BOULDER — The face was pure poker, stone and dissatisfied. Karl Dorrell knew the question was coming, the narrative elephant in the room.
“It wasn’t an emotional experience for me until the end of the game for our players,” Dorrell said, matter-of-factly, after CU’s season-opening 48-42 win over UCLA on Saturday night before a lonely, near-empty Folsom Field.
“I’m proud of the players. For me, personally, you know, I haven’t been on the UCLA sidelines in over 13 years. I’ve (had) four or five stops since then, so there wasn’t any personal reaction from my standpoint because of me being an alumni out there.”
Yeah, but it felt personal. The Buffs exploded for 525 yards of total offense, forced three fumbles, and had the favored Bruins throwing off their metaphorical back foot from the first play of the contest. CU amassed 261 yards through the air with a quarterback who was toiling in the secondary at this time in 2019.
“He was a safety a year ago,” Dorrell said with a laugh when asked about senior Sam Noyer, one of the rare moments of postgame levity with the scribes. “Can you believe that?”
It’s 2020, coach. We’ll believe anything.
Especially after this one. No K.D. Nixon as a safety valve at wideout? No worries — there’s Dimitri Stanley (66 receiving yards) and tight end Brady Russell (77 receiving yards, one score). No Alex Fontenot to carry the load at tailback? There’s Jarek Broussard, rushing for 187 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries.
“We knew coming in (that) against a third-year starting quarterback that they had,” Dorrell said, referring to NFL prospect Dorian Thompson-Robinson, “that we would have to put some points on the board.”
There were hiccups, too. The three missed field goals, two of them blocked, might’ve proven fatal against a team that wasn’t coached by Chip Kelly.
And removing Noyer in the second quarter made no sense, other than keeping an old promise to the 1B guy in the Buffs’ quarterback derby. Dorrell had said last week that both signal-callers would play, but that was before his 1A guy completed nine of his first 10 throws, three to Stanley, and had CU cruising to a 21-7 lead.
Kicking on 4th-and-1 at the UCLA 22 with 11:36 to go in the third? It won’t go down as his finest moment.
Especially as Noyer warmed up while the temps cooled, connecting on 13 of his first 19. For quarterback turned safety turned quarterback again, No. 4 sure as heck didn’t look like a guy who hadn’t thrown a pass in a college game for two years. (The Oregon native completed 4-of-6 in mop-up duty in the snow on Nov. 18, 2018 against Utah.)
They’d piled up 45 points and 445 yards of offense by the end of the third quarter with Nixon in street clothes. If that says something about Kelly, it says something about offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini, too. And his offensive line.
At the outset, they looked largely as we left them last November. Salty in the trenches, swarming at the point of attack, the hallmarks of a defense that grew up so much over the course of 2019 that it was matching Washington and Stanford punch-for-punch.
They wasted no time swinging Saturday. Derrion Rakestraw’s strip on UCLA’s first punt return of the night got scooped by teammate Alec Pell and set up the first of two short fields to open the contest. The Buffs’ 14-0 lead after the first eight minutes set the stage for a perfect ambush.
And sweet irony, too, given that victory No. 1 for the Buffs’ new football coach had come against his alma mater, against the last school to charge him with leading a collegiate program.
There’s going to be some revisionist history after this one. Dorrell wasn’t terrible at UCLA. He just wasn’t Pete Carroll, at a time when Pete Carroll was the talk of the nation.
The bar is lower here. Especially this season, given zero expectations and nine months of logistical hurdles. A late hire. A global pandemic. No spring ball. No summer camps. No Steven Montez. No Laviska Shenault. A fall season taken off the table, then tossed back on again.
“We’re going to be playing UCLA every year. We’re in the South division,” Dorrell said. “So it’s all about taking care of business, taking care of the things that are right in front of you and going on to the next one. The next one is Stanford and we’ve got to get ready for that one.”
As first impressions go, Dorrell didn’t have to say anything. The scoreboard screamed. For miles.