The Jim Thorpe Classic

The Buffs were anxious to play a 12th game in 2001- anything to get the season started, and put behind them the 3-8 nightmare which was the 2000 campaign.

The inaugural Jim Thorpe Classic provided such an opportunity.

The game was designated to honor the legendary Thorpe, who had starred in college at Carlisle Indian School in 1912 and 1913 before going on to help bring recognition to the fledgling National Football League.  The Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back since its inception in 1986, had a special place in the hearts of Buff fans.  Colorado had already had two winners of the award, with Deon Figures claiming the prize in 1992, followed by Chris Hudson in 1994.

The Buffs’ opponent for the game was Fresno State.  The Bulldogs were in search of respect.  In order to bring attention to his program, head coach Pat Hill scheduled ambitiously.  In addition to the Buffs, Fresno State would in 2001 play non-conference games against Oregon State and Wisconsin.  The Beavers were ranked No. 11 in the preseason poll (and ranked No. 1 by Sports Illustrated in its preseason picks), while Wisconsin was ranked No. 22.  On paper, the Buffs appeared to be the Bulldogs’ best chance at an upset.

August 26th – Boulder           Fresno State 24, Colorado 22

The CU Buffs kicked off the 2001 season in inauspicious fashion, turning the ball over five times in falling to Fresno State, 24-22.  The most costly turnover came with 3:32 remaining in the game and CU trailing 24-22.  On third-and-goal on the Bulldogs’ two-yard line, quarterback Craig Ochs threw an ill-advised pass in the direction of fullback Brandon Drumm.  The pass was intercepted by cornerback Devon Banks, and the Buffs fell in their season opener for the third consecutive year under Gary Barnett.

Barnett called the play “a good, safe, run-pass option … Craig tried to force it.  Just throw it away; we line up, kick a field goal and go up 25-24.”  Instead, the Buffs fell for the ninth time in 12 games.  “I committed the cardinal sin,” said Ochs.  You never throw an interception in the red zone.”

Still, the Buffs would not have been forced to rely on a late score had the first 56 minutes of the game not been a comedy of errors.  Four Buff turnovers led to 17 points for Fresno State.  The Bulldogs jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead after running back Chris Brown and Ochs fumbled in Colorado territory.  A Roman Hollowell 77-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter gave the Buffs a short-lived spark.  The teams then swapped 80-yard scoring drives, with CU’s extra point being blocked, leaving the Buffs with a 21-13 halftime deficit.

In the second half, the Buffs dominated, but could not alter the scoreboard.  Colorado’s defense, which allowed only 287 total yards, kept the score close, but the deficit remained the same.  The teams traded field goals, making the score 24-16, which remained the score until Ochs connected with wide receiver John Minardi for the second time in the game, this time from 16 yards out with 7:51 remaining. The two-point conversion attempt failed, however, leaving the Buffs with the final deficit, 24-22.

For Ochs, who became the fastest Buff to reach 2,000 yards passing with his 346 yard effort against FSU, the loss was hard to take. “We didn’t help ourselves with penalties, me dropping snaps …. it was a mix of what they did, but mostly what we did to ourselves.”  Still Ochs was refusing to give up on the season.  “That’s the good thing about football, you always have another game to play.”

“We just need to shake it off,” said Roman Hollowell. “It seemed like in the first half we kept shooting ourselves in the foot, with dropped balls and turnovers.”

Up next for the Buffs was Colorado State.  The Rams were already the owners of a two-game winning streak over their neighbors to the south (for the first time since 1948-49).  A third loss to the Rams and an 0-2 start might signal the beginning of the end of the Gary Barnett era in Boulder.

The vultures were already circling.

Circle the Wagons

The loss to Fresno State was a tough one to take for the Buff players and fans.  It was even harder on head coach Gary Barnett.  The criticism came quickly, and it was ruthless.

Woody Paige, columnist for The Denver Post, called Barnett and his offensive coordinator Shawn Watson “daft and dumb”.  Recalling the squib kick against Nebraska which had led to a last second loss in the Buffs’ last game, Paige noted, “The CU coaches obviously didn’t go to summer school and take smart pills.”

The Denver Rocky Mountain News columnist Bernie Lincicome chimed in: “Colorado lost, and deserved to lose.  Colorado lost stupidly.  Colorado lost early.  Colorado lost late.  If there were other ways to lose, they would have, but time ran out.”

The Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla was even more harsh, stating the Buffs’ season, before Labor Day had hit on the calendar, was already “on the brink of disaster.”  Kiszla went on to report: “Some of us are seriously beginning to wonder if Colorado made a huge error in hiring Barnett, because the third-year coach repeatedly proves himself far better at making lame excuses than producing meaningful victories.”  Kiszla finished his column with a prediction.  “Either he must beat the Rams, or Barnett must go.”

While no one in the Colorado athletic department was giving such an ultimatum to Barnett, it was clear that a loss to Colorado State would end the speculation as to whether the 3-8 season just past was an aberration.  Barnett, for his part, was trying in vain to put the game in perspective.  When discussing the CSU game, Barnett said, “We can’t let Fresno State beat us twice.  We have to bounce back from this.”

Easier said than done.  And with the Jim Thorpe Classic being played on a Sunday night, the Buffs only had six days to bounce back.  It didn’t help that the Rams were coming off a 10-2 season, and were the 24th-ranked team in the nation.

Here is the YouTube video of the game …


Game Notes:

– Colorado came into the game against Fresno State with a 1-0-1 record in the month of August. The other two games: a 31-31 tie with Tennessee to open the 1990 season (the Pigskin Classic), and a 37-19 win over Washington State in 1996.

– Fresno State’s win over the Buffs was no fluke. The Bulldogs in 2001 would go on to beat Oregon State and Wisconsin, rising as high as 8th in the polls as part of an 11-3 season.

– Craig Ochs completed 31-of-51 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns, both going to senior wide receiver John Minardi. But Ochs was also intercepted twice, and fumbled away two of CU’s three lost fumbles.

– Kicker Pat Brougham made his Division 1-A debut in place of ineligible Jeremy Flores. Brougham had a first-half PAT attempt blocked, and missed a 50-yard field goal in the first quarter. Brougham did connect on a 42-yard field goal in the third quarter.

– Temperature at kickoff for the Fresno State game was 91 degrees, the second-highest (to that date) in CU history, surpassed only by a 94-degree game against Kansas State in 1994 (the Buffs would go on to play in 99-degree weather in Los Angeles against UCLA in 2002).

– The win by Fresno State was the first for the Bulldogs in five tries against the Buffs, and the first win ever for Fresno State against a member of the Big 12 (0-8 previously).



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