August 30th – at Denver          Colorado 42, No. 23 Colorado State 35

Sophomore quarterback Joel Klatt was the unlikely hero in leading Colorado to a 42-35 win over its in-state rival, Colorado State, in the 2003 season-opener for both teams.

Prior to completing 21-of-34 passes for 402 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions against the Rams, Klatt’s career numbers were as follows: a total of three passes, completing none.

Yet before 76,219 rain-soaked fans at Invesco Field and a national television audience on ESPN, Klatt out-performed the Rams’ senior quarterback, Bradlee Van Pelt.

After CSU took a 7-0 first quarter lead, Colorado erupted for 28 second quarter points. Bobby Purify tied the score with a six-yard run, but the Rams quickly jumped back out on top with a 32-yard Van Pelt touchdown pass. The remainder of the quarter belonged to Joel Klatt. The former walk-on connected with Derek McCoy for an 82-yard score, then gave the Buffs their first lead when D.J. Hackett turned an acrobatic catch of a Klatt pass at the two-yard line into a touchdown. Colorado took a 28-14 halftime lead when Klatt hit John Donahoe from 45 yards out with just 29 seconds remaining.

The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, with Colorado going up 35-21 when Klatt hit Derek McCoy for another long score, this time for 78 yards.

Immediately after the touchdown, however, officials sent the teams to the locker rooms when a lightning storm hit the area. A 28-minute delay ensued, with players and fans seeking shelter from the storm, leaving the stadium a well-lit, but deserted, arena.

When play resumed, Colorado State took the initiative, and the game appeared headed for overtime when Bradlee Van Pelt scored on a 30-yard run to knot the score at 35-all with 1:50 remaining. This proved to be more than enough time for the Buffs, however, as Klatt engineered a 75-yard drive in just over a minute of playing time. With 40 seconds left, Bobby Purify scored on a nine-yard run, and when the Rams’ last ditch effort moved no further than midfield, the Buffs had a 42-35 win.

“We knew we had a lot of time left,” said Joel Klatt of the Buffs’ winning drive. “You’ve just got to stay calm and not go out of control in those situations.” This from a first-time starter who just happened to post the Buffs’ first 400-yard game since 1999, and the third highest debut for any Colorado quarterback.

The two teams combined for over 1,000 yards of total offense, including a combined 741 yards through the air. While surrendering 339 yards passing to Van Pelt, and 104 yards rushing to ex-Buff Marcus Houston, the Buffs had held on to post the first season-opening win in Gary Barnett’s five years as head coach.

The win was enough to push Colorado into the national rankings for the first time in 2003, in at No. 24 (right behind Nebraska, which debuted at No. 23 after opening with a 17-7 win over Oklahoma State).

The Buffs’ next opponent was UCLA, which did not play in the opening week. The Bruins were 8-5 in 2002, including a win over New Mexico in the Las Vegas Bowl. This had not been enough to salvage the head coaching position for Bob Toledo, replaced by a former CU assistant coach, Karl Dorrell. Also making their debuts with UCLA were Bruin assistants Jon Embree and Eric Bieniemy, who had been on the CU sideline in 2002, when the Buffs defeated the Bruins, 31-17, in the Rose Bowl (UCLA’s home field).

Waiting for the Buffs and the Bruins in Boulder was a remodeled Folsom Field.

The contest would be the first played with the stadium’s $41 million renovations, including the installation of 1,900 club seats and 40 suites, raising the stadium’s capacity to 53,750.

The Buffs were anxious to get as many fans into the stands as possible if Colorado was to open a season 2-0 for the first time since 1998.

Electrifying