November 24th – at Nebraska           No. 9 Nebraska 34, Colorado 32

1996 – No. 4 Nebraska 17, No. 5 Colorado 12

… At the end of the day, these games come down to cold, hard numbers.

1997-  No. 2 Nebraska 27, Colorado 24

… Not subject to revision nor review.

1998 – No. 14 Nebraska 16, Colorado 14

… Beginning in 1996, the Buffs began playing the Cornhuskers the last game of the season.

1999 – No. 3   Nebraska 33, Colorado 30 – OT

… Beginning in 1996, the Buffs gave the favored Cornhuskers a great game every time out.

2000 – No. 9   Nebraska 34, Colorado 32

… But always lost.

Fifteen points in five games.

All that separated the Buffs from the Cornhuskers from the 1996 game through the 2000 game.  All Nebraska wins.  All games the Buffs had a chance to win.

All games CU lost.

At the outset of the 2000 contest, it did not appear that this game would contain the drama of the previous four contests.

Nebraska was ranked No. 9 in the country, and while the Cornhuskers were hurting from having lost two of their previous three games to fall out of the hunt for the national championship, there was little reason to suspect that there would be a letdown against the 3-7 Buffs.

On CU’s first possession, freshman quarterback Craig Ochs threw an interception to Nebraska linebacker Carlos Polk, who returned the pass 39 yards for a touchdown and a Nebraska 7-0 lead less than a minute into the game.

Matters did not improve for the Buffs after Ochs’ pass.

A blocked Colorado field goal attempt later in the first quarter was returned deep into CU territory.  Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch scored on a 27-yard run one play later to give Nebraska a 14-0 first quarter lead.

Meanwhile, the Buffs were squandering opportunities.  Colorado began three possessions inside the Nebraska 30 in the first half … but came away with no points.

Still, when Mark Mariscal connected on a 32-yard field goal and Cortlen Johnson ran up the middle for a 39-yard touchdown in the second quarter, Colorado was back in the game.  The score stood at 14-10, Nebraska, at the half.  Each team had missed field goal attempts in the first half, and both had had kicks blocked.

But it was in the second half when the game got interesting.

The lead changed hands six times in the second half, four times in the fourth quarter alone.  The final stanza began with the Cornhuskers on top, 21-17, after Nebraska’s Eric Crouch and Colorado’s Cortlen Johnson traded touchdown runs in the third quarter.  Johnson, who rushed for a season-high 155 yards on the day, scored his third touchdown from a yard out early in the fourth to give the Buffs a 24-21 lead.  A 24-yard field goal and a 26-yard touchdown run by Crouch, however, gave Nebraska a 31-24 lead with 5:20 to play.

Ochs, who completed just one of his first six passes but went on to finish 25-of-41 for 254 yards, then led the Buffs on a 68-yard, 11-play touchdown drive which include two clutch third-down conversions.  With 47 seconds left to play, Ochs connected with John Minardi from 15 yards out.

31-30, Nebraska.  Extra point to come.

Eschewing the placement which would have tied the game, coach Gary Barnett decided to go for two.  “I wanted to win at the time,” Barnett said of his choice.  “I didn’t come in here to get a tie or go to overtime …  It didn’t take me even an instant to even consider not going for two.”

Ochs took the snap from center and drifted out to his right.  Ochs found his second choice on the play, senior receiver Javon Green, in the end zone.

Green caught, bobbled, and then re-caught the pass.

Two points, Colorado!!  The Buffs led, 32-31!!

But the game was not over. There were still 47 seconds remaining.  Not wanting a long kickoff return, Barnett instructed Mariscal to squib the ball downfield.  Mariscal, who missed two field goals in addition to having two others blocked on the day, failed to get the ball past the up-men.  Reserve I-back Dahrran Diedrick caught the ball at the 29, returning it 12 yards to the Nebraska 41 with 44 seconds left.

