For as long as Utah and Colorado have been in the PAC-12, the Buffaloes have struggled to keep pace with the rest of the conference. In fact, in the PAC-12 era, Colorado is a combined 40-71, losing just as many games as lowly Oregon State (38-71) over the same amount of time. The difference the 2016 season, which saw the Buffaloes shock the nation by going 10-4, and 8-1 in conference, clinching their first (and only) PAC-12 South title, and punching their ticket to the Alamo Bowl after losing to Washington in the conference championship. An overlooked but key member of that 2016 team was none other than now senior quarterback, Steven Montez.
As a true freshman, Montez was forced into action early after starter Sefo Liufau was sidelined with an ankle injury, guiding the Buffaloes to a 2-1 record in his extended role, with wins over Oregon and Oregon State. In his debut against the Ducks, Montez gained 135 yards on the ground alone on 21 rushing attempts to go along with 333 passing yards with a 3:2 touchdown to interception ratio. A 21-17 home loss to USC that saw the future full-time starter complete just 25 of his 40 pass attempts for 197 yards with one TD while gaining a trivial 25 yards on 13 carries relegated Montez back to his backup role once Liufau was healthy, but his two victories gave fans reason to believe Colorado could sustain some level of success. Fast-forward three seasons, and Colorado is certainly better than they were when the conference first expanded, but Montez has failed to get his team over five wins in his time as starter.
It’s unfair to call Montez bad. In fact, he’s anything but. In his first season as a full-time starter, Montez completed 60.5% of his pass attempts, while throwing of 2,975 yards with 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He followed up in 2018 with 64.7% completions for 2,849 yards with 19 TDs and 9 INTs. With 2019 winding down, the veteran leader’s stats have hardly moved, completing 62.8% of his passes for 2,651 with 15 TDs and 10 INTs, suggesting he’ll finish his career with an average stat line and a sub-average 17-22 record as a starter.
Montez’s mediocrity is made even more frustrating when accounting for the talent around him, including junior wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr (6’2”, 220 lbs.), who has been pegged as a potential first round draft pick if he opts to forego his senior season in favor of entering the NFL draft after the end of this season. Reeling in 52 receptions for 721 yards and four TDs, the former PAC-12 first teamer has been one of the brightest stars to come out of Colorado since Chidobe Awuziethanks to his ability to break tackles and his seemingly magnetic hands.
Behind Shenault statistically is senior Tony Brown. The 6’1”, 195 lb. receiver is having his best season ever with 55 receptions for 698 yards and a team-high five touchdowns. By comparison, Brown accumulated 711 yards and two touchdowns off 59 receptions total through his first three seasons in Boulder. The breakout season has forced NFL scouts to key in on Brown as a sleeper pick in the 2020 draft, especially after his impeccable effort against Arizona State that saw the senior catch all nine of his targeted passes, while finding the endzone three times in Colorado’s 34-31 victory.
With inclement weather predicted for Saturday night’s matchup at Rice-Eccles, expect to see a healthy dose of 6’0”, 195 lb. running back, Alex Fontenot. The sophomore talent has split time with freshman Jaren Mangham (6’2”, 215 lbs.) this season, gaining 825 yards on 172 carries compared to Mangham’s 441 yards on 107 carries, finding the end zone five times. The young duo have an impressive stat sheet, however Mangham has yet to find the end zone since conference play began, with Fontenot struggling just as much, scoring his first points since September 21st in last week’s shocking win over Washington.
If first year head coach Mel Tucker hopes to have any staying power, he’ll need to find a way to get the offense clicking on a consistent basis. Whether there’s enough left in the tank for 2019 to pull an upset and derail Utah’s post-season dreams remains to be seen, but the talent is there, and Utah can’t overlook the explosive potential the Buffaloes possess.