November 16th – Boulder No. 6 Colorado 12, No. 9 Kansas State 0
The Colorado Buffaloes wanted nothing more than to play Nebraska on Thanksgiving weekend for the opportunity to play in the inaugural Big 12 Championship game. For this hope to become reality, though, the Buffs first had to establish that they were at least the second-best football team in the Northern Division.
Enter the Kansas State Wildcats.
Both teams were 8-1; both were ranked in the top ten. Colorado had to be wary of Kansas State, as the Buffs had been defeated by the only other ranked team it had faced all year. The game was to be played at night (5:00 p.m. kickoff), with a game time weather report of 16 degrees, 74 percent humidity, and a 12 mph wind creating a wind chill factor of minus-5 degrees. The chilly weather would not only serve to mute the Buffs’ home crowd, it would favor a tough defense. The Kansas State defense had surrendered over two touchdowns in only three of its nine games.
Advantage Kansas State?
Not so much.
The Buffs’ defense proved to be the unit which rose to the challenge. Freshman cornerback Damen Wheeler thrilled the sell-out crowd of 53,550 (fifth-largest all-time, second in 1996 to the 53,788 who witnessed the Michigan game in September) with two huge interceptions. The more important of the two came in the second quarter, with the Buffs nursing a 6-0 lead courtesy of a 27-yard run by Herchell Troutman on the game’s opening drive (the extra point attempt was missed by kicker Jason Lesley).
The Wildcats faced a third-and-three from their own 37 with less than five minutes remaining in the first half. Kansas State quarterback Brian Kavanaugh dropped back to throw a quick out pattern. Wheeler read it all the way, cutting in front of the Wildcat receiver to intercept the pass. Wheeler raced down the far sideline, stepping out at the 14. Three plays later, quarterback Koy Detmer sneaked the ball over from the one, and the Buffs were up 12-0 after a two point conversion attempt failed.
The 12 points were all the Buffs would need, as the Buff defense dominated the game in a well-earned 12-0 win. In posting Colorado’s first shutout since the 1995 21-0 win over Missouri, the Buffs defense held the Kansas State offense to 65 rushing yards, 228 overall. The Buff defense harrassed Wildcat quarterback Brian Kavanaugh all evening, sacking Kavanaugh four times, including two sacks by junior nose tackle Ryan Olson. Olson, who finished with eight tackles overall, credited the coaches: “We just put a great game plan in and we had them confused throughout the whole game. A lot of times I think Kavanaugh didn’t know what to do.”
The Wildcats put together one threat in the third quarter. Taking over at its own 8-yard line, Kansas State went on an 18-play drive which took up over eight minutes of game clock. Faced with a fourth-and-four at the Colorado seven yard line, quarterback Brian Kavanaugh dropped back to pass. Safety Steve Rosga took away Kavanaugh’s primary receiver, giving defensive lineman Ryan Olson time to get to Kavanaugh for a momentum crushing sack.
Kansas State would not get closer to a score than the Colorado 35-yard line the remainder of the night.
Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel was understandably excited with the win. “I just can’t say enough about our entire football team,” said Neuheisel, whose career record moved to 19-3 with the victory. “When you shut out a team, your defense has done something incredibly well.”
Colorado, at 9-1, was now in a position, by defeating the 9-1 Nebraska Cornhuskers in front of a national television audience, to play for the National Championship.
The path for Colorado to a national title was clear …. at least to Buff fans.
More than one singing group had made money demanding r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Rodney Dangerfield forged a career noting that he had received none of it.
Simple respect. Colorado, in the week leading up to the Nebraska game, received no national respect.
A quick re-cap of the standings leading up to the 1996 Colorado/Nebraska game in Lincoln: Nebraska was ranked No. 4 in the nation; Colorado, No. 5 (both teams rose a spot in the polls during the bye week, when No. 2 Ohio State was defeated by Michigan, 13-9).
Nebraska was 9-1; Colorado, 9-1. Nebraska was 7-0 in the Big 12; Colorado was also 7-0.
Nebraska knew that with a win, they would move up to third in the polls, with a chance, even with its one defeat, to win the national championship.
Colorado knew that with a win, they would move up to third in the polls, with a chance, even with its one defeat, to win the national championship.
Problem was, no one outside of Boulder recognized the Buffs as a team with a shot at the title.
