A Will to Win
On a day in which wide receiver Paul Richardson became the first Colorado player to ever post a second 200-yard receiving game in a career …
On a day in which quarterback Connor Wood became only the third Buff to pass for over 400 yards in a season opener (409 by Kordell Stewart in 1992; 402 by Joel Klatt in 2003, both against Colorado State) …
On a day in which senior captain defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe and cornerback Greg Henderson teamed up for an electrifying 53-yard fumble return for a touchdown …
My MVP for the 2013 Rocky Mountain Showdown (if I can’t give it to coach Mike MacIntyre and his coaching staff) is …
Kicker Will Oliver.
It was Oliver who went four-for-four on field goal attempts in the Buffs’ 41-27 victory against Colorado State – after an entire season in which he made only six (in eight total attempts). It was Oliver who delivered on the game’s most crucial play, connecting on a 52-yard field goal (matching a career-best) to restore the Buffs to the lead once and for all, at 26-24, with 13:07 left in the game.
But let’s back up a moment, and remember what led up to that game-changing – and perhaps season-changing – play.
If you have been with CU at the Game for the past few months, indeed since last December, you know that I have been a bit reluctant to drink the Kool-Aid of the Mike Mac era. True enough, new CU head coach Mike MacIntyre has, since his hire, said and done everything any Buff fan could have realistically hoped for under the circumstances. MacIntyre brought in a professional staff (one which many of us thought was too San Jose State laden), a staff which knew how to not only run a program, but how to resurrect one. MacIntyre signed up a decent recruiting class, made the team look good in spring drills, had positive reports coming out of summer workouts, and had the team talking about unity, accountability, and commitment.
Still, having bought into the Dan Hawkins regime seven years ago, and the Jon Embree regime five years after that, I was skeptical.
I often quoted, to anyone who would listen, boxer Mike Tyson’s famous quote: “Everyone had a plan … ’till they get punched in the mouth”.
How would the 2013 Colorado Buffaloes, universally chosen to finish last in the Pac-12 South, fare when the games counted?
How would these (seemingly forever) young Buffs handle the inevitable adversity the 2013 season would bring?
Exactly a year earlier, on September 1, 2012, many of these same Buffs were on the field when Colorado, having staked itself to a 14-3 second quarter lead against the Rams, folded after a muffed punt led to a late second quarter touchdown. That one play sent the Buffs into a funk from which they did not recover the remainder of the game … and arguably the entire season.
The opportunity for the Buffs to stare down adversity didn’t come early in the 2013 Rocky Mountain Showdown. In fact, the Buffs opened the game about as well as could have been imagined.
After the CU defense forced a punt four plays into CSU’s opening drive, the Buff offense struck early. On only the second play of the pistol era at Colorado, quarterback Connor Wood found CU star wide receiver Paul Richardson so wide open that, as CUBuffs.com B.G. Brooks so eloquently put it, “P-Rich couldn’t have been any more by himself behind the Rams secondary unless he had been quarantined”.
The early 82-yard touchdown held up, as the Buffs took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter (the first period went so well that my working title for the game’s essay to that point was “A Quarter of the Way There”, figuring that, if Colorado could not sustain the lead for the entire game, the Buffs at least had a blue print for future success).
The second quarter did see some adversity, as the Rams opened the stanza with a field goal. Those points were more than made up for on a beautiful 18-yard touchdown pass from Wood to D.D. Goodson on a third-and-ten play with 3:56 to play in the half. Late in the quarter, Colorado State scored its first touchdown of the game to make the score 17-10, but the CU offense was able to respond, going 51 yards in six plays in only 1:18 of game clock, with Will Oliver connecting from 41 yards out as time expired to give Colorado a 20-10 halftime lead.
The newly minted Buffs had taken a few hits in the first half, but the first body blows of the season came in the third quarter.
Colorado would go on to hold the ball for 11 minutes of the third quarter, out-gain the Rams 103 yards to 23 during the period … and be out-scored 14-3.
The first shot to the chin came after the CU offense went three-and-out to open the second half. A Darragh O’Neill punt was returned 74 yards for a touchdown, and, quite suddenly, it was a game again at 20-17.
A 44-yard field goal by Oliver late in the quarter gave the Buffs a tentative 23-17 advantage, but that was almost immediately erased when the ensuring kickoff was returned 90 yards, leading to a touchdown – and CSU’s first lead of the game, at 24-23 – just three plays later.
The CSU contingent was in full voice for the first time since early in the game when the CU offense took the field to start the fourth quarter. Driving to the Colorado State 35-yard line, the Buffs, after a three-yard gain on third-and-six, faced a fourth-and-three at the CSU 35 yard line.
Up in the stands, my thoughts were that CU head coach Mike MacIntyre had no choice but to go for it. The Buffs were in no-man’s land at the 35 – too far out for a field goal attempt; too close to punt. Going for the first down seemed the only viable option.
And yet coach MacIntyre sent Will Oliver into the game.
Oliver, though three-for-three on the afternoon to that point, was at the edge of his effective range. The 52-yarder would tie his career-best.
A make, and Colorado would have the lead back early in the fourth quarter.
A miss, and Colorado State would not only have the ball back with the lead, but have the ball – and all the momentum – in excellent field position.
Oliver came through, however, and the Buffs had the lead back for good at 26-24.
True enough, the forced fumble a few plays later by Chidera Uzo-Diribe, a fumble which was recovered and converted into a 53-yard touchdown by Greg Henderson, was huge.
True enough, the first down pass play which was called with 3:47 remaining, with the Buffs now nursing a precarious 33-27 lead, a call which led to a game-clinching 75-yard touchdown connection between Wood and Richardson, will be talked about by CU fans for years.
But I would argue that all of that might not have been possible had Will Oliver not hit a 52-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
A miss could have been a turning point in the game … and perhaps the Buffs’ season.
A miss could have shaken the fragile confidence of the 2013 Buffs, a confidence which had grown in the locker room for the past nine months, but had yet to be tested on the playing field.
Now, with a victory in hand, the Buffs know that they can handle adversity. They know that they can trust the game plan of the new coaching staff, and that their hard work off the playing field can bear fruit on the playing field.
Thanks in large part to the four-for-four field goal afternoon by junior kicker Will Oliver, these Buffs know that, both figuratively and literally
… They have A Will To Win.