September 14th – Boulder          No. 17 USC 40, No. 18 Colorado 3

Robert Hodge became the only the second Colorado quarterback since 1959 to make his starting debut as a senior, as he led the Buffs onto the field to face the Trojans of USC. In 1976, senior Jeff Austin made his debut against Texas Tech, only to lose, 24-7. Hodge fared no better, as the Buffs were completely dominated by USC, 40-3.

The numbers are numbing:

Worst loss since 1992 (52-7 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln);

Worst loss at home since 1983 (59-20 loss to Missouri);

First game without a touchdown since 1997 (27-3 loss to Michigan);

Fewest points at home since 1986 (28-0 loss to Oklahoma).

On the afternoon, the Buffs managed only four first downs and 61 yards of total offense. Robert Hodge connected on only one of his nine passes, with his one completion going for 20 yards. Hodge threw one interception, ran the ball eight times for a minus-10 yards, and fumbled once. Zac Colvin came in for Hodge when the game was out of hand, but could only go 1-for-4 passing (for four yards), with a minus-13 yards rushing and a fumble to his credit.

Still, the game result was not all the quarterbacks’ doing.

The Buff rushing “attack” netted only 37 yards. The Colorado defense, meanwhile, allowed 425 yards of total offense, including three 80-yard touchdown drives. USC quarterback Carson Palmer was effective if not spectacular, completing 22-of-30 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown. Tailback Sultan McCulloch carried 15 times for 110 yards, including a 62-yard second quarter score which gave the Trojans a 20-0 halftime lead.

The Buffs did show some signs of life in the third quarter, as the Buff defense, by way of a blocked punt, a turnover, and a short USC punt, gave the Colorado offense the ball in excellent field position three times. The Colorado offense, though, could only muster three points. USC was able to turn the domination into a humiliation in the fourth quarter on a blocked punt for a touchdown and a nine-yard touchdown run by Darryl Poston after a CU fumble inside its own ten yard line.

“What we saw wasn’t very pretty”, conceded Gary Barnett. “It’s really one of the first games we’ve played where we’ve had something to gain, and we messed our britches. Totally a mess”.

“We can’t play like we did today, or it’s going to be a long season,” said Robert Hodge. “We have to figure out what was wrong.”

Unfortunately for the Buffs and their fans, there was precious little time to do the figuring. Up next was UCLA, ranked 20th in the nation after opening the season with wins over Colorado State and Oklahoma State. It was of no benefit that the Buffs would also be making their first true road trip of the year, to play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in Colorado history. After the Bruins, Colorado would face Kansas State in the conference opener, with the Wildcats also looking to be ranked come game time.

No one could predict which direction the 2002 Buffs would be heading. In 2000, Colorado opened with a disappointing loss to Colorado State and never rebounded, going 0-4 in non-conference games on the way to a 3-8 record. The 2001 Buffs opened with a disappointing loss to Fresno State, but made a strong comeback, going on to win Colorado’s first Big 12 championship.

How would the 2002 Buffs react to the devastating loss to USC?

“Awful … just awful”

“Awful … just awful”, was how Gary Barnett described the Buffs’ effort against USC. “But we were doubly awful on offense”.

As if being just “ordinarily awful” wasn’t sufficient.

And it was not enough. The Buffs looked like the Colorado teams Chuck Fairbanks used to field over 20 years earlier. All Colorado had to do was go back to the “baby blue” uniforms and the picture would be complete. One pass completion on the first drive. One first down. Then nothing. “Three-and-out” became the Buffs’ mantra.

If it is possible for three plays in a 40-3 rout to actually be called turning points, though, there was one in each of the first three quarters.

In the first quarter, on USC’s opening drive, the Trojans faced a fourth-and-7 at the CU 32-yard line. Eschewing the field goal attempt, USC head coach Pete Carroll went for it. Carson Palmer threw a swing pass to Malaefou MacKenzie in the left flat, near the line of scrimmage. The Buffs had two opportunities to tackle MacKenzie before he reached the first down marker. Not only did the Buffs miss those tackles, but proceeded to miss two others as MacKenzie went on to score a 32-yard touchdown. 7-0, USC.

Late in the second quarter, Palmer was intercepted by Buff freshman safety J.J. Billingsley. The interception was wiped out, though, by a roughing the passer penalty. USC went on to score on that drive, taking a 20-0 lead into halftime. “That was obviously a huge swing psychologically for us,” said Barnett. “I don’t think the game came down to it, but who knows?”

In the third quarter, after the Buffs took over deep in USC territory, CU faced a third-and-short at the USC five yard line. Robert Hodge fumbled on the play, forcing the Buffs to attempt a field goal. Kicker Pat Brougham missed the 29-yard field goal attempt, taking the steam out of whatever momentum the Buffs may have tried to build.

Three plays. In a 40-3 rout, it is difficult to say that the game hinged upon them. Yet college football is a funny game, and 19-year olds are a fickle lot. Despite not showing any signs of life on offense, CU was still in the game until early in the fourth quarter. A few different bounces, and the Buffs might not have been so devastated heading for the Rose Bowl and the UCLA Bruins.

Was there any hope for this team after such a loss?

The Buffs were still the defending Big 12 champions. The conference season had yet to begin. Still, for a team ranked No. 7 to start the season to be unranked after only three games, these seemed like hollow battle cries. No one was going to give Colorado the benefit of any doubts. Colorado State had shown the way to defeat the Buffs. USC had shown the way to humiliate the Buffs.

Any chance UCLA and the Buffs’ Big 12 opponents would not see those game films?

Game Notes

– As noted above, against USC, Robert Hodge became only the second CU quarterback since 1959 to earn his first start as a senior. The only other Buff to start his first game at quarterback as a senior during that time was Jeff Austin in 1976.  In his first career start, Jeff Austin completed only five-of-19 passes against Texas Tech and had five interceptions. Austin would go on, however, to win his other three games as a starter for Colorado.

– The 61 yards of total offense and four first downs were the lowest totals since the Buffs posted 51 yards and only two first downs in a 21-3 loss to Nebraska in 1964. (CU would go on to post a 2-8 record that season).

– Not exactly a record team’s like to have broken, but senior punter Mark Mariscal did set a school record vs. USC, connecting on seven punts of over 50 yards. The old record was five, held by Zach Jordan (v. Missouri, 11/8/52) and tied by Keith English (v. Oregon State, 11/24/88). On the day, Mariscal punted eight times for a 57.4 yard average.

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