At a Loss

That pointy brown thing that turns up in the U.S. of A. every autumn is a football -- a fact that has escaped most of Colorado's major colleges and universities this year and has dawned only occasionally on the Emperor of Invesco, Mike Shanahan. Herewith five ways of looking at a season in hell and, because all is not lost, one beam of Golden light:

1. Jake the Mistake. Isn't it about time the Denver Broncos acknowledged that Jake Plummer, late of the Phoenix Cardinals, is not quite the back-to-the-Super-Bowl savior they were looking for? Your struggling Donks' 2004 game plan was, of course, to play super-tough "D" behind new acquisitions Champ Bailey and John Lynch and do their best to score with a Clinton Portis-less offense. Denver would win their games 17-10 or 6-3 via stern self-denial and ball control. Because as everyone knows, Shanahan can put Teresa Heinz Kerry in at running back, and his much-heralded "system" will take care of the rest. Well, guess what? Going into Sunday's comeback game against Houston, Plummer had attempted more passes -- 279 -- than any other quarterback in the NFL. That was ten more than Green Bay's Brett Favre, 22 more than the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper, 39 more than Indy's Peyton Manning. But the Snake's completion rate was just 57.7 percent, and he had ten interceptions -- most of them panicky throws in crucial situations -- to go with his fifteen TD strikes. The only guys who gave up more picks were Oakland's Kerry Collins and the other Jake (Jake Delhomme, of the Carolina Panthers), who had eleven each.

Sure, the Broncos have been hurt by serious injuries to running back Mike Anderson and key defenders Trevor Pryce, Lenny Walls and Lynch. But Plummer must take a lot of the heat for Denver's mediocre 6-3 record against a slate of middle-of-the-road opponents. They still call him Snake, but he's not the dangerous scrambler Shanahan thought he was (supermodel of the year: Michael Vick), and in his eighth year of NFL play, Jake should throw a lot straighter than he does. On the other hand, what does it say about Shanahan and the Broncos' out-of-whack offense that they've enrolled Plummer in the National Rifle Association?

2. Whither Barnett? The best player on the scandal-plagued Colorado Buffaloes -- uh, okay, let's make that the ordeal-plagued, unfairly put-upon Colorado Buffaloes -- is their placekicker. The peerless Mason Crosby can nail field goals from Arapahoe County if you want him to. But the rest of the Buffs have looked dazed and confused since their 3-0 start has degenerated into a 5-4 campaign in which looms the possibility that Gary Barnett will become the first CU coach since 1984 to endure back-to-back losing seasons. Beating up on li'l ol' North Texas is one thing; getting blasted by the Texas Longhorns 31-7 is quite another, especially when the running attack produces a net gain of just -- count 'em -- three yards. Maybe Barnett should have tried Mrs. Kerry in his backfield. Instead, the Buffs' beleaguered (and apparently distracted) coach sought to inspire his team by removing the names from the backs of their jerseys -- a we're-all-in-this-together ploy about as effective as, say, having everyone testify before a grand jury. How long before they remove the coach's name from his office at the Dal Ward Center? Hard to tell, but the miseries of the Colorado football program continue apace -- on the field and off. Meanwhile, there's always the Nebraska game. The Buffs visit Lincoln November 26 to face a none-too-able Big Red team that's already lost to Southern Mississippi, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Iowa State by a combined count of 75-170. If he blows this one, even Barnett's most mulish supporters in the booster club may shout for his head.

3. When Sonny Gets Blue. Colorado State, which rose from football jokehood in the 1980s to respectability and then dominance in the WAC and the Mountain West Conference, is suffering through a year that recalls the doom-laden Saturdays of the Leon Fuller era. Coach Sonny Lubick took the rap for the memorable goal-line screwup that handed the Rams' season opener to their in-state rivals from Boulder 27-24, but there wasn't much he could do in 49-0 and 34-16 drubbings by powerful Southern Cal and Minnesota. Nor were the outclassed Rams able to handle number-seven Utah, who smacked them around last weekend. In fact, the entire thing has been a shock to the system in Fort Collins: Saturday's loss reduced the team to 3-6 and, with just two games left, ensured their first losing season since 1993 -- Sonny's first year at CSU. Not only that, but in the wake of a tragic campus drinking incident, the university has halted beer sales at the stadium that now bears Lubick's name. All in all, it's been a sobering fall for the green and gold -- not least for former starting quarterback Justin Holland, who spends his game days up in the press box, nursing a broken leg. Oh, well. The Aggies still have a great vet school.

4. What's that funny smell in Greeley? The winners of consecutive national championships (1996 and 1997) at the NCAA Division II level and formerly unbeatable at 8,500-seat Nottingham Field (51-5 since 1995), the Northern Colorado Bears have found things a lot tougher this season as they move up to Division I-AA on a limited number of scholarships. After squeaking past North Dakota State in their opener more than two months ago, the Bears dropped seven straight and were outscored by more than 100 points while facing what coach Kay Dalton calls the nation's toughest I-AA schedule. The 72-year-old Dalton has coached CU, CSU, four NFL teams (including the Broncos of the Three Amigos era) and the ice-bound Montreal Alouettes, so he's no stranger to adversity. But he wondered earlier this year why former UNC athletic director Jim Fallis booked such a grueling schedule for a Bears team trying to find its way to higher ground.

5. What takes the Zoom out? Air Force is flying no higher than the state's other major college teams, what with a 4-5 record, a pair of hard ones left against San Diego State and Colorado State and the prospect of its first losing season in eleven years. Still, leave it to the inventive Falcons to try to figure out what befalls them almost every autumn: a mysterious case of late-season fatigue. In 2002 and 2003, the Zoomies started 6-0 and 5-0, respectively, before collapsing, and this year's 3-3 start preceded an 0-2 swoon; now scientists on campus in Colorado Springs are taking reports on players' muscle soreness, sleep habits, appetite and the like in the hopes of keeping the team fitter. Coach Fisher DeBerry is monitoring the results with great interest. It's well established that Air Force Cadets face more grueling academic and physical demands than students at most schools, and that may be why the football team gets tuckered out come late October. But there may be a simpler explanation. Because of high admission standards, all of the service academies tend to enroll smaller, lighter athletes than, say, Florida State or Auburn. They're brave, but they always get their lumps.

6. Dig it. They say the cafeteria has some of the worst food in the nation, and campus social life consists of trading jokes in the library about molybdenum ore deposition. But the Colorado School of Mines, which plays its home games at cozy Brooks Field in downtown Golden, has one hell of a football team this season. In his fifth year as head coach, Bob Stitt has seen his Orediggers go undefeated at 11-0, average almost forty points per game and grab the number-eight spot in the national Division II football rankings while winning their first Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship since 1958. Quarterback Chad Friehauf engineers every play from a shotgun set, employing a complex, wide-open offense that baffles opponents and can prove a mental challenge even for his fellow Orediggers -- ultra-smart engineering students. Go, Diggers!

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo