The 1996 Season – A Look Back at a Season of “What Might Have Been”

Here is a look back at the 1996 season. The Buffs were one score away from playing for the Big 12 championship and a shot at the national title, but “settled” for a 10-2 season which included wins over Washington State (and quarterback Ryan Leaf), Colorado State, Texas A&M, Texas, No. 9 Kansas State and No. 13 Washington in the Holiday Bowl. Plus, if you are so inclined, you can read the origin story for what was to become CU at the Game

The 1996 Season … 

CU at the Game – Birth of a Notion

While many of the materials – programs, newspaper clippings, etc., – used for this work had been accumulating in my basement for over 15 years, the idea for using these treasures for a book did not come to fruition until 1996.

I have always read sports-related (that is to say mostly football-related) books, but for me, in the off-season between the 1995 and 1996 campaigns, the topic of college football became an obsession. Perhaps it was the heightened anticipation for the 1996 year, what with all of the Buffs’ skill position players coming back from a 10-2 squad. More likely, though, it was simply a function of geography.

… If you are interested in the origin story for CU at the Game, you can read it here

Preseason – 1996

The August 16, 1996, edition of the Buffalo Sports News had quarterback Koy Detmer and linebacker Matt Russell on its cover. Modeling the Buffs’ new uniforms, Detmer and Russell were posed wearing uniform numbers 19 and 96. The headline read: “Is this the Year?” It was a question which was being asked often about the 1996 Buffs, and not just in Boulder.

Nebraska was the two-time defending national champion, but the consensus of the preseason prognosticators was that Colorado had the talent to win it all. Sixteen starters returned from the 10-2 1995 squad, and Koy Detmer would be back after missing most of 1995.

If the Buffs could just figure out a way to get past Nebraska, the National Championship was theirs for the taking.

If the Buffs could get to the Nebraska game, that is.

In the 1996 season, Colorado was scheduled to play six teams which had finished ranked in the final 1995 Associated Press poll. Michigan, Texas, and Kansas State would travel to Boulder, while the Buffs would hit the road to face Texas A&M and Kansas before facing Nebraska the last game of the season. Perhaps Lindy’s magazine preseason forecast was the most accurate. Lindy’s had CU No. 1 in talent, No. 100 in schedule, resulting in a preseason forecast of a No. 10 ranking.

In the Associated Press poll, Colorado started the season where it left off in 1995, ranked No. 5. Three voters tabbed the Buffs for No. 1. Nebraska was the majority’s pick for the national championship, but there was no true consensus. No fewer than six teams received No. 1 votes in the first poll.

Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel gave title to the season’s quest as Mission: Possible (a play on the old Mission: Impossible series, which had been made into a feature film in 1996).

1996 promised to be a wide open season, and the University of Colorado was being tabbed that summer to be a player on the national stage.

Big 12 makes its debut

With the kickoff of the 1996 football season, the new and improved Big 12 Conference was inaugurated. Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, and Nebraska from the old Big Eight were to comprise the Northern Division of the Big 12, with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State from the Big Eight joining Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech from the now-defunct Southwest Conference to form the Southern Division.

Each team would play eight conference games, being five games against the other teams in their division, along with three teams from the opposite division. For the 1996-97 seasons, Colorado’s opponents from the South would be Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas A&M, with the Buffs having to wait for the 1998-99 seasons to play Baylor, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech.

Before taking the field against a Big 12 opponent, the Buffs would face Washington State, Colorado State, and Michigan in non-conference play. The Wolverines appeared to be the stiffest competition, as Michigan had national title aspirations of its own. Michigan had finished the 1995 season with a 9-4 record, and a No. 17 national ranking. And then there was Colorado State. The Rams could never be taken for granted, and were coming off an 8-4 season of their own in 1995.

Game One … 

August 31st – Boulder          No. 5 Colorado 37, Washington State 19

Senior quarterback Koy Detmer made a triumphant return to Folsom Field, leading the Buffs to a convincing 37-19 win over Washington State.

Washington State came into the game on the heels of a 3-8 1995 campaign, but were not to be taken lightly. Led by sophomore quarterback Ryan Leaf, the Cougars were picked to finish in the middle of the Pac-10 Conference in 1996.

