Washington Colorado Football

Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Boulder, Colo. Colorado won 20-17. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Karl Dorrell probably hopes there’s a little bit more at stake in future Rumble in the Rockies games.

When Colorado makes the trip to Salt Lake City to face No. 19 Utah on Friday afternoon, neither team has much riding on the outcome of the game, other than maybe pride.

The season will end for Dorrell and the Buffs when the clock hits 0:00 at the end of the fourth quarter. There will be no bowl game — only the opportunity to end the season with a win over a ranked team and have some real momentum going into the offseason after a tough 2021 for this young CU team.

For the Utes, they’ll have not one, but two more games to play as they’ll have a bowl game and will play in the Pac-12 Championship Game in what will likely be a rematch against No. 11 Oregon after Utah knocked off the Ducks last weekend, ending their hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff.

“Utah got better every week in the season,” Dorrell said earlier this week. “They had some struggles early and it was probably around Week 6 or 7 of the season that they just started to click. Defensively, they’re playing as good as they’ve played all season. They’re very, very stingy on that side of the ball.”

The Colorado-Utah rivalry that was renewed in 2011 when both teams joined the Pac-12 has been dominated by the Utes over the last 10 years.

The Buffs won the first matchup in the renewed rivalry in 2011 17-14 in Salt Lake City, denying Utah a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. But Colorado has only beaten the Utes once since, back in 2016 when CU was having a special season of its own, advancing to the conference title game.

A good reason Colorado has struggled, not just against Utah in the final week of the season, but in general, has been turnover at the head coach position.

College football is not like the NFL. It’s hard to bring in a new coach and expect an immediate turnaround. What Utah has built under coach Kyle Wittingham did not come overnight. He’s been in charge of the Utes since 2005 and they’ve just now begun to establish themselves as a top program in the conference in recent years as this will be their third Pac-12 Championship Game in the last four seasons.

Colorado, on the other hand, has just one division title back in 2016. Dorrell is the program’s third head coach in four seasons after Mike MacIntyre was replaced by Mel Tucker following the 2018 season and Tucker left for Michigan State after just one season.

Dorrell is well aware of the process required to get to where Utah is right now.

“If you get a chance to be at a place for a long time, the foundation of what you are as a program gets really established,” Dorrell said. “You have years of [recruiting] classes that go through that program and they have a great feel for what the expectations and systems are. When you have older seniors that can help coach the underclassmen about what it looks like and continue that growth year after year, it gives you a great stability and a level of success.

“That’s not taking anything from coach Wittingham, but that’s what we all aspire to do once we get a chance to get our foundation set in our program and start building with recruiting classes and start having the natural ascension through your program. We’re just in the beginning stages of that. We had a half year a year ago which really doesn’t count in my opinion and it was kind of weird. This year, you’re building that strong foundation now. One thing I’m proud of in this team is they’ve got a lot of fight in them. We’re heading in the right direction.”

Part of the reason Dorrell can feel confident in the direction of the program is because of how much this offense has progressed over the course of the season.

It looked bleak at times under freshman quarterback Brendon Lewis, but a change at offensive line coach and the development of some young stars, including freshman wide receiver Brenden Rice, has allowed CU to win its final two home games.

Now, this week will be very difficult for Lewis and the offense. Not only will Rice be out with an injury, but the Utes have one of the best defensive lines in the conference, leading the way in sacks with 33, 11 more than the next team in the Pac-12.

Defensive end Mike Tafu and linebacker Devin Lloyd are two players CU will have try and limit. Tafu is the top sack man in the conference with 8.5, while Lloyd’s 20 tackles for loss isthe top mark in the Pac-12.

“Each week has been a great litmus test for our offense,” Dorrell said. “We still have a lot of work to go, even though they’ve made some levels of improvement. I didn’t think they played particularly well last week. We didn’t protect as well, but we did some good things. We need to make sure that we’re playing solid throughout the game. I believe this is going to be a great test for both fronts.”

Defensively for CU, Nate Landman has a chance to return from a shoulder injury in his final collegiate game after he’s been a game-time decision the last two weeks. It will also be Carson Wells last game as a Buff for Carson Wells. CU’s outstanding edge rusher told the Boulder Daily Camera’s Brian Howell that he plans on forgoing his final year of eligibility to declare for the NFL Draft.

Utah doesn’t have one standout player on offense, but the Utes are second in the conference in points per game. Quarterback Cameron Rising’s ability to take care of the football is a big part of that. The sophomore has thrown just two interceptions this season, but CU had three key takeaways last week in the win over Washington and has shown a knack for forcing turnovers in recent weeks.

“[Rising] has developed an aura of himself within their offense because he’s a dynamic player,” Dorrell said. “He will take off and run it when he has the opportunity to do that. He’s been able to throw passes and create big play chunks. They do a lot of things with their tight ends and receivers. They’re a difficult team to defend and the quarterback is playing really well.”

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