CU/Nebraska Pregame – Worth the Trip?

When the Big 12 was formulated, Nebraska was left with a dilemma. Gone from the schedule was the traditional Thanksgiving weekend game against Oklahoma, now of the Southern Division. Rather than give up the money and exposure of the high-profile game, Nebraska agreed to make Colorado its new season-ending competition. The first game, the 1996 17-12 Husker victory in Lincoln, proved worthy of the special time slot.

The first such contest in Boulder did not seem to merit any hype. Nebraska came in 10-0, ranked No. 2 in the country. The Cornhuskers led the nation in rushing offense, scoring offense, and total offense. Colorado, meanwhile, had been giving up 37 points per game over the past month.

The Cornhuskers were one of only two undefeated teams in the nation, and No. 1 Michigan had concluded its regular season play the previous weekend with a 20-14 win over arch-rival Ohio State. The consensus was that Nebraska needed a blowout win to impress the pollsters and regain first place votes lost with the miracle win over Missouri three weeks earlier. Nebraska trailed Michigan 69-1 in first place votes in the Associated Press poll; 46-13 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll. All the Huskers had going for them was that they had two TV games to gain ground – the Thanksgiving weekend game with the Buffs and the Big 12 Championship game against Texas A&M the following week.

The Colorado game, for Nebraska, was to be – to pardon the pun – a red-letter game.

In Boulder, the question was: Would the Buff faithful show up for the massacre? Who would want to pay through the nose for the privilege?

Well, uh, me for one.

For ten years since returning to Montana from Boulder, I had always driven to Boulder from Bozeman for games. Due to weather concerns (would you drive across Wyoming in a blizzard if you didn’t have to?) my travels were restricted to September and October games. When the Nebraska game was moved to late November, I knew I would want to be there. I also knew I didn’t want to drive to the game. So, for the first time for a home game, I had no choice but to take to the air.

Flying in Thanksgiving evening, we were greeted by a driving rainstorm. The local forecast was for the rain to turn into several inches of snow by morning, with a high at gametime Friday of maybe 40 degrees.


We are going to get blown out, and I am going to catch a cold standing there taking in the abuse.

Everything changed on the drive to Boulder Friday morning. From the overcast skies over Denver, the skies seemed to clear more and more the closer I got to Boulder. By the time I could spot the Flatirons, the sun was shining down on the valley. My spirits lifted. Perhaps the day would not be so bad.

By kickoff, I was quietly optimistic of the Buffs chances. (Outwardly, I was still indicating my fervent wish/hope/prayer that we would be able to keep the game close.) Why not be optimistic? After all, wasn’t this the same team Colorado team that had been The Sporting News pre-season No. 1? Wasn’t this the same lineup which many experts had predicted in August would stand toe-to-toe with the Huskers in November?

The weather had cooperated, as the day would feature a high of 50-degrees in bright sunshine.

All it would take for a Buffs upset was a little confidence – and a little luck.

November 28th – Boulder          No. 2 Nebraska 27, Colorado 24

Coming into the game, it seemed that all Buffs’ fans and ABC could hope for was a competitive game. They got one. In coming as close to a win over the Huskers as the Buffs had come since the 19-19 tie in 1991, Colorado gave itself some hope for the future, and dampened Nebraska’s chances for a third national championship in four years.

The first quarter was played evenly, with Nebraska escaping with a 3-0 lead. Colorado actually outgained the Cornhuskers, 83 total yards to 77, but the Buffs could not convert a 50-yard field goal attempt, while Nebraska was successful from 25 yards out.

Nebraska seemed to take control of the game with a ten-play drive in the second quarter, culminating in a 19 yard touchdown run by quarterback Scott Frost. But the Buffs were more resilient than expected countering with an 11-play, 78-yard drive resulting in a 30-yard Jeremy Aldrich field goal to keep the Buffs within shouting distance of the Cornhuskers at 10-3.