The Buffs started slowly, scoring only on a 31-yard field goal by Jason Lesley in the first quarter. In the second stanza, though, Colorado posted three scores to take a commanding 24-6 halftime lead. Detmer opened the touchdown spree, scoring on a one-yard sneak to open the second quarter. Detmer later connected on scoring tosses of seven yards to senior receiver James Kidd and 43 yards to junior Chris Anderson.

Taking the second half kick, the Buffs marched down the field, going 96 yards in eight plays to take any lingering mystery out of the game. On a perfectly timed screen, Detmer hit running back Herchell Troutman for 25 yards and a 31-6 lead.

From there, the Buffs went on cruise control, coasting to a 37-19 victory.

Continue reading story here

Game Two … 

September 7th – at Colorado State           No. 5 Colorado 48, Colorado State 34

The Buffs’ in-state rival from Fort Collins was more cause for concern than had been Washington State in the opener.

Under the leadership of head coach Sonny Lubick, the Rams had posted an 8-4 record in 1995, repeating as Western Athletic Conference Champions. The Buffs were traveling to Fort Collins for the first time since 1988, and would participate in only the third night game (8:00 p.m. kickoff) in the 28-year history of Hughes Stadium.

The game was entertaining for the 36,371 who attended, as both teams scored early and often.

The Buffs allowed the Rams to take leads of 7-0 and 14-7 before assuming control of the game. Down 14-7 after a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, CU reeled off 28 points before halftime. Lendon Henry scored the second and third of his three touchdowns to give Colorado the lead. The second touchdown, on a six yard run, tied the score late in the first quarter. Later, with 13:18 to play before half, Henry gave the Buffs the lead for good on a 27-yard pass from Koy Detmer.

A few minutes later, junior defensive tackle Viliami Maumau gave Colorado a two-score lead. Maumau batted a Moses Moreno pass into the air, caught it, and raced 33 yards for a touchdown and a 28-14 CU lead.

Up 35-20 at half, the Buffs never allowed the Rams within two scores the rest of the contest, but the game was still in doubt until the last two minutes of the fourth quarter.

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Game Three … 

September 14th – Boulder           No. 11 Michigan 20, No. 5 Colorado 13

The college football world turned its focus on Boulder, Colorado, for the season’s third weekend. As it turned out, the Colorado/Michigan game was be the only game in the country between two ranked teams, so the national media, including the GameDay crew from ESPN, were on hand for the game.

A crowd of 53,788, the third-largest in Folsom Field history, crammed into the stadium to see the second game of the three game series. If the “Hail Mary” game of 1994 was any indication, the game would be one for the ages.

Make that one for the “do over” file, as Michigan defeated Colorado, 20-13.

The game can be summarized by three numbers: 14, 99, and -1. Fourteen were the number of penalties committed by the Buffs (the third straight game with over 10 penalties); 99 represents the yards lost on the penalties, and -1 for the 20-13 loss.

Continue reading game story here

Pep Rally

The night before the Michigan game, a pep rally was held on the Boulder campus. It was the first pep rally of any significance which I could remember since 1982, when new head coach Bill McCartney tried to inspire the student body during the week leading up to the Nebraska game. Local celebrities, including CU’s own Chris Fowler from ESPN, were on hand. Also in attendance was CU head coach Rick Neuheisel.

Neuheisel, as had become a custom on his local television show, had guitar in hand. With the encouragement of the thousand or so CU faithful in attendance at Farrand Field behind Baker Hall, Neuheisel led the Colorado band in the playing of the school song. Neuheisel also had a song for Michigan. To the tune of “Home on the Range”, Neuheisel crooned:

“Home, home, on the range

Where the Colorado Buffaloes play

We’ll run and we’ll pass

We’ll kick your ass

And send you on your way”

Neuheisel was quite popular the night before the Michigan game. 2-0 on the young season, 12-2 as Colorado’s head coach, Neuheisel could afford to be quirky and unconventional. Neuheisel was seen as a breath of fresh air after the staid and strict regime of coach Bill McCartney.

After the Michigan game, though, “unconventional” was replaced by “undisciplined” as the description of choice for those uncomfortable with the new coach’s style. The Buffs had 36 penalties in three games – the most in all of Division 1-A. The new coach was now somewhat on the defensive as the Buffs headed into conference play in the new Big 12.