Crouch completed three passes and ran the ball once, placing the ball at the Colorado 29-yard line with 10 seconds left.  Rather than going for a 46-yard field goal, Nebraska, which was out of time outs, risked not being able to put the field goal unit on the field by opting for one more pass.  The strategy proved brilliant, as Crouch connected with Bobby Newcombe for 17 yards to the Colorado 12 yard line.  The 29-yard field goal by Josh Brown with four seconds remaining was now just a formality, and Nebraska had a 34-32 win.

Disheartened Buffs filled the Colorado locker room.

“I can’t explain it,” said Cortlen Johnson.  “Right now, they have a mystique over us.”  Offensive tackle Victor Rogers: “It seems like we’re cursed against these guys.”  Said linebacker Jashson Sykes, “It’s getting worse and worse.  It’s hurting more and more.”

Head coach Barnett was also searching for answers.  “What’s it going to take to get over the hump?”, Barnett said repeating a question.  “You’ve got to win them.  Tell me what it was today that kept us from winning that game, and that’s what you have to do.”

Unfortunately for Colorado, there was no bowl game to prepare for.  The 3-8 Buffs had finished the worst campaign by a Colorado team since the 1984 team had been a national joke at 1-10.

There were now four long months until spring practice; nine months until the CSU game opened the 2001 season.

And 364 days before the Buffs would have another chance at beating Nebraska.

The Terrible Twos

Parents of newborn children are routinely warned of the impending disaster that befalls virtually every beautiful new baby … “The Terrible Twos”.  Two-year-old children are petulant, irritable, surly creatures who test their parents’ wits and patience.  The saving grace for these miniature monsters is the hope that they will grow out of this cantankerous period and eventually grow into actual human beings.

For Colorado fans, the second year of the Gary Barnett era was comparable to the plight of many parents.  The 2000 campaign had given Buff fans great frustration.  On occasion, Colorado appeared to be confused and out-manned.  With every mistake and blown opportunity, though, came the promise of future benefits.  We were reminded early and often during the season that Colorado was playing and starting numerous freshman.  The freshman classes of 1987 and 1991, we were told, had also seen early playing time, and both of those classes finished their senior seasons with 11 wins.

Be patient.  This too shall pass.

The problem for Gary Barnett, however, wasn’t just that his second team had posted the worst record of any Colorado football team in 16 years.  No one was yet predicting that the Buffs were returning to the days of the last season of “baby blue” uniforms (excuse me – “Colorado sky blue at 9,000 feet” uniforms).  Rather, Barnett, with his 10-13 cumulative record, was already in danger of having his name on 2001 preseason “Coaches on the hot seat” lists.

He had his fellow second year coaches to thank.

A total of 19 new coaches were hired for the 1999 season.  Unfortunately for Barnett and Colorado, many of the other new hires were having stellar second campaigns.  Bob Stoops had taken over at Oklahoma and had the Sooners ranked No. 1.  CU’s Rick Neuheisel had Washington in the nation’s top five and heading to the Rose Bowl.  Dennis Erickson had taken over at Oregon State and produced the Beavers’ first-ever ten-win season.  Tommy Bowden was making noise at Clemson, while down the road in Columbia, former CU nemesis Lou Holtz had transformed a moribund South Carolina program into a bowl team.

Adding insult to injury, Northwestern, which had posted a 3-9 record in Barnett’s final season (0-8 in Big 10 play), went 8-3 under second-year coach Randy Walker, claiming a share of the conference title along the way.

Gary Barnett had young talent in place, with quarterback Craig Ochs and running back Marcus Houston poised to become dominant forces on the Big 12 landscape.  Many of the losses in 2000 were just a few made plays away from being victories.  There was reason to believe that the Terrible Twos for Gary Barnett would lead to a future Buff team success.

The 2000 Buffs were the equivalent of a precocious two year old decorating their parents’ walls with crayons.  Colorado fans had no choice but to be patient.

No matter how painful the wait.

Here is the YouTube video of the game, courtesy of CU at the Gamer Paul:



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