Colorado State – The rivalry lesson

Colorado State in Fort Collins is only 40 miles from Boulder, but, from the perception of most Buff fans, it may have well have been 4,000. Boulder is cosmopolitan; Fort Collins is a cow town. Colorado was Big 12; CSU was in the wacky WAC.

The Buffs play for the national championship; the Rams play for respect.

With Colorado State coming to Boulder for the 1997 season opener, there was cause for concern.

CSU was led by fifth-year head coach Sonny Lubick, easily the most successful coach in CSU history. The Rams came into the game 1-0, having dispatched Big West favorite Nevada, 45-13, the week before. CSU was the consensus favorite of the preseason magazines to win the Pacific Division of the WAC, and performed up to expectations in the early season match-up.

With the energy of a disgruntled younger sibling, CSU looked to the Colorado game as a chance to make a statement on the national stage.

For the Buffs, it was not the best opening game scenario. While Nebraska was tuning up against the likes of the Akron Zips (59-14, for those scoring at home), Colorado was left to face a fired up, nationally ranked team with a (Buffalo-sized?) chip on their shoulders.

September 6th – Boulder          No. 8 Colorado 31,  No. 23 Colorado State 21

Under partly cloudy skies in Boulder, the 1997 campaign kicked off about as well as any Buff fan could hope.

A good kickoff return (not something you could say happened all that often in 1996) allowed CU to start the season at their own 39 yard line. Eleven plays later (seven of them runs), Herchell Troutman busted over from the one yard line, and CU had a 7-0 lead with 9:52 remaining in the opening quarter.

If the Buff Nation could have just freeze-framed the season right there.

The remainder of the first half was all Colorado State. After recovering a fumble at the CSU 34-yard line late in the first quarter, the Colorado offense generated no yards in three plays, and long-range kicker Jason Lesley missed a 51-yard field goal attempt. That was as close as the Buffs would get to a score the rest of the first half.

Moses Moreno threw the first of his three touchdown passes two minutes into the second quarter, a ten-yard floater to Kevin McDougal. When Moreno connected with receiver Darran Hall on a 61 yard score with 4:17 left in the half, the Folsom Field scoreboard read: Colorado State 14, Colorado 7.

Fortunately for the Buffs, the game was 60 minutes, at least eight of which Ram fans would love to have back. On the third play of the second half, Moreno dropped back to pass, but his pass to the right flat was picked off and returned 26 yards for a touchdown by Rashidi Barnes. 14-14.

On the fifth play of the next series, the Colorado secondary again rose to the occasion. Cornerback Marcus Washington this time did the honors, picking off Moreno and returning the ball to the CSU 32-yard line. With a sold-out Folsom Field crowd of 53,416 in full voice, the Buffs’ offense (despite a fifteen yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the interception) quickly drove 47 yards for the go-ahead score. Quarterback John Hessler, having shaken off an inconsistent start, hit receiver Phil Savoy in the back of the end zone with a four yard completion.

The Buffs now had the lead back, at 21-14. The tide had turned, and the momentum carried the Buffs to another score (a 43-yard bomb from Hessler to Savoy) a few minutes later. A Jeremy Aldrich 34-yard field goal with 8:22 to play gave the Buffs a three-score cushion at 31-14.

The Rams did not score again until garbage time, collecting a consolation touchdown on a Moreno-to-Hall 71-yard bomb with four minutes left to make the final 31-21, Buffs.

The two Moreno-to-Hall touchdown plays covered 132 yards, and both were longer than any play the CU defense had surrendered in all of 1996. That being said, the Colorado defense did hold the Rams to just 153 yards in their other 53 snaps on the day.

The Colorado offense, while it had its moments, was not as effective as the Buff Nation was used to seeing. The Buffs put up 345 yards of total offense, led by John Hessler’s 223 yards passing, but the game marked the first time since 1991 in which the Buffs had been held under 400 yards of total offense in a season opener. The Buffs’ leading rusher was Herchell Troutman, with 57 yards, but it took 19 carries to get those yards. The receiver who had the best day was Phil Savoy, who had five catches for 73 yards and two touchdowns.

A good effort against a good team (the Rams would finish 11-2 in 1997, see below), but not great.

Satisfying, yet troubling.

No. 14 Michigan loomed on the horizon, and the game would be played in Ann Arbor. The Buffs would be the season opener for the Wolverines, who had all of fall practice to get ready to avenge the “Miracle in Michigan” in 1994.

Would the Buffs be able to rise to the challenge?

Game Notes –

– The victory over the Rams was the seventh straight for the Buffs in the series. The game also marked the seventh straight victory for Colorado in a season opener.

– The win also kept Colorado undefeated in season openers following a bowl victory (8-0-1).

– Three players made their first career starts against Colorado State: sophomore offensive tackle Ryan Johanningmeier; sophomore wide receiver Marcus Stiggers (who had three catches for 28 yards in his debut); and senior safety Ryan Sutter (who led the team in tackles against CSU with 13).

– The Rams’ 71-yard pass completion in the fourth quarter would prove to be the longest pass completion against the Buffs in all of 1997.

– The Colorado defense held the Rams to 70 yards rushing on the afternoon, a season low.

– For his game-changing interception return for a touchdown, sophomore linebacker Rashidi Barnes was named the Big 12 Defensive Player-of-the-Week.

– Colorado State would go on to capture the Western Athletic Conference championship in 1997, defeating New Mexico, 41-13, in the WAC title game. The Rams would go on to complete an 11-2 season (the only other loss a 24-0 shutout by Air Force) with a 35-24 victory over Missouri in the Holiday Bowl. Colorado State would finish the 1997 season ranked 17th, carrying a nine-game winning streak into the 1998 campaign.



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