Colorado’s 2002 opening game against Colorado State has several positive and several negative numbers with which Buff fans had to contend.
On the positive side, there was the fact that since 1946, Colorado was 9-0 in opening games against teams which had already played. Before suiting up against the Buffs, the CSU Rams played the Virginia Cavaliers in the Jim Thorpe Classic. The Rams won that game, 35-29, and were close to entering the polls after the win. Still, CSU had played opening games in 1997 and 1998 before facing Colorado, and the Buffs had prevailed in both contests.
However, there were negative omens hanging over the Buffs as well. For starters, Gary Barnett was 0-3 in opening games as the Buffs’ head coach. What was worse, the Buffs had been out-scored by a total margin of 69-0 in those three games before the Buffs were able to put any points on the scoreboard. Even more ominous, though, was the odd fact that in the four previous games played between the Buffs and the Rams in Denver, (series tied, 2-2), in each game one of the teams had entered the game ranked; the other, unranked.
In each game, the unranked team had won.
Settling into Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium for the 11:00 a.m. kickoff on August 31st, the CU Buffs were the 7th-ranked team in the nation. The CSU Rams were unranked.
August 31st – Denver Colorado State 19, No. 7 Colorado 14
75,531sun-baked fans witnessed the Colorado Buffaloes succumb to the Colorado State Rams for the third time in four years, 19-14. Ram quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt scored on a 23-yard run with 6:20 remaining to give CSU the win after the Buffs had erased a 13-0 halftime deficit to take a 14-13 lead.
The Buffs could not overcome their own mistakes, including four turnovers. CSU built a 13-0 halftime edge behind the efforts of running back Cecil Sapp, who scored twice on his way to rushing for 80 yards on 22 carries. The Ram lead could have been greater if not for the miscues of kicker Jeff Babcock, who missed on two field goals and an extra point attempt.
After being held to just 90 yards of total offense in the first half, the Buffs rallied, but running back Chris Brown fumbled twice deep in Colorado State territory in the third quarter. “We never really gave ourselves a chance to get going because we kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” lamented Colorado head coach Gary Barnett, “But part of that was due to CSU. They played well.”
The Buffs finally got on the scoreboard on the first play of the fourth quarter. For the second year in a row, Colorado’s first touchdown of the season came on a punt return. In 2001, Roman Hollowell returned a punt 77 yards to pull the Buffs out of a 14-0 hole against Fresno State. In 2002, freshman Jeremy Bloom scored on a 75 yard punt return to cut the CU deficit to 13-7.
On the Buffs’ next drive, the CU offense put together an eight-play, 81-yard drive, with Chris Brown going over from the one yard line to give Colorado a 14-13 lead with 9:39 to play. Then the Buffs’ defense, which had held the Ram offense at bay for most of the afternoon, suddenly wilted. CSU was able to take the ensuing kickoff and march 84 yards in just seven plays to re-claim the lead. Bradlee Van Pelt scored the winning points on a 23-yard run. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but the Rams had a 19-14 lead with 6:20 to play.
The Buffs had plenty of time to salvage an opening day win. Converting two fourth down conversions, Colorado had the ball on the CSU 12-yard line with less than a minute to play. Ochs attempt to connect with John Donahue on fourth down fell incomplete, though, and the Buffs were 0-1 for the fourth consecutive year.
“It’s my responsibility to get our team ready for these games,”said coach Gary Barnett. “Unfortunately, I have some experience with this”. As a result of the loss, the Buffs plummeted ten spots in the polls, falling to 17th. With the win, previously unranked CSU entered the AP poll at No. 19.
Looking at the non-conference schedule prior to the CSU game, the Buffs’ next opponent, San Diego State, looked like a walkover. Now, with a third loss to Colorado State in four years, and the specter of the 2000 meltdown fresh in everyone’s memories, the Buffs could not afford to over look the Aztecs.
A repeat. But of which year?
This was becoming all too familiar. Opening day. New hope. The optimism of the coaches and fans bubbling over. All of the preseason magazines digested. Ready for kickoff.
For the fourth consecutive year, Colorado lost its opening game. Even the miserable early 1980′s hadn’t brought such a burden to the CU faithful. The Buffs last had four consecutive opening losses in 1938-41. Now Gary Barnett was 0-4 as head coach in Boulder, and had been outscored 82-0 in the process (before CU scored its opening points of the season). Three of those losses were to CSU.
Losing to CSU made it worse. It was not just because they were the poor country cousins of the Colorado football world. It was not just about bragging rights.
It was worse losing to CSU in Denver.
Playing in Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium was a great concept. It brought attention to the schools across the state and injected enthusiasm into the rivalry. The media paid more attention to the schools, and the games were sellouts.
But attending the game was hard.
At least when CU lost at home, misery loved the company. With the occasional exception of dealing with the red hoards from Nebraska and Oklahoma who came, saw, and often conquered the Buffs, you could usually walk out of Folsom Field after a loss without dealing with gloating conquerors.
When the stadium is split 50-50 (or even 60-40), at the end of the day there will inevitably be joyous fans and miserable fans. At Mile High Stadium, walking out after the 19-14 loss to the Rams was a trying experience. Even more so because the game came down to the last minute. Emotions were still running high as we filed out after the game, and the CSU faithful were (justifiably) rowdy. Most were not openly hostile to CU fans, but it felt personal. Just as it had been a sweet high after the win over CSU in 2001, this was a painful low.
The top ten ranking, anticipated all summer, was instantly reduced to a memory, and the Buffs now faced a tough stretch of games. After San Diego State, which was not looking to be such a cakewalk after the Aztecs had held tough before falling to Fresno State in its opener, the Buffs would likely face three consecutive games against ranked teams.
Unlike 2001, no one was calling for Gary Barnett’s head after the opening loss. Too much good had come in 2001 after an opening loss to Fresno State. Still, the meltdown of 2000 was still a fresh memory. In that forgettable season, after a close opening loss to the Rams, the Buffs fell in consecutive games to three ranked teams on the way to a 3-8 debacle.
How would 2002 turn out?
Facing a long 700-mile drive back to Bozeman, there was much to contemplate … and much to be concerned about.
- The August 22nd game between Virginia and Colorado State marked the earliest a college football game had ever been played.
- Colorado’s No. 7 preseason ranking was the fourth-highest in school history. In 1972, CU started the season as the No. 2 team in the nation, while the 1990 and 1996 teams began their years ranked No. 5.
- CU out-rushed the Rams on the day, 170-152. The loss marked only the second time CU had lost to an opponent it had out-rushed in 55 games, dating back to 1993. The only other loss? Also to CSU, in 2000 (28-24).
- It was uncertain for most of the spring and summer of 2002 whether Jeremy Bloom would play for Colorado. Bloom, an accomplished mogul skier, had participated in the 2002 Winter Olympics (finishing 9th), later going on to win the 2002 World Cup moguls title. Bloom wanted to play for the Buffs, but NCAA rules did not allow him to receive compensation for his skiing while playing football. After an unsuccessful legal challenge, Bloom chose to renounce his skiing endorsements in order to play for the Buffs in 2002.
- Chris Brown, with his 93 yards rushing, became the 46th player in CU history to accumulate over 1,000 yards rushing. With his 199 yards passing, Craig Ochs became the eighth Buff to surpass 3,000 yards through the air.
- Against Colorado State, the Buffs were shutout until the fourth quarter of a game for the first time since November 6, 1999, when the Buffs were shutout into the fourth quarter against Kansas State (CU eventually lost the game, 20-14).