The second half was a tale of two distinct parts.

In the third quarter (but for two big plays by the CU offense) and into the fourth, Nebraska dominated. Taking the second half kickoff, Nebraska needed all of two plays to score. On first down from their own 20 yard line, the Cornhuskers gave the ball to running back Ahman Green. 64 yards later, Green was pulled down from behind by cornerback Ben Kelly. Apparently not winded by the first run, Green again received the call. The result was a 16-yard touchdown run and a 17-3 Nebraska lead. The Cornhusker “drive”: two plays, 80 yards, 30 seconds off of the third quarter clock.

This could very well have been the beginning of the end, but the Buffs countered with a short drive of their own. On CU’s first play of the third quarter, John Hessler rolled outside of the pocket and hurled a bomb down the right sideline. At the other end of the play, Colorado wide receiver Darrin Chiaverini, who appeared to been out of bounds just before the ball arrived, hauled in the 45-yard pass. On the very next play, Hessler hit sophomore running back Dwayne Cherrington on a perfectly executed screen pass. Cherrington managed the remaining 35 yards on his own. Colorado’s scoring “drive”: two plays, 80 yards, 27 seconds.

Take that, Husker fans.

Nebraska’s lead was now 17-10.

Undaunted, the Cornhuskers turned to more methodical methods, putting together an eight play drive covering 77 yards. Green again did the honors, scoring from 11 yards out for a 24-10 Cornhusker advantage. Later in the third, Nebraska took 13 plays to cover 45 yards, converting a 45-yard field goal to go up by three scores, 27-10.

The fourth quarter remained, but all that appeared to be at issue was how big Nebraska could make the score.

A funny thing happened on the way to the blow-out, however.

Nebraska, going for the big play and the game-clincher, could not finish the job. After the field goal, Nebraska had four more possessions. Each of the four drives started in Colorado territory, but each drive – in a remarkable tribute to the resolution of the Colorado defense – Nebraska came away without scoring. Up 27-10, the Cornhuskers were comfortably ahead, but were not able to run up the score the way the Husker faithful had hoped.

Then it happened.

With 4:59 remaining, Colorado quarterback John Hessler returned to the game. In the stands, it had appeared in the previous series when sophomore quarterback Jeremy Weisinger had entered the game that CU was conceding the contest, and was looking to give the heir apparent to Hessler some game experience. With Weisinger at the helm, CU had lost four yards in three plays and punted.

But there was Hessler. (As it turned out, Hessler had not been pulled. Coach Neuheisel had mistakenly assumed that a thumb injury was more serious than it was). Down three scores with less than five minutes to play, it was the last chance for the Colorado offensive seniors to make a stand.

First drive. Colorado took over on its own 23 yard line after senior safety Ryan Sutter had stripped the ball from Ahman Green. Three consecutive completions against a softer Husker defense put the Buffs at the Cornhusker 36 yard line. After Hessler picked up 13 on a scramble (partially negated by a holding penalty), Hessler hit sophomore wide receiver Marcus Stiggers on a 32-yard strike.


In the stands, we celebrated. 27-17 was more than respectable under the circumstances. Colorado had been a three touchdown favorite, so a ten point game for the 5-5 Buffs was not a bad showing … or so we thought.

Onside kick No. 1. Only 3:16 remained, and Colorado trailed by ten points. No choice for anything but an onside kick. Everyone in the stadium, including the Cornhuskers, knew it was coming. CU kicker Jeremy Aldrich lined up for the kick, but instead senior fullback Darren Fisk kicked the ball. Fisk’s kick went straight to Nebraska tight end T.J. Debates. Debates, though, allowed the ball to bounce straight off of his chest, and Fisk quickly ran in to cover his own kick. Colorado ball at its own 45. As Fisk would say after the game, “I couldn’t get a touchdown in my career, but I got an onsides kick.”

Second drive. Hessler to fellow senior Phil Savoy for 22, then to senior Herchell Troutman for 15. On second and ten from the 18 yard line, Hessler hit wide receiver Robert Toler, who made a nice catch in the end zone. Suddenly, with 2:34 still to play, its Nebraska 27, Colorado 24.


In the stands, it was bedlam. Hundreds of fans, if not thousands, had left earlier in the fourth, when Weisinger came in to play and with the home team down 17. No one was leaving now, and we were screaming for the Buffs to continue what would be one of the greatest comebacks in CU history.

Onside kick No. 2. This time Aldrich made the kick. After the ball had traveled the required ten yards, it took a high bounce. Ben Kelly, racing down the sidelines, had the ball slip through his fingertips and out of bounds. Nebraska ball. (A photo in the Rocky Mountain News the next morning showed just how agonizingly close Kelly came to recovering the kick).

Nebraska now had possession with 2:33 to play. Three plays netted the Cornhuskers 9 ½ yards, forcing a punt.

Colorado would have one last opportunity.

The situation was still bleak. Down three, with 52 seconds left in the game, CU took over at its own 20 yard line with no time outs. But there was the chance. A chance no one had given the Buffs just a few minutes earlier.

Final drive. Hessler immediately hit Savoy for 16 yards and a first down. After two incompletions, Hessler again hit Savoy, this time for 14 yards to mid-field. First down, Colora…..

But wait. The side judge throws a flag on Savoy for pass interference. Instead of first and ten at mid-field, Colorado now faced third-and-25 from its 21. Only 30 seconds remained. An incompletion made it fourth-and-25.

Last chance.

Fourth-and-25 from the Buff 21 yard line, the Buffs’ senior quarterback John Hessler found senior wide receiver Phil Savoy at the 40 yard line. Savoy dodged, juked, and struggled to get the first down, finally being thrown out of bounds in front of the Colorado bench at the 43, three yards short of a first down. Nebraska ball with just enough time for one snap. Frost knelt down at the 43, and the game was over.

What was lost to the frenzied crowd on Colorado’s last play was John Hessler, who, while Savoy was struggling desperately to evade several members of the Husker secondary, was racing after his pass, screaming at Savoy: “Phil! Pitch the ball! Phil!!!”. Hessler’s plea went unheard, and the Buffs’ season was over.

Colorado’s final offensive play of the 1997 season was the entire season in miniature. Backed up by its own mistakes, in a desperate situation due to its own lack of effort and emotion earlier in the game, CU seemed to be a team of destiny. One of the greatest comebacks in college football history was theirs for the taking, just as the season had promised to be one of the best in Colorado history. And yet, when the play needed to be made, when the expectations had again been raised to lofty levels, the Buffs disappointed.

What was possible was now history. What was to have been historic was now what could have been.

What had been forecast as a chance at a No. 1 ranking ended in the Buffs’ first losing season in 13 years.

Game Notes –

– With the loss, Colorado finished the 1997 season with a 5-6 record, the first losing season for the Buffs since the 1984 team went 1-10.

– John Hessler’s 362 yards passing against Nebraska were a career-high, and the most ever by a CU quarterback against Nebraska (previous high: Randy Essington, 361 yards, 1982).

– After taking out Colorado, No. 2 Nebraska destroyed No. 14 Texas A&M, 54-15, in the Big 12 championship game. The Cornhuskers completed a 13-0 season, and earned a share of the national championship in Tom Osborne’s last game, in a 42-17 romp over No. 3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl.

1997 Season honors

– All-American – Ben Kelly, kick returner (Sporting News Freshman team)

– First-team All Big 12 – Phil Savoy, wide receiver; Ryan Sutter, free safety; Melvin Thomas, offensive guard

– Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year – Ben Kelly, cornerback


One Reply to “No. 2 Nebraska – “Phil! Pitch the Ball!! Phil!””

  1. Can’t wait for the 1999 Nebraska game to be archived on here. In my opinion, that loss is more painful than this one.

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