogs defense is not terribly strong, so this could be a high-scoring affair. CU receiver Paul Richardson might need to become the first Pac-12 receiver to produce three consecutive games with more than 200 yards receiving. It also would help if the Buffs got their stagnant running game going against a poor run defense.

There's also the issue of severe flash floods hitting Boulder and surrounding areas. The campus has been closed for two days. It remains to be seen how this might affect the game.

Fresno State, which is looking to jump into the national rankings, is a 10-point road favorite, so the expectation is Colorado would do well just to keep it close. Close is certainly better than what transpired last season.

But expectations for the Buffs are changing. And they might play a bit angry on Saturday. They should.