EZ Mortgages

Washington – Buffs v. Neuheisel – Round One

// Sep 25 - 1999

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September 25th – at Washington           Washington 31, Colorado 24

In every 1999 preseason magazine, whenever the University of Colorado was mentioned, the game against Washington on September 25th was highlighted.

“Don’t forget that grudge match against Neuheisel and Washington in Seattle on September 25th”, reminded Street & Smith’s College Football preview.

“Most Colorado fans are focused on one opponent”, declared Preview Sports.

“Colorado State is a red-hot rivalry, but even that will be overshadowed when the Buffaloes travel to Washington three weeks later,” predicted The Sporting News.

The game was as hyped as a game between teams with 2-1 and 0-2 records could be. All that was left was for the players – those Neuheisel now coached vs. the players he once recruited – to play the game.

As college football games go, this was a good one. Neither team ever held a lead of over seven points. The game remained in doubt until the last minute, when Mike Moschetti’s fourth-and-game pass from the Husky 21-yard line was intercepted in the end zone by Anthony Vontoure, preserving a 31-24 Washington win. For most of the 72,068 on hand in Seattle, it was an exciting first victory of the Rick Neuheisel era at Washington.

For Buff fans everywhere, however, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

After a scoreless first quarter, the Huskies seized the momentum with a 14-play, 44-yard drive taking 7:17 off of the second quarter clock. While the Buffs’ defense forced Washington to earn every yard, the Huskies did finally punch it in on a one-yard run by Willie Hurst to take a 7-0 lead.

The Washington celebration was short lived, however, as Ben Kelly returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a Colorado touchdown. Avoiding at least six tackles, Kelly quieted all but about 4,000 of the 72,068 fans in attendance at Husky Stadium.

Tied 7-7 at the half, Washington scored quickly to open the third, but the Buffs again had an answer. A 24-yard scoring run by Cortlen Johnson, who had 77 yards on 13 carries on the day, tied the score at 14-all. Moments later, linebacker Jashon Sykes forced a fumble by Washington quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo. The ball was picked up by the ever present Ben Kelly, who raced 38 yards to the endzone. With 6:09 left in the third quarter, Colorado had its first lead of the day, at 21-14.

Now it was Washington’s turn to respond. First, the Huskies connected on a 40-yard field goal to cut the lead to 21-17 late in the third quater. On their next possession, Washington took the lead, 24-21, on a 36-yard pass from Tuiasosopo to Gerald Harris.

The Buffs countered with a 29-yard field goal by Jeremy Aldrich with 8:54 remaining to again tie the score, but a 70-yard drive by Washington resulted in a touchdown with 3:17 left to play. Down 31-24, the Buffs drove as far as the Washington 21-yard line before Moschetti’s last pass fell into the wrong hands to drop the Buffs to a 2-2 record.

“The bottom line is that we had very little offense and didn’t make a lot of plays on offense,” said a disheartened Gary Barnett after the game. “The difference in the game is that they were able to run the ball.”

On the day, Washington ran for over 200 yards and held the ball for 36:27 to Colorado’s 122 yards rushing and only 23:33 of possession time.

Before the game, numerous cameras were positioned at midfield to see if Barnett and Neuheisel, who had traded barbs in the press but had not spoken privately, would engage in the pre-game banter normal for head coaches during warmups. There was a handshake, but few words. It would be left for the players to speak for their coaches on the field.

After the game, Neuheisel was congratulated by a line of Colorado players. “Rick told me he respected who I was”, said Buff junior linebacker Ty Gregorak, one of a number of Buffs to hug their former coach. “He told me to have a great season. I told him the same. And he told me not to let the media come between us.” For Gregorak, whose oft-quoted, “We’ll see you on the 25th!” comment to Neuheisel as the former Buff head coach left the players after making brief comments back in January had become the rallying cry for the Buffs’ fans, the post-game talk was cathartic. “It was important to me to have that talk,” said the junior Neuheisel had recruited from Spokane. “And the fact of the matter is, I personally had a lot of respect for Rick and his staff when he was here.”

For all of the hype about the Washington game, the fact was that Colorado was now 2-2 for the season, and not playing very well. Cornerback Ben Kelly scored two of the Buffs’ three touchdowns, so there was much concern about the offense. The defense, while keeping Colorado in the game, had failed to come up with the big play when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. “We have to get ready for the next game,” said Barnett. “I’m disappointed for our kids, but I’m not disappointed in them.”

The season, if not the program, was at a crossroads. After a bye week, the Buffs had Missouri on the schedule. The Tigers were 3-1, but had not looked impressive in wins over minor competition and a 40-10 loss to Nebraska. After the Tigers, the Buffs had road trips to Texas Tech and Iowa State before returning home to face Oklahoma. The Red Raiders, Cyclones, and Sooners were enigmas. Texas Tech had followed up an embarrassing loss to North Texas with an upset of 5th-ranked Texas A&M. Iowa State was also 3-1, and had led Kansas State 28-7 at halftime before succumbing, 35-28. Oklahoma had raced out to a 3-0 record behind new head coach Bob Stoops, and had led Notre Dame 30-13 at South Bend before falling 34-30 to lose its first game of the year.

All four October games were winnable. All four games, if the Buffs did not wake up from the disappointing loss to Washington, could also be lost.

