November 28th – Boulder #5 Nebraska 24, Colorado 7
Colorado had Nebraska right where they wanted them.
The Cornhuskers had lost the 1987 Game-of-the-Year to Oklahoma the week before. Nebraska, ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time all season, fell to No. 2 Oklahoma (which had been ranked No. 1 every week previous) at home, by a final score of 17-7. Nebraska players could have been forgiven for not being up for playing Colorado after absorbing a natioanal championship run-ending defeat. Oklahoam was now heading for Miami, the Orange Bowl, and a shot at the National Championship, while Nebraska, though still playing on New Year’s Day, was relegated to the Fiesta Bowl and diminished national attention.
Colorado, angry at having been passed over for a bowl bid despite a 7-3 record, could take the opportunity to defeat hated Nebraska for the second consecutive year, tie the Cornhuskers and Oklahoma State for second place in the conference race, and earn for the Buffs much needed national respect.
The only problem was that, despite the loss to Oklahoma, Nebraska remained ranked in the top five in the country, and with good reason. Coming into the Colorado game, Nebraska was second in the nation in rushing offense, total offense, and scoring offense. The defense was not to be overlooked, ranking in the top ten nationally in most categories.
The good news for Buff fans from the nationally televised game against Nebraska? The Buffs held the Cornhuskers 100 yards below their average for total yards, and 20 points below their average point total. The bad news? The Cornhuskers completely shut down the Buffs’ offense. Only twice during the year were the Buffs held below 340 yards of total offense. Against Oklahoma, Colorado was held to 213 total yards; versus Nebraska, the total was only 226.
For the first time ever, Colorado came out in all black uniforms. While Colorado made a fashion statement at the game, Nebraska made a football statement. Nebraska back Keith Jones torched the Colorado defense for 248 yards and touchdown runs of 50 and 44 yards. Reflected senior nose tackle Kyle Rappold after the game: “We were dressing (in all black) like we were ready for a funeral. Unfortunately, it turned out to be ours.”
Still, as had been true with most of the Nebraska/Colorado games during the McCartney era, the Buffs were competitive. Down 17-7 in the fourth quarter, Colorado had a third-and-one at the Nebraska 31. Plently of time remained for two scores and a win. On third down, though, the Buffs tried to run outside. Fullback Erich Kissick had not been stopped for a loss all afternoon, but quarterback Mark Hatcher took the ball around end, losing three yards. Long-distance kicker Keith Culbertson, who had connected on a 52-yard field goal against Missouri, missed a 50-yarder which would have brought the Buffs to within 17-10. Instead, Nebraska had the ball and a ten-point lead. Three plays later, Keith Jones sprinted for 44 yards and a touchdown, and the game was over. “I’m disappointed”, said Coach Bill McCartney, “The biggest play of the game for us ….. We needed to get at least three points on that possession to stay in the game.”
As for the season and the disparity between the Buffs and the Huskers and Sooners, McCartney conceded that the big boys of the Big Eight were better. “They’re big and strong and can tackle as well as anybody. We just have to get bigger and stronger ourselves in the offseason and start preparing for next year.”
The Colorado Buffaloes finished the season on a sour note, but completed the 1987 campaign 7-4. It was Colorado’s third straight winning season, the first such string of success since 1976-78.
Colorado started to come of age in the mid-1980′s. The emergence as a national power was still a distant dream.
After the 1987 Nebraska game, Brad and I were disappointed, but not completely disheartened. We were not supposed to beat the fifth-ranked team in the nation, and our feeling was not that Nebraska had beaten us, but that we had beaten ourselves. Still, the 1986 game had given us hope that we could not only be competitive with the Big Two, but beat them. With the let down Nebraska had to have been feeling from the week before, the time seemed ripe to catch the Cornhuskers unprepared.
It was just not meant to be.
To drown our sorrows, we headed back to our cars. Since I was staying at the Holiday Inn just across the road from the Events Center, we set our sights on Oliver’s, the bar adjacent to the Holiday Inn.
If we had thought about it, we probably would have gone somewhere else.
Soon after Brad and I (along with one or two others clad in black and gold) sat ourselves down in a position to watch the bar’s televisions, the room became inundated with red-clad Nebraska fans. Again, logic would have forewarned us that the Holiday Inn, and hence, the Holiday Inn bar, would be populated after the game by traveling Cornhusker fans. Still, we stood our ground. Four Colorado fans in a sea of red.
At the outset, things were amicable enough. We were able to trade some light-hearted barbs with the group closest to us. After all, Nebraska had lost its big game of the season only a week before, so there was only so much crowing they could do. After a short time, however, the joviality of the Cornhusker faithful began to wear thin. When they started to discuss (amongst themselves, mind you, but well within our earshot) the “fluke” of 1986, we had to respond. Being a part of the painful recent past, all I could think to respond with was the old lament of “better to live and lose in Boulder than win and be forced to call Lincoln home”. I didn’t say that, of course, but I felt it.