Here is the YouTube video of the CU/Michigan game … 


Game Four … 

September 28th ‑ at Texas A&M         No. 12 Colorado 24, Texas A&M 10

In the 1996 pre‑season Associated Press poll, the Aggies of Texas A&M were ranked 13th, two spots higher than A&M had been ranked at the close of the 1995 campaign.

The pre‑season ranking, though, proved to be the high‑water mark for the 1996 Aggies.  An opening game loss to BYU, 41‑37 in the Pigskin Classic, was followed by a stunning defeat at the hands of the Ragin’ Cajuns of Southwestern Louisiana, 29‑22.  A win over North Texas to raise the Aggies’ record to 1‑2 did little to appease the A&M faithful heading into the game against Colorado.

Colorado did its best early on to quiet the standing‑room‑only crowd of 70,339.

Buff safety Ryan Sutter (yes, that Ryan Sutter – of future “The Bachelor” fame) forced a fumble on the opening kickoff, and the Buffs wasted little time taking advantage of the turnover.  On the first play from scrimmage, senior wide receiver Rae Carruth took a handoff from Koy Detmer on a reverse.  Twenty eight yards later, Colorado had a 7‑0 lead.  The game was only thirteen seconds old (setting a new school record for the quickest score from scrimmage to open a game), and the Buffs were ahead to stay.

Early in the second quarter, running back Herchell Troutman took a Detmer screen pass 50 yards for a score and a 14‑0 Buff advantage.

After Texas A&M scored midway through the second quarter to pull to within 14-7, the Colorado offense responded with an eight-play, 80-yard drive culminated in a seven yard touchdown pass from Detmer to Darrin Chiaverini.

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Game Five …

October 12th – Boulder          No. 9 Colorado 35, Oklahoma State 13

Former Colorado assistant head coach Bob Simmons brought his 3-2 Oklahoma State Cowboys to Boulder for Colorado’s first-ever Big 12 Conference home game.

Simmons was in his second season at Oklahoma State (7-10 overall), and was building for the future. His young team (on defense, OSU listed nine freshman and seven sophomores on the two-deep chart) was 3-0 against the likes of Southwest Missouri State, Utah State, and Tulsa, but 0-2 against conference foes, including a 71-14 humiliation at the hands of Texas the week before the Colorado game.

Ninth-ranked Colorado, which had moved back into the top ten during the Buffs’ second bye week, was installed as a 32½-point favorite for the 8:07 p.m. kickoff (the latest start in Colorado regular season history to that time).

The Buffs, after falling behind 3-0 early, put together perhaps their best overall effort of the season.

The offense, led by Koy Detmer’s 402 passing yards, scored on three Detmer touchdown passes to take control. On the Buffs’ first possession, the CU offense marched 85 yards in nine plays, scoring on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Detmer to Chris Anderson. After the Buff defense forced a three-and-out, CU scored on the next play from scrimmage, a 62-yard pass from Detmer to Rae Carruth.

The two teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter. Just before the half, the Buffs used just three plays to cover 66 yards. Detmer hit junior tight end Desmond Dennis for 18 yards  before connecting with tight end Brody Heffner for 26 yards down to the Oklahoma State 22-yard line. On the next play, Detmer hit Phil Savoy for a 22-yard touchdown, and the Buffs had a 21-10 cushion at halftime.

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Game Six … 

October 19th – at Kansas           No. 9 Colorado 20, Kansas 7

The Kansas Jayhawks in 1995 had come to Boulder with a 4-0 record in search of respect.

The Jayhawks left Boulder with much, much, more. In addition to respect, Kansas came away with a stunning 40-24 win over the Buffs.

In 1995, both Colorado and Kansas went on to post 10-2 records and top ten final rankings.

In 1996, however, the two teams were heading in different directions.

Memories of the 1995 loss to the Jayhawks had to be in the Buffs’ minds as they prepared for the 1996 game in Lawrence. Fortunately for Colorado and its fans, though, Kansas was not the team it was in 1995. Kansas in 1996 was 3-2, with even that record coming against a fairly light schedule. Still, if Colorado was to be a player in the national championship race, the No. 9 Buffaloes could not look past the Jayhawks.

And they didn’t.

Establishing a new team-record with a ninth consecutive win on the road (the 1922-24 Buffs had won eight straight on the road), Colorado methodically dispatched the Jayhawks, 20-7.

