May 26, 2024

College football’s Hollywood team came to Hollywood Saturday, where their effort was epitomized by a bit of bad theater.

Late in the second quarter on a night that slowly chilled at the Rose Bowl, Colorado safety Shilo Sanders appeared to apply a textbook tackle that leveled UCLA’s Carsen Ryan.

Yet as Sanders struck a pose on the Rose Bowl field and flexed, a yellow flag fell behind his feet.

A replay eventually showed a helmet-to-helmet hit. Sanders was penalized for targeting. He was immediately ejected from the game.

Thus marks the progress of the grand experiment that is Colorado football.

Plenty of smacks, but not enough substance.

Heaps of contagious buzz, but not enough winning football.

Coach Prime is directing Team Matinee.

The Buffaloes lost 28-16 to UCLA in a game that exposed the understandable difficulty in attempting to hastily transform a 1-11 program into a winner.

Deion Sanders, the new coach with the celebrated nickname, is a great leader, but he can’t block. His quarterback son Shedeur Sanders was constantly harassed and hassled and sacked seven times while their running game gained all of 38 yards.

Deion Sanders is also a charismatic recruiter, but he can’t tackle or cover. The Bruins rolled the Buffaloes from end to end, gaining 487 total yards including 218 on the ground.

Amid a tarp-sellout crowd of 71,343 — the largest of the six-year Chip Kelly era — a potentially compelling duel became mostly a mismatch between an established program and a newbie, with perhaps the brightest Colorado moment occurring after the final whistle.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders walks off the field after a 28-16 loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders walks off the field after a 28-16 loss to UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

In a small and cramped interview room in the bowels of the Rose Bowl, even though his team lost for the fourth time in five games, Deion Sanders exuded resilience and hope while facing the media for nearly 20 minutes, even insisting on answering more questions after an official tried to shut it down.

As anyone crowded together in that room can attest, Sanders’ aura is surely the biggest reason this Colorado quest has a chance to work. On a night his team was knocked flat, he remained unsinkable.

Did he anticipate going through a tough time?

“I’m not going through a tough time. … What about me looks like it’s a tough time? … Does it look like a tough time to you’all?” Sanders said with a laugh. “I would love to win, I’m accustomed to winning. … And we will win. … We will win. … Just put your seatbelt on and hold on. We will win.”

Upset with his players? For what?

“We played our butts off, I’m proud of the kids,” he said. “They hung in there as long as we could.”

Who’s fault? His fault.

“We’ve got to do a lot better not only offensively and defensively as well as coaching the game,” he said. “I’ll take full responsibility for that.”

Difficult to play in this hostile environment? Seriously?

“We were just coaching youth football several years ago and we’re in the darn Rose Bowl and you want me to question how good my God is?” he said. “Have you lost your mind?”

Colorado actually had a chance when the Bruins seemed distracted by the traveling Colorado circus, committing four turnovers and doinking a field goal attempt in the first half. Yet the Buffaloes could only turn the turnovers into two field goals, leading Sanders to deliver a halftime speech that he said could be summarized in one word.

“Now,” he said. “Now.”

Yet it was quickly, “Later,” as UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers began the second half by throwing two passes to wide-open receivers that covered 75 yards and resulted in a 26-yard touchdown toss to Moliki Matavao.

That made the score 14-6, and when a later Colorado drive ended in a field goal after Shedeur Sanders was sacked yet again, the Bruins finally took control.

Bottom line, Colorado just doesn’t have enough talented players or enough of a stable system to compete at an elite level yet. It’s too soon. Like any remodeling job, this one is taking twice as long as expected.

“Overall we just don’t have the fight and the passion to do what we want to do,” Sanders said.

But they certainly still have the hype. The scope of the Buffaloes’ impact on the national sports culture was seen earlier this week when the Lakers visited the Denver Nuggets to open their NBA season.

Shedeur Sanders and teammate Travis Hunter were sitting courtside when the Lakers’ LeBron James approached them — and not vice versa — to offer best wishes.

While it may be a stunted story, it’s still a great story.

Sanders, a former professional football and baseball star, left his job as coach at historically Black university Jackson State last winter and headed to one of the worst Power Five programs in the country.

Amid skepticism that he couldn’t coach at the higher level, Jackson tore the program down to the studs, brought in 86 new players, and blanketed the somnolent program with passion and positivity.

Many thought he was crazy. Sanders said this is the new era of college football, get used to it. Many thought he didn’t stand a chance. Sanders said, just watch.

He challenged everyone to believe. He invited cameras to document his every move. Then he sat back and watched the most amazing thing happen.

Colorado won its first game against last year’s national playoff finalist TCU. Then it beat Nebraska. Then it beat rival Colorado State.

The Buffalos became the most watched team in America, attracting more than eight million TV viewers per game, while becoming one of only five teams so far to play every game in front of a capacity crowd.

Then, reality bit. Colorado lost by 36 at Oregon, trailed by 27 before losing to USC and blew a 29-0 halftime lead while falling to Stanford.

The Buffaloes left Saturday’s Rose Bowl game with a 4-4 record and a very real possibility that they wouldn’t win the six games required for a bowl bid.

“I don’t give a damn about no bowl,” Sanders said. “We’re trying to win, period.”

Colorado coach Deion Sanders gestures during the second half against UCLA on Saturday.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders gestures during the second half against UCLA on Saturday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

But he acknowledged that they’re just not ready to win. He admitted what experts have been saying, that they just don’t have enough ability to meet all the preseason fanfare.

“We’re 7-10 players away from doing what we want to do in college football,” he said.

But he said they’ll get there, and he promised it will be sooner than later.

“Unlike many other first year coach-led teams, there’s a tremendous expectation for us,” Sanders said. “We would love to meet those expectations. We’re close, we’re close, we’ve done some wonderful things. You can see what we have and what we’re building and you can see the need.”

On a night of busted illusions, even Deion Sanders’ positivity could not obscure that need.

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