Then I came up with a better retort.
Watching the Oklahoma/Nebraska game on television the week before, I had noticed something. When the Nebraska players were profiled by ABC, there was one constant. (By profiled I mean that when a particular Cornhusker player made a noteworthy effort, his picture was put up on the screen. Next to the picture was the player’s name, position, year in school, and major.) What I noticed was that for virtually every Nebraska player profiled that day, their major was listed as being “Undergraduate Studies”.
Oh, yeah. The other reason always given as to why we couldn’t beat the rest of the Big Eight, much less the Big Two – the high academic standards of the University of Colorado. It was these standards which prevented us from recruiting some of the athletes who were eligible to sign on to play at Oklahoma and Nebraska.
I had my ammunition, and I took fire.
What was it, I asked the Cornhusker group next to us, that one would actually do with a degree in Undergraduate Studies? If the University of Nebraska was truly producing student-athletes, shouldn’t they be prepared to face the real world with something better than a degree in Undergraduate Studies?
I had them. Or so I thought.
This group was unfazed. Nebraska football was a stepping stone to the NFL, they casually replied. The players knew that. They enrolled at Nebraska aware of the opportunity and of the risk. Everyone in Nebraska knew that the team was a football factory – and, by the way, that it was a successful one. Colorado folks just didn’t understand major college football – but that was understandable, what with Colorado being so far removed from major college football.
That hurt. Not only had my dig not worked, they had turned it against me. I slunk further into my seat.
Meanwhile Brad, normally the hothead of our group, quietly stewed. He would leave them alone, he muttered, as long as they didn’t sing. We had heard “GO BIG RED” all afternoon, along with the Cornhusker fight song. Brad would not tolerate hearing either the cheer or the fight song again. “Celebrate, but don’t make me a part of it” seemed to be his philosophy of the moment.
Naturally, it wasn’t long until sporadic yells around the bar of “GO BIG RED” led some of the inebriated Nebraska faithful to break out into song.
The Nebraska fight song.
We had to retaliate, but how? Fighting back with the Colorado fight song seemed lame. We were not only outnumbered, we had just lost.
Brad had a better idea.
In his loudest Brad voice – a voice which print cannot give justice to – Brad started singing: “Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner. Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner.”
It was the Oklahoma fight song.
The rest of us sat in stunned silence. Our choices were two: Run, leaving Brad to a certain death; or to join in. Being on our second or third beers at that point, the choice was easily made.
We joined in.
“Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner. Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner.”
For the uninitiated, this is how the Oklahoma fight song starts out, and is the most familiar refrain of the song (much more so than the “I’m a Sooner born and Sooner bred, and when I die, I’ll be Sooner dead”.
It didn’t matter that we didn’t know the rest of the words to the Oklahoma fight song. The Huskers fans quit singing.
The Nebraska fans could have come after us at that point, but they didn’t. Perhaps they realized that they needed to be mindful that they were in a public place, and that they should not disturb others. Possible, but not likely.
My guess is that Brad shocked the Cornhuskers into silence. By reminding the faithful that their dreams of a National Championship had been dashed only seven days earlier at the hands of the hated Sooners, the song forced them to think back to Lincoln and the painful 17-7 loss.
Before they regained consciousness, we got the hell out of there.
Game Notes -
- Only two teams in 1987 held the Colorado offense to under 200 yards rushing and 300 yards of total offense – Oklahoma and Nebraska.
- Nebraska threw only six passes all afternoon against Colorado – one was complete (for three yards), four fell incomplete, and one was intercepted – by senior defensive back Mickey Pruitt. Pruitt finished his Colorado career with the most tackles by a defensive back in a season (116) and a career (340). Pruitt also left Boulder with the record for the most pass deflections in a career (32).
- Mark Hatcher started in place of the injured Sal Aunese. Hatcher completed four-of-ten passes for 62 yards and a touchdown (a four-yarder to freshman fullback George Hemingway), and one interception. Rick Wheeler also played, going one-for-four for 17 yards and an interception.
- Punter Barry Helton had another great day in his final game in Folsom Field. Helton had four punts for an average of 46.0 yards. On the season, Helton averaged 44.0 yards per kick (and 40.3 net yards per kick). At the conclusion of the 1987 season, Helton was named first-team All-Big Eight for the third consecutive season. Helton was drafted into the NFL in the fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers, the highest Colorado draft pick since Victor Scott was selected in the second round of the 1984 draft by the Dallas Cowboys.