With November games against Kansas State and Nebraska on the horizon, the jury was still out on the 1999 Buffs.

Hounded

This one hurt.

Not since walking out of the Orange Bowl in the early morning hours of January 2, 1990, just after the Buffs had let a perfect season slip away with a 20-6 Orange Bowl loss to Notre Dame, had I felt this bad.

Sure, there had been close losses to Nebraska, the CSU debacle, and a number of other defeats in the 1990’s when I felt disappointed, shocked, annoyed, and angered.

But this one actually hurt.

Perhaps a victim of all of the preseason hype, I really wanted this game against Washington. I wanted the Buffs to beat the Huskies. More to the point, I wanted our Buffs to beat Neuheisel’s Huskies.

Rick Neuheisel had dumped on the program which had given a young coach an amazing opportunity. Rather than being grateful, Neuheisel took the money and ran, leaving in his wake a decimated recruiting class and ungracious (even if warranted) comments about the inferior Colorado facilities and a lack of institutional commitment.

The trip to Seattle for the Washington game was in the works long before Neuheisel’s departure. Brad and I had planned an anniversary trip of sorts, returning 10 years after the emotional 1989 contest against the Huskies, which had been the first game for the Buffs after the death of Sal Aunese. For this trip, my friend Randy and wife Lee were coming from Bozeman, with Brad coming from Denver and our daughter Heidi coming up for the weekend from Portland.

We arrived on Thursday, and had a wonderful two days touring Seattle. I wore my CU gear proudly, and everywhere we went, there were fellow Buff fans. We were honked at as we strolled along Pike Street Market, high-fived in restaurants, and heard “Go Buffs” cheers on the ferry to Bainbridge Island. There were few Washington fans evident, and there was no verbal jousting. And why would there be? After all, Washington was 0-2 under Neuheisel, so there was little to brag about in Husky circles.

The CU Alumni Association had a great weekend planned, including a Friday night dinner at the Space Needle and a cruise and a pregame party the morning of the game.

It was all good fun … but I was there for the game.

While I am never over-confident before any Buff game (some would say I usually border on the pessimistic side), I had a good feeling about this game. The stars were seemingly aligned. Colorado had rebounded from the CSU embarrassment with two 50-point games. Washington, meanwhile, was coming off of a 6-6 campaign, was 0-2 under Neuheisel, and had more questions than answers as to its future.

The weather even cooperated for the game.

Forecasts during the week had predicted that rain showers were not only possible, but likely. Instead, we were treated to a perfect day for football. In his article about the Colorado/Washington game, entitled No Hard Feelings, Sports Illustrated’s Richard Hoffer described the scene:

“… the kind of gorgeous autumn day that frames your best memories of the sport. Soft clouds billowed in the distance, considerate not to shadow the field, and boats bobbed in Lake Union, just outside the stadium. More than 72,000 people, not all on hand to see a comeuppance, stayed on their feet as the game went back and forth – big plays breaking this way and that, the result in doubt right up to the final seconds.”

Sports Illustrated, October 4, 1999

For college football as a whole, the game was a showcase. There were mistakes made, but there were also spectacular plays. The game was close, the setting beautiful. If there hadn’t been so much riding on the outcome, it would have been a joy to say that I had played a part.

But it hurt.

During Colorado’s bye week, Washington followed up on the victory over the Buffs with an upset of 25th-ranked Oregon, 34-20. Both Neuheisel’s Washington and Barnett’s Colorado were now 2-2 on the year, but whereas Husky fans were optimistic about the upcoming conference season (1999 was a down year for the Pac-10. Four teams had been in the preseason top 25, but by the October 4th poll, only USC, with a 3-1 record and a 22nd ranking, was left), Buff fans were worried about upcoming Big 12 battles.

Was the program, as Barnett described it after the Washington game, “one play different and we all go home hooting and hollering and it’s a good ride home”, or was it on the verge of falling into a pit of mediocrity?

The next four weeks would tell.

A 4-0 mark in October, and the bitter taste of September’s losses would be forgotten. A 3-1 record for the month, and a bowl would still be in the offing. A 2-2 record, though, and the ghosts of 1997 would be revisited, with the Buffs needing a win over Kansas State or Nebraska just be make the postseason.

Waiting through the purgatory which was the Buffs’ bye week, I had faith that the Buffs could rebound and match the 8-4 record of the previous season.

But I still hurt.

Game Notes –

– Colorado previously had been undefeated in games against former coaches, going 3-0 before losing to Washington and former coach Rick Neuheisel.

– Jashon Sykes forced his fourth fumble in as many games against the Huskies, with his forced fumble in the Washington game turning into a Ben Kelly touchdown.

– Cortlen Johnson’s 24-yard touchdown run in the third quarter proved to be the longest touchdown run of the season by any Buff.

– Ben Kelly’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was the longest ever by a Washington opponent.

– In returning kickoff and fumble returns for touchdowns, Ben Kelly became the first Colorado player to score two non-offensive touchdowns in a game since Victor Scott returned two interceptions for scores against Oklahoma State in 1982.

– Washington would go on to post a 7-5 record in Rick Neuheisel’s first season in Seattle, falling 24-20 to Kansas State in the Holiday Bowl. Neuheisel would coach four seasons at Washington, posting a 33-16 overall record (his four year record at Colorado: 33-14).

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