Pat Rooney: After meltdown at WSU, reeling CU Buffs must turn to 2024

Nov. 18—The most damning part of the broadcast of Colorado's absolute meltdown at Washington State wasn't the three non-offensive touchdowns allowed by the Buffaloes, or even watching a junior college journeyman quarterback take over the huddle.

It was when the announcers said the effort, such as it was, turned in by CU was reminiscent of the 2022 Buffs.

They were right, of course, as the Buffs continued limping to the finish line by offering little to no resistance in a 56-14 Friday night loss at Washington State. The beat down should signal a turn of the page to the 2024 season.

The challenge for first-year head coach Deion Sanders isn't to try and recapture the electricity of the opening weeks, when the Buffaloes' 3-0 start made them the darlings of college football. Those days are over, at least until the Buffs can potentially write a new script in 2024. Instead, it's to look ahead at what's best for the 2024 Buffs — even if that means shutting down Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter for the finale — while trying to keep the program's big-picture progress this fall at the forefront even while the losses pile up.

In the case of Shedeur Sanders, keeping him on the sideline for the finale at Utah should be a no-brainer, particularly with bowl eligibility officially out of the equation. Shedeur has nothing to prove anymore. He was the biggest reason the Buffs upset TCU in a memorable opener and started 3-0. His toughness is without question. He is an NFL-caliber quarterback and the key to whatever fortunes the Buffs might be able to reap in 2024.

No one knows the extent of the injuries Shedeur suffered on Friday night, but it doesn't matter. At this point, even a fully healthy Shedeur shouldn't suit up against the Utes. No quarterback has been sacked more this season than CU's leader, and when you give up four sacks in the first 10 plays to a WSU defense that entered the game with 17 sacks in 10 games, it's clear an already beleaguered offensive line has thrown in the towel. Putting your best asset behind that sieve of a line in a meaningless game against a much more furious Utah defense could arguably be classified as child abuse by Coach Prime.

The same goes for Hunter. When he's not embarrassing himself by throwing opposing receivers into the Gatorade table or talking pregame smack in a contest his team goes out and loses by 42 points, he's the best athlete on the field and the next key to the 2024 fortunes behind Shedeur Sanders. Few players make the sort of catch Hunter did while going up between two WSU defenders to make a grab in the fourth quarter, but watching his leg buckle before he limped off offered a glimpse of the worst-case scenario if CU's stars play at Utah. Early indications were that Hunter's injury wasn't serious — for no good reason whatsoever, he continued to play after that — but any physical setback in what at the time was a 49-point game in the fourth quarter would have been inexcusable.

For Coach Prime, the tone has changed in recent weeks from bravado to resignation. Barring a minor miracle, his Buffs will end his first season with losses in six straight and eight of nine. The second-half meltdown against Stanford was a turning CU could never bounce back from, but the late slide shouldn't completely erase the strides coach Sanders has authored in his first season in Boulder.

Four of CU's seven losses occurred by a combined 20 points. The level of talent on the roster, particularly at the skill positions on both sides, has increased impressively. If coach Sanders can come anywhere close to doing the same in the trenches sides on both sides, the Buffs will be a problem next year.

Until then, the illness-stricken, deflated visage of Coach Prime at Washington State offered a stark contrast to the glittery swagger the Buffs hit the field with to start 2023. But it probably summed up the 2023 reversal of fortunes all too perfectly.