On the game’s opening possession, Colorado put together a 14-play, 76-yard drive. Colorado quarterback Koy Detmer went four-for-four on third down passes on the drive, which was capped by a three-yard touchdown pass from Detmer to junior tight end Desmond Dennis.

The remainder of the half was left to the Buff defense.

On three consecutive drives to close out the first half, Kansas started drives on the Colorado 31, 20, and 34, but came away with no points, as the CU defense forced a missed field goal, a fumble, and a punt. A 20-yard field goal by Jason Lesley with one second remaining gave the Buffs a 10-0 halftime advantage.

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Game Seven … 

October 26th – Boulder           No. 8 Colorado 28, Texas 24

The Texas Longhorns, who in 1995 closed out the final season of the Southwest Conference with a 10-2-1 record, including a 7-0 record in conference play, bottomed out in 1996 on the last Saturday in October in Boulder, Colorado.

After succumbing to the Buffs, 28-24 in Boulder, Texas fell to 3-4 on the 1996 season. No one knew at the time that the next loss for the Longhorns would not come until New Year’s Day in the Fiesta Bowl.

Early in the game against the Buffs, Texas appeared to be anything but a 3-3 team.

An interception thrown by Colorado quarterback Koy Detmer led to a Texas field goal early in the first quarter. A few minutes later, a 66-yard punt return quickly resulted in a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback James Brown to receiver Wane McGarity. With the Buffs already down 10-0, Detmer threw another interception, returned by Longhorn cornerback Bryant Westbrook to the Buffs’ 20-yard line.

Things looked bleak indeed for the 5-1 Buffs.

Steve Rosga to the rescue … again.

Just as he had against Oklahoma State, the Buffs’ free safety picked off an opponent’s pass to the CU end zone. There was no 105-yard runback for a touchdown this time, but the interception did save the day for Colorado.

A 54-yard touchdown connection between Detmer and Rae Carruth early in the second quarter pulled the Buffs to within 10-7. Only five plays later, though, Texas was back up on top by ten, courtesy of a 50-yard bomb from Jones to Michael Adams.

The Buffs responded with a Lendon Henry run from four yards out to pull within 17-14 at halftime. The drive, taking six plays and covering 45 yards, was highlighted by a 28-yard pass from Detmer to Chris Anderson on a fourth-and-two to keep the drive alive.

Down only three after the disastrous opening few minutes, a 17-14 deficit at half would normally not seem that bad. Unfortunately for the Buffs, though, quarterback Koy Detmer was crunched on the Buffs’ final drive before halftime, giving him a second-degree concussion.

As in 1995, quarterback John Hessler would be called upon to rescue the Buffs in a big game.

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Poll Watching

With the win over Texas, CU jumped to No. 7 in the Associated Press poll (Alabama’s loss to Tennessee didn’t hurt). Up two spots in the last two weeks, it was easy to adopt the mantra: “One spot a week will result in a National Championship”. In front of Colorado were only four undefeated teams: Florida; Ohio State; Florida State; and Arizona State (Wyoming was also undefeated, but had risen only as far as No. 17 in the polls). Only two one-loss teams were in front of Colorado, Nebraska and Tennessee, but the Buffs still had a shot at Nebraska. Florida and Florida State still had to play one another, and Ohio State still had to face No. 9 Michigan.

The math still worked for Colorado to position itself as not only the first Big 12 champion, but also a competitor for the national title.

But how good were the 1996 Buffs?

Coloraod was 6-1 overall, and three of four of the Buffs’ previous opponents had been ranked in preseason (Texas A & M had been ranked No. 13; Kansas, No. 24; and Texas, No. 8). Still, all three had fallen from favor by the time Colorado played them, so the victories had lost some luster. Colorado was now 6-0 in 1996 against unranked teams; 0-1 against the only ranked team – Michigan – it had faced. And now the Buffs’ starting quarterback, Koy Detmer, had been knocked out of a game with a concussion.

The jury was still out on the highly-rated Colorado Buffaloes.

Game Eight … 

November 2nd – at Missouri          No. 7 Colorado 41, Missouri 13

By the time the Colorado/Missouri game rolled around the first week of November in 1996, the Missouri Tigers had already matched their win total for all of 1995.

For head coach Larry Smith, that was the good news. The bad news was that the Tigers had only won three games in 1995, posting a 3-8 record. Missouri was 3-4 in 1996, and faced the Buffs with a 1-3 record in Big 12 play.

Still, that one Big 12 victory had come the weekend before the game against the Buffs, a 35-28 victory over Oklahoma State. So Missouri, while not a ranked team by any means, was not a team to be taken lightly by the Buffs.

Colorado responded to the challenge, rolling to a 41-13 win, the Buffs’ 12th straight in the series.

Quarterback Koy Detmer and wide receiver Rae Carruth took turns setting records in the second half as a 14-10 halftime lead became a rout. Detmer passed for a school-record 457 yards for the game, while at the same time passing Kordell Stewart’s 1993 single season record for passing yards of 2,299 (Detmer’s total for 1996 was 2,391 yards after the Missouri game, and still counting).

Detmer’s three touchdown passes (two to Carruth), gave him 35 for his career, also passing a mark established by Kordell Stewart. Carruth hauled in seven receptions for 222 yards, tying Walter Stanley’s 1981 record for most receiving yards in a single game. With his seven catches on the day, Carruth added to his school record (19 and counting) of consecutive games with at least three receptions.

For the day, the Buffs rolled up 562 yards of total offense.

Records aside, the Tigers fought the Buffs hard for over two quarters of play.

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Game Nine … 

November 9th – Boulder          No. 7 Colorado 49, Iowa State 42

Iowa State brought to Boulder running back Troy Davis, on his way to a season in which he would post 2,185 rushing yards.

Iowa State also brought to Boulder a team with a 2-6 overall record.

For the Colorado Homecoming game, the Cyclones tried to keep it close, but could not compete with the combination of Detmer and Carruth. Two touchdowns in the final 2:24 of the game by Iowa State gave the final score a dramatic feel, but it was 28 points posted by the Buffs within a 16-minute span in the second half which was the story of the game.

Iowa State opened the game with a 47-yard field goal on its opening possession, which Colorado countered with a touchdown drive on its first possession. Quarterback Koy Detmer hit freshman tight end Brody Heffner for an 11-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead midway through the first quarter.

Colorado extended the lead to 14-3 a few minutes later, when Detmer hit Rae Carruth for a 77-yard touchdown, the longest play from scrimmage for the Buffs all season.

A rout seemed to be in the making, but the 49,662 on hand on a beautiful 63-degree fall afternoon were instead treated to a football game.

Iowa State scored the next ten points of the contest, pulling to within a point at 14-13 midway through the second quarter. A second Detmer-to-Carruth touchdown connection, this time from three yards out, gave the Buffs a 21-13 halftime lead.

The Buffs’ No. 7 national ranking was in jeopardy midway through the third quarter, however, after the Cyclones scored two touchdowns to take a 28-21 lead.

Then … the Colorado offense exploded.

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Game Ten … 

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 came into the contest in Boulder with 8-1 records; 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 in a 12-0 Colorado victory.

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.

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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/Florida State 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), the Sun Devils should still be rated higher than the Cornhuskers. 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 three-peat 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 Eleven … 

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.

Continue reading story here

Here is the YouTube video of the CU/Nebraska game … 

Rooting for Nebraska?

It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to acknowledge that I would ever cheer for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a football game.

Acknowledge success on the field, yes, but openly root for the Bugeaters? Never. Yet as conference championship weekend approached, that is the position that I and other Buff fans were forced to accept.

Before the Texas/Nebraska game, virtually all of the prognosticators had decided that the Alliance at-large bids would go to Colorado and No. 8 Penn State, and that these two teams would play each other in the Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska would play undefeated and No. 1-ranked Florida State in the Sugar, and Florida would play Big East tri-champ Virginia Tech in the Orange. All of this depended on Florida and Nebraska holding serve – that is to say win their respective conference championship games.

Florida did its part, beating Alabama 45-30. Nebraska, however, played without inspiration and fell to Texas, 37-27. The automatic bid, therefore, went to the Longhorns, who were invited to play Penn State in the Fiesta. Florida, benefitting from the ineptitude of the Cornhuskers, earned a rematch with the Seminoles. Nebraska still earned an invitation to the Orange, and the Buffs had to settle for the Holiday Bowl invitation.

For the second time in six years, I had cheered for a Nebraska win. For the second time in six years, the Cornhuskers lost. The previous game had been the 1991 Florida Citrus Bowl, when Nebraska played Georgia Tech. The Yellowjackets had only a tie to blemish their record, and Colorado needed the Cornhuskers to win the game in order to secure an undisputed national title. Nebraska tanked the game, though, 45-21, giving Georgia Tech a share of the title.

So, let me get this straight.

Every time I cheer for the Bugeaters, they lose. Hmmm …

Game Twelve … 

Holiday Bowl, 1996

Good Bowl, Good Result

The Holiday Bowl was supposed to take the third-place team from the Big 12, after the Cotton Bowl had taken the second-place team. With Texas and Nebraska already in the Bowl Alliance, they would not be considered. This left Colorado, with a 9-2 overall record, and, more imporantly, with  7-1 conference record, as the logical choice for the Cotton. After all, the Colorado Buffaloes were the only team other than Nebraska with fewer than two conference losses.

So the Cotton Bowl, of course, invited Kansas State.

Kansas State had a 9-2 overall record, just like the Buffs, but were 6-2 in conference. The Wildcats, however, snared the invitation in no small measure due to the lackluster support the Buffs brought with them to the 1996 edition of the Cotton Bowl. This prompted Colorado Coach Rick Neuheisel to openly wonder why the Buffs had bothered to beat Kansas State, as there was apparently no reward for actually finishing with a better record.

Still, playing a Washington Husky squad, also 9-2 and ranked No. 13 in the nation, was not a poor consolation prize. The Huskies were hungry, anxious for national respect and a top ten ranking. If the Buffs were lethargic, they would be vulnerable.

December 30th – at San Diego – Holiday Bowl          No. 8 Colorado 33, No. 13 Washington 21

Lethargy was exactly what the Buffs suffered from at the outset of the 1996 Holiday Bowl.

The 9-2 Huskies, led by red-shirt freshman quarterback Brock Huard and junior tailback Corey Dillon, had scored 20 or more points in every game in 1996. Washington impressed the near-sellout crowd of 54,749 with two first quarter scores, both registered by Corey Dillon.

Down 14-0, the Buffs finally responded. On the Buffs’ third play from scrimmage after falling behind by two touchdowns, Koy Detmer hit Rae Carruth on a 76-yard bomb to pull the Buffs to within seven. After an exchange of punts, Colorado sophomore defensive end Nick Ziegler did his part to try and turn the Holiday Bowl around. Washington quarterback Brock Huard dropped back to pass, but Ziegler, rushing in on Huard, timed his jump perfectly, batting the ball into the air. Ziegler himself did the interception honors, plucking the ball out of the air at the Husky 33-yard line. Matt Russell took care of Huard, and Ziegler had clear sailing to the end zone.

14-14 with 11 minutes left in the half. The ship had been righted.

Or had it?

Husky Jerome Pathon took the ensuing kickoff back 86 yards for a Washington score, restoring the Huskies to a 21-14 advantage. The momentum of the Ziegler interception had been quickly returned to Washington. The Colorado defense, which had tied the game without the assistance of the offense, was not even given the opportunity to take the field with the score tied.

Enter the Colorado offense.

The Buffs responded to the sudden deficit with a five-play, 79-yard drive, culminating in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Detmer to sophomore wide receiver Darrin Chiaverini. A 42-yard field goal by Jeremy Aldrich gave the Buffs their first lead of the game 24-21, with just over two minutes remaining in the first half.

While the score indicated that the game was in doubt until Colorado scored a touchdown mid-way through the fourth quarter to go up 33-21, the game was in fact well in hand throughout the second half, courtesy of the Colorado defense. After Corey Dillon’s second touchdown run in the first quarter, Washington’s offense would not come close to scoring again (a blocked field goal attempt in the third quarter was the Huskies’ closest effort).

Colorado’s final touchdown of the 1996 season was fitting. It was a four-yard scoring strike from Koy Detmer to Rae Carruth. The pair teamed up to set a number of school records, including the most attempts, completions, and yards in a season by Detmer, and the most career touchdown receptions for Carruth. The pair also combined to set the standard for the most touchdown passes for a quarterback and receiver for a season (8), and a career (12). (Note … Colorado does not add bowl statistics to its career totals. As a result, the last touchdown pass from Detmer to Carruth only appears in the bowl statistics, not the career statistics).

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