1995 – Colorado v. Oregon – Cotton Bowl – January 1, 1996
The “Forgotten Bowl”
Colorado had its wish come true. After losing two conference games early, the best Colorado could hope for was nine wins and a New Year’s Day game. The win over Kansas State in the regular season finale allowed the Buffs to achieve both goals.
The only problem was, no one seemed to notice.
Dubbed the “Forgotten Bowl”, the Colorado/Oregon match-up represented the first time in 55 years that the Cotton Bowl would be played without a Southwest Conference team. A lack of interest on the local level was reflected nationwide. While the two 9-2 teams had much to play for (Colorado needed a win to cement its status as a national power; Oregon was playing for its first 10 win season and top 10 ranking in school history), there was little to spur national attention. A dreary weather forecast doomed any hope of a decent walkup crowd. The official attendance for the game turned out to be 58,214 (69,000 capacity), but the crowd shots from the CBS cameras proved that only about half of the sold tickets were utilized. Oregon at least held up its end, bringing 14,000 fans. Colorado, however, could muster only 6,000 faithful.
Fortunately for Rick Neuheisel and the Buffs, the extra fans in the stands did not permit Oregon to place additional players on the field.
January 1st – Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas #7 Colorado 38, #12 Oregon 6
Head coach Rick Neuheisel concluded a successful first campaign at Colorado, leading the Buffs to a convincing 38-6 win over 12th-ranked Oregon. The Buffs notched their 10th win of the season behind a sluggish offense and a turnover-producing defense. John Hessler threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, but it was the Buff defense which stole the show.
And steal the show it did.
The Colorado defense turned the ball over five times, with none more important than a record-setting 95-yard interception return for a touchdown by freshman cornerback Marcus Washington. With the Buffs up 7-6 in the second quarter and the Ducks driving, Washington picked off an errant pass from Oregon quarterback Tony Graziani and raced down the sideline in front of his Colorado teammates to put the Buffs up 13-6 (the extra point attempt was missed).
Washington’s heroics turned the momentum over to the Buffs for good. On the day, Oregon found its way into Colorado territory nine times, but could only post two early field goals. Players credited defensive coordinator/secondary coach A.J. Christoff with the win. “Coach Christoff just made the right calls at the right times today,” said Washington, named the game’s defensive MVP. “All year our defense has been underrated even though we’ve stopped a lot of teams.”
Buoyed by the defensive effort, the offense responded in the third quarter to put the game away. Colorado scored 19 points in the quarter on a two-yard pass from Hessler to tight end Matt Lepsis, a six yard run by Herchell Troutman (who gained 100 yards on 13 carries on the day) and a 12-yard hookup from Hessler to Phil Savoy.
The fourth quarter was played in a cold rain before few fans, but the 1996 edition of the Cotton Bowl would not be concluded without controversy. Up 32-6 with five minutes to play, Colorado faced a fourth-and-14 from its 43-yard line. After seven consecutive running plays, a punt was certainly in order. Instead, Neuheisel called for a fake punt, with punter Andy Mitchell hitting Ryan Sutter for a 28-yard gain and a first down. The trick play led to the Buffs’ final score, and some hurt feelings on the Oregon sideline.
First-year Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti gave a stern “no comment” about the play, but Neuheisel was quick to explain. “We faked the punt …. strictly because they were lined up to block the punt,” said the Buffs’ coach after the game. “And if you have been following Colorado football, we’ve had five of ‘em blocked.” Neuheisel concluded with an apology: “I apologize if there are any hard feelings.”
Colorado finished the season 10-2, ranked 5th in the nation. With undefeated Nebraska destroying Florida 62-24 to claim its second consecutive national championship, and Kansas State and Kansas winning their bowl games to finish ranked 7th and 9th nationally, respectively, the Big Eight could boast half of its membership being in the nation’s top ten as the Big Eight Conference came to a close.
Not a bad way for the Big Eight to go out.
On to ‘96
In a way, the controversial conclusion to the Cotton Bowl represented Rick Neuheisel’s first season as head coach in a microcosm. Unorthodox throughout, the brash young coach had proven his critics wrong. Many had considered the hiring of this young coach to be premature. After all, Neuheisel had never been so much as a coordinator in his brief coaching career. When he took his players inner-tubing and canceled training camp practices, chaos was foreseen. A mid-season loss to Kansas, the Buffs’ first such setback in 11 years, was seen as the beginning of the end. A loss to dominating Nebraska put the Buffs on the verge of a fourth place finish in the Conference.
Yet Neuheisel rallied the troops, pulled off a win against Kansas State, and had won big against a talented Oregon team.
From the first dominating wins against Wisconsin, to the handling of his injured star quarterback, to faking a punt against Oregon, Neuheisel had done it his way. With a #5 final ranking in a “rebuilding” year, no one was in a position to argue with Neuheisel’s methods.
Game Notes -
- In addition to Marcus Washington being named Defensive MVP of the 1996 Cotton Bowl, running back Herchell Troutman (13 carries, 100 yards, one touchdown) was named the Offensive MVP. In the third quarter, Troutman had a 55-yard run, the longest by a Buff in post-season history.
- The bowl win was the third in a row for Colorado, the longest such streak in CU history (the streak would reach six, the sixth-longest in NCAA history). The win gave the Buffs an overall bowl record of 8-12.
- The margin of victory over Oregon (32 points) was by far the best showing by CU in a bowl game. The previous best was 17 points, set a year earlier in a 41-24 victory in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame. (The Buffs would go on to defeat Boston College by 34 points, 62-28, four seasons later, in the 1999 Insight.com Bowl to set a new standard).