November 29th – at Nebraska No. 4 Nebraska 17, No. 5 Colorado 12
The headlines said it all.
From the Buffalo Sports News: “Ooh, So Close”.
From the Billings Gazette: “Huskers outlast Buffs”.
Both statements were true.
The Buffs had their chances in the 17-12 loss to Nebraska on a cold 33-degree day in Lincoln. Rain turned to snow in the late afternoon as Colorado saw the light fade on its chances to beat the Cornhuskers for the first time since 1990.
The game started with great promise. Unlike the 1995 game, when the Buffs went three-and-out on the game’s opening drive, only to witness the Huskers score on their first drive, the first few minutes of the 1996 game played out about as well as the Buffs could have hoped. Taking the opening kickoff, the Buffs marched 52 yards in 10 plays, culminating in a 45-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Jeremy Aldrich. The distance of the kick, the fact that it was Aldrich’s first-ever field goal attempt, and the fact that the kick hit the cross-bar before tumbling over all served to give Buff fans a tingle. Perhaps this would be the year. 3-0 Colorado.
On the Cornhuskers’ third play from scrimmage, running back Ahman Green was stripped by linebacker Greg Jones. The fumble was recovered by Buffs’ safety Ryan Black at the Nebraska 35-yard line. Six plays netted 12 yards for the CU offense, and Aldrich nailed his second-ever attempt from 40 yards. 6-0 Colorado. Still only the first quarter, but confidence had to be growing in the minds of the Buffs.
How quickly things can change in a college football game.
The Colorado defense stopped the Nebraska offense on the ensuing kickoff after the second Aldrich kick, forcing a punt. Taking over late in the first quarter with a 6-0 lead, the Buffs’ offense had the chance to take charge of the game. Instead, a Koy Detmer pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Nebraska defensive tackle Jeff Ogard. The pass was then intercepted by linebacker Jay Foreman, who lumbered 21 yards for a score and a 7-6 Cornhusker lead. Nebraska had no first downs on offense, but now had the lead.
The remainder of the first half was all Cornhuskers, as Nebraska built a 17-6 halftime edge. A 30-yard field goal and a seven-yard touchdown run gave the Cornhuskers a two-score advantage, one which could have been even greater had Nebraska kicker Kris Brown not missed a 41-yard field goal attempt just before halftime.
The second half was a study of defenses. As had been the case in 1990, when the Buffs had last won in Lincoln, the Colorado defense was awesome. Nebraska’s vaunted offense, averaging over 46 points per game in 1996, had nine possessions in the second half. The first drive lasted five plays before the Cornhuskers fumbled. The next seven possessions were all three plays or less, resulting in two fumbles and five punts. Only in its last possession of the game, when the Cornhuskers were running out the clock, did the NU offense produce a drive of any significance (an eight-play drive). Linebacker Matt Russell made his case for the nation’s best linebacker in the Nebraska game. The Butkus Award winner had 16 tackles (12 solo), two fumble recoveries, and two third-down quarterback sacks.
These defensive statistics could only mean that the Colorado offense had many opportunities to climb back into the game. Two more Aldrich field goals, the first a 38-yarder in the third quarter, the second a 27-yarder with 8:46 remaining in the game pulled the Buffs to within 17-12.
But the Buffs would get no closer in the game’s frantic final minutes.
After the fourth Aldrich field goal, sophomore linebacker Hannibal “The Cannibal” Navies blind-sided Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost, forcing a fumble recovered by Matt Russell at the Nebraska 24 yard line. Another Detmer, though, passed was tipped and intercepted, spoiling the Buffs’ golden opportunity.
One more chance. A sack by Russell led to another Cornhusker punt.
Colorado ball, down 17-12, at its own 44 yard line with 4:47 to go.
A 37-yard pass completion from Detmer to Rae Carruth on a third-and-19 play put the Buffs on the Nebraska 28-yard line with plenty of time remaining. Sadly for Buff fans, this was as close as Colorado would get to the Big 12 Championship game in St. Louis. A one-yard loss by Herchell Troutman was followed by three incompletions. Nebraska ball. The Cornhuskers successfully ran out the remaining game clock, securing a the first-ever Big 12 Northern Division title.
Rick Neuheisel was succinct. “If you like defense, it was a great college football game,” said the Buffs’ head coach, now 0-2 against Nebraska, 19-2 against all other foes, “Unfortunately, if you like the Colorado Buffaloes, it was a heart-breaking football game.”
For senior linebacker Matt Russell, it was a hard loss to take. “We were a highly rated senior class coming out of high school, and we’ve had some really great times with no regrets”, said the latest great linebacker produced by the University of Colorado, “but to have not ever beaten these guys is tough.”
While Nebraska was heading off to St. Louis to play Big 12 Southern Division champion Texas (which had rebounded with four straight wins after the loss to Colorado), the Buffs were relegated to watching television, waiting to see where the Bowl Alliance would lead them.
Here is a YouTube video of the game (thanks to CU at the Gamer Paul for finding it for us!):
Game Notes -
- The game, played on the Friday after Thanksgiving as part of the new Big 12 (replacing the Nebraska/Oklahoma game) was played in a steady rainfall, which turned to snow flurries at times.
- Colorado scored on its opening drive against Nebraska, something no other team had done all season.
- Sophomore kicker Jeremy Aldrich had not attempted a field goal all season before the Nebraska game. Taking over for Jason Lesley, Aldrich scored all of the Buffs’ points against Nebraska, going four-for-four in hitting field goals of 45, 40, 38, and 27 yards.
- Quarterback Koy Detmer had one of his worst days as a Buff against Nebraska. The senior hit on only 12-of-38 passes for 226 yards, with two costly interceptions.
- Red-shirt freshman Damen Wheeler earned his first career start against Nebraska. Wheeler had two interceptions against Kansas State earlier in the season, and was presented with the Lee Willard Award, given to the team’s top freshman.
1996 Season honors
All-Americans – Consensus: Linebacker Matt Russell; offensive guard Chris Naeole … Others receiving metion: Wide receiver Rae Carruth; quarterback Koy Detmer; tight end Brody Heffner (freshman team); safety Steve Rosga
Butkus Award – (given to the nation’s top linebacker): Matt Russell
All-Big 12 – First team: Wide receiver Rae Carruth; quarterback Koy Detmer; guard Chris Naeole; nose tackle Ryan Olson; safety Steve Rosga; linebacker Matt Russell … Second team: Safety Ryan Black; defensive end Greg Jones … Third team: defensive tackle Viliami Maumau; offensive tackle Melvin Thomas; tailback Herchell Troutman … Honorable mention: tight end Brody Heffner; wide receiver James Kidd; linebacker Ron Merkerson; wide receiver Phil Savoy; cornerback Dalton Simmons; offensive tackle Kyle Smith; cornerback Marcus Washington