BOULDER, Colo. — The field goal attempt swung right of the goal post and kept Colorado’s comeback bid afloat, at least for a bit.
The sideline bled onto the field. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly pumped his fist and slapped a couple of players’ helmets with an animated attaboy as players skipped back to the sidelines.
Deion Sanders stood alone, 15 yards away from the fracas in his black hoodie with “COLORADO” written in black script across a white bar on his chest, black Colorado hat and sunglasses.
He was busy talking to the coaches in the booth, his back to the celebration playing out on the field.
Next moment, next play.
Sanders’ sideline stoicism has become one of his trademarks, in stark contrast to some of his coaching colleagues who can often turn into red-faced, veiny-necked lunatics on the sideline before morphing into cliche factories with a microphone in their faces.
For lack of a better term, Sanders is boring when he’s roaming the sidelines and, as he’s been throughout his career, is anything but with a camera and a microphone collecting his thoughts.
Sanders’ even-keeled approach will be needed after his team failed to climb out of a 27-point hole in a 48-41 loss Saturday to No. 8 USC. Colorado trailed 34-14 after two quarters.
“We challenged them tremendously at halftime. Everybody say they want the light until they want in the light,” Sanders said. “The thing about the light is it echoes your blemishes.”
— Colorado Buffaloes Football (@CUBuffsFootball) September 30, 2023
Colorado’s blemishes, in the secondary and on the offensive line, have been on full display the past two Saturdays, including in a 42-6 loss at No. 10 Oregon.
What did the near-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 being constantly hounded in the pocket. “We just lost. Just because it’s a big team doesn’t mean we tip our cap and it’s time to get blown out 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 might still be ahead.
His roster added 57 players after spring practice and 69 new scholarship players in total. Camaraderie doesn’t come overnight.
And all offseason, the Buffaloes have preached belief. It’s on their team gear. It comes out of Deion Sanders’ mouth constantly: Believe.
Believe in what, exactly?
“Championship — that’s our goal. That’s what we want to reach 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 that common goal, and it comes from the top down, having coach Prime’s idea in mind of winning that championship. It’s not a bounce-back year, go 6-6.”
To 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 this is still the same program with a giant photo of the national title trophy hanging in its team lounge. This roster was dreaming big. Saturday’s loss takes that goal almost officially off the table, no matter what business the Buffaloes take care of on the field. The same is almost certainly true of earning a ticket to Vegas to play for a Pac-12 title in their last 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 removed from their opening run of victories over TCU, Nebraska and Colorado State that captured the sports world’s attention.
Sanders, 56, who spent 20 years playing college and pro football and coached high school and college football for the past 10 years, is experienced and levelheaded enough to know when one goal comes off the vision board, the only choice is to keep working and invest the same way you did when that goal was still possible.
“We gotta believe no matter what,” Sanders said.
Is his team wired the same way?
“I knew what they had in them. All they had to do is believe,” he said. “Regardless of the color of the uniforms on the opposing team, they just have to believe. And that’s something they’re doing week in and week out. It’s growing.”
Sanders’ task ahead is making sure his roster, assembled in just a few months and made up of players who have mostly known each other for just as long, understands and embraces that idea, too.
“Today, we kind of got a glimpse of who our identity is when we play good football, and we really haven’t had a taste of that since Week 1,” Shedeur Sanders said.
Saturday, the Colorado sideline might as well have been covered in red carpet. Rapper DaBaby gave the team a pep talk, led it on the field and hopped into the student section to hype up the crowd. Rappers Lecrae and Tobe Nwigwe roamed the sidelines along with a handful of 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” had sideline passes, too.
LeBron James and his son Bronny, who plays basketball for USC, were rumored to be planning to attend but didn’t 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, almost certainly peaked in the past two weeks. An easier schedule lies ahead, but it also means The Rock probably won’t give the Buffs another pregame speech.
The Buffs have essentially been the most-watched team in America every week this season. Attention will still be heightened, but after taking two convincing losses and with blue-blooded opponents behind them, the spotlight won’t be as bright. We’ve probably seen the last time 10 million people watch Colorado in 2023.
That heightens the difficulty of keeping the roster fully invested and playing to its potential, a task that was already going to be harder for Deion Sanders than just about any other coach in the country who has spent more than nine months coaching 90 percent of their roster.
“Everybody has problems. Everybody has new players. There’s no excuses,” Shedeur Sanders said. “It’s up to us individually to come together collectively as a team.”
And as Colorado’s schedule eases a bit, that means expectations will arrive, too. Sanders’ team has been a massive underdog in three games this season and won once. It was a narrow favorite before hosting Nebraska, now 2-3. But in the one game in which it was a heavy favorite, against Colorado State, Colorado fell behind by double digits late and needed fourth-quarter heroics and two overtimes to escape with a victory.
With opponents like Arizona State (1-4) and Stanford (1-3) ahead in the next two weeks, the Buffaloes will deal with similar expectations that have rarely been present during their splashy introduction to America through five weeks.
The best news for Colorado is that Travis Hunter, probably the best player on the roster, should return soon from a lacerated liver suffered in the win over Colorado State. The Buffaloes were without him during both losses, and though it’s unlikely he would have affected the outcome in either, he adds a dimension of speed missing from the offense and gives the defense back its best defensive back. Safety Shilo Sanders also missed Saturday’s game with an injury to his kidney, suffered in last week’s loss to Oregon.
All week, Deion Sanders preached accountability, honesty and being the same no matter the record or scoreboard.
In the weeks ahead, as the Colorado supernova cools and the grind sets in, we’ll learn whether his team absorbed his message.
(Photo: Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)