September 27th – Boulder            No. 16 Colorado 20, Wyoming 19

Colorado won its Homecoming game for the 14th year in a row, defeating a very game Wyoming Cowboy squad, 20-19.

It was one of the most unlikely wins in Colorado history, as the Buffs came from nine points down in the final 4:29 to escape with a much needed win.

After Wyoming had scored on an 18-yard run to take a 19-10 lead late, the Buffs needed a big play.  The big play came, courtesy of diminutive cornerback and return man Ben Kelly.  The 5’10” redshirt freshman took the Cowboy kickoff 99 yards for the score to cut the Wyoming lead to 19-17.  Kelly’s run was the first Colorado kickoff return for a touchdown since Lance Olander rumbled 86 yards for a score against Drake on October 11, 1980.

Even with Kelly’s run, Wyoming still had the ball and a 19-17 lead with less than four minutes to play.  The Cowboys were in a position to run out the clock and escape with a two point win, but running back Marques Brigham fumbled the ball while trying to run up the middle.  Linebacker Ron Merkerson scooped up the ball and thundered 33 yards to the Wyoming 25 yard line.  A nice pass from quarterback John Hessler to wide receiver Darrin Chiaverini set up kicker Jeremy Aldrich for an 18-yard field goal with three seconds left.

The final score of 20-19 left the Buffs with a 2-1 record, but many questions remained.  Wyoming was a quality opponent, having come into the game with a 3-1 record on the heels of a 10-2 campaign in 1996, but the Cowboys did not possess the talent of the Buffs.  Doing his best to be upbeat after the come-from-behind win, head coach Rick Neuheisel tried to invoke memories of the 1990 national championship team, which had stumbled to a 1-1-1 start before finishing 11-1-1:  “I know the questions are going to be, ‘What’s wrong with the Buffs?’ And we, as coaches, have to certainly evaluate from that standpoint.  But, we won a game we probably weren’t supposed to, and, as we all know – having followed sports a great deal of time -that can sometimes be as magic as anything else.  Witness a fifth-down victory against Missouri, a lot of improbable finishes that sometimes are springboards to great seasons.”

If CU was to have a “great season” in 1997, improved play would be a necessity.

“If you’ll excuse me …”

While Colorado was struggling at Folsom Field on a beautiful 81-degree day, I was in Syracuse, New York, where the weather was as dreary as the Orangemen’s 1-3 record.  I was in Syracuse for a Lions Club USA/Canada Forum.  As the incoming President of our local Lions Club, I was afforded the opportunity to attend this annual leadership conference.

All well and good, but being sent to a conference had its obligations, not the least of which was attending the Saturday night banquet.  With the Buff game kicking off at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time, I was not able to follow the game to its conclusion.  The last update I received, around 6:00 p.m. eastern time, was Wyoming 12, Colorado 10, start of the fourth quarter.

Sitting in the large banquet hall with some 3,000 other Lions Club members, I was antsy but somehow not overly worried.  Down only two with a quarter to play. Surely the Buffs would kick it into gear for the win.  After dinner was served, though, I did begin to worry – and I didn’t want to wait for another two hours to find out how the Buffs’ game turned out.

Then, fate shined upon me.  By happenstance, our table was one of the first served dinner.  After finishing off the standard roast beef fare, I looked around the room.  Some tables were still being served their meals.  It would be a good half hour at least before the program for the evening would begin.

I saw my chance.  Excusing myself from the table (I told the gathering I was going to find the restroom), I dashed out of the hall, ran down the street, and hurried into a sports bar attached to the Syracuse Hotel (a bar, for the record, named by or for former Syracuse head football coach Dick MacPherson).

Spotting a television tuned to ESPN and highlights, I focused my attention.  There was no sound from the TV, but the highlights spoke for themselves.  A few minutes passed, and the next highlight came on the screen.  It was a picture of Wyoming head coach Dana Dimel pacing on the sideline.

This is it, I thought to myself, taking a deep breath.

The first highlight was of a Wyoming running back bursting up the middle of the Colorado defense for a touchdown.  Being acutely aware that Wyoming had only scored on field goals by the time I had left my hotel room, I knew this could not be a good sign.  Doing the math, I knew that this score had put CU down at least nine points in the fourth quarter.  Fortunately, before I had the chance to curse or storm out, the next highlight, that of Ben Kelly’s kickoff return, crossed the screen.  I resumed breathing.  Hope returned.

The next highlight began similar to the first.  It was a field level shot of a Wyoming runner bursting through the center of the Colorado line.  This time, however, the runner fumbled, with CU recovering (the fumble return by Merkerson was not shown).

Final highlight.  It was an endzone shot, with the Buffs lined up for a short field goal attempt.  This, as every ESPN aficionado knows, could mean only one of two things.  Short field goal attempts are only shown to either capture a game-winning kick, or to witness a last second failure.  With Colorado’s troubles in the kicking game earlier in 1997, the shortness of the kick was of little comfort.

This time, though, the kick was true, and the screen faded to the studio scoreboard:  Colorado 20, Wyoming 19.  A fist was silently raised into the air.

I raced back to the banquet without a word to anyone – a broad grin of relief across my face.

Game Notes –

– As the score might indicate, the game was a defensive battle, with neither team reaching 300 yards of total offense (CU, 290; Wyoming, 233).

– Jeremy Aldrich’s last-second game-winning kick was only the second such finish for the Buffs in at least 50 seasons.

– Prior to the fourth quarter, the only touchdown in the game came on a nine-yard run by Marlon Barnes in the second quarter, capping a ten-play, 80-yard drive to give Colorado a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter.

– For the third game in a row to open the 1997 season, Colorado did not have a 100-yard rusher nor a 100-yard receiver. Herchell Troutman led the Buffs with 70 yards on 19 carries, while Phil Savoy led the receivers with four catches for 88 yards.

– Ben Kelly not only had a kicoff return for a touchdown against Wyoming, the game also marked his first career start at cornerback. For his game-changing kickoff return for a touchdown, Kelly was named the Big 12 Special Teams Player-of-the-Week.

– Also earning Player-of-the-Week honors was senior linebacker Ron Merkerson, who had 12 tackles (seven solo) against the Cowboys.

– One other player, junior offensive guard Brad Bedell, also was in the lineup for his first career start.

– Wyoming, which had played for the WAC championship in 1996, finished with a 7-6 record in the first season under new head coach Dana Dimel (the Cowboys’ previous head coach, Joe Tiller, had left to take the head coaching job at Purdue).


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