The scenario for Nebraska was often repeated in the papers and on television all during Thanksgiving week: No. 1 Florida was playing No.2 Florida State the day after the Husker/Buff matchup. The loser of that game would fall from the national championship race, with Nebraska moving up to No.3 in the polls (Idle Arizona State, having completed its regular season campaign 11-0 and ranked third, would move to No.2). After winning the Big 12 Championship game (no one gave credence to the notion that either Texas or Texas Tech, whichever would prove to be the Southern Division’s representative, would provide much of a challenge to the Huskers), Nebraska would be off to the Sugar Bowl to face the Florida/FSU winner. The Sugar Bowl, then, would pit No. 1 vs. No. 3. If No.2 Arizona State obliged by losing to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, the Sugar Bowl on January 2nd would be a battle for the National Championship.
What was frustrating for many Buffs’ fans the week leading up to the Cornhusker game is that the EXACT SAME SCENARIO worked for the Buffs. In fact, it was easier to make a case for the National Championship for Colorado than it was for Nebraska. Arizona State, after all, had handed the Cornhuskers their only defeat. An argument could be made that if the Sun Devils finished the season with one loss (to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl), and Nebraska finished with one loss (to ASU), ASU should still be rated higher than Nebraska. If the Buffs followed through on the same path to the Sugar Bowl, the ASU argument would not apply. So why then, as the nation sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, was Colorado not mentioned as one of only five schools in the country which still aspired to be No. 1?
This is not just the ramblings of a die-hard Buff fan. The national media chose to selectively ignore the Buffs:
USA Today, Monday, November 25, 1996: “With Ohio State’s ruin (the loss to Michigan the weekend before), the Nebraska threepeat scenario is alive and manageable. Beat Colorado on Friday, win the Big 12 championship game, dump the Florida-Florida State winner in the Sugar Bowl, and have Arizona State lose to Ohio State in the Rose.”
No mention at all of the Buffs’ chances for the same scenario anywhere in the article.
The Sporting News, Monday, December 2, 1996, edition: “The Huskers need to win to keep alive their hopes for an unprecedented third consecutive national title. The Buffs need to win to prove they can actually beat the Huskers, who haven’t lost in Lincoln since September 1991.”
Associated Press, Friday, November 29, 1996: “Nebraska must win Friday to keep alive the slimmest of chances for a third straight national title. Colorado must win to make a statement against the Huskers, who have dominated the Buffaloes.”
The oddsmakers sided with the media that the game was a mismatch. The Buffs were installed as an 18-point underdog, and Brent Musberger, who did the play-by-play for the Buff/Husker game for ABC-TV, seemed intent on making the point that the Buffs by game time were “three touchdown” underdogs.
“We owe it to ourselves”, said senior linebacker Matt Russell, speaking of the Buffs’ senior class, “and we owe it to the guys who played here before us. Teams previous to us have beaten those guys, and we owe it to those guys. We want to get back the trophy.”
In August, 1996, Colorado coaches, players, and fans looked at the upcoming season’s schedule and circled the Nebraska game, hoping that the game would be for the Big 12 Northern Division title, and carry with it National Championship implications. After a long and occasionally trying season, the Buffs were right where they wanted to be. “I tell our team we’re going to crash this party”, said Neuheisel, “We didn’t get an invitation but we’re going to come anyway.”
Game Notes -
- Herchell Troutman rushed for 112 yards on 28 carries as the only offensive threat of the game.
- Koy Detmer was held to 138 yards on 15-for-28 passing. The Kansas State game marked the first time in 1996 in which Detmer did not have a touchdown pass, ending his school record streak at nine games.
- Junior nose tackle Ryan Olson had two sacks against Kansas State, including the game-saver. Olson had eight tackles overall, including six solo stops, earning him Big 12 Defensive Player-of-the-Week honors. For 1996, Olson led the team with 8.5 sacks on the season, and was voted first-team All-Big 12 by the Big 12 coaches. (Olson was named a CoSIDA Academic All-American and to the CFA Scholar-Athlete team).
- Despite Kansas State’s rise to national prominence in the mid-1990′s, the Buffs still had their number. The victory gave Colorado an 11-0-1 record against Kansas State since 1985, and a 24-2 overall record against the Wildcats in games played in Boulder.
- After a 35-20 victory to close out a 9-2 regular season, Kansas State was invited to play No. 5 BYU in the Cotton Bowl. The Wildcats lost, 19-15, to the Cougars, to finish with a No. 17 final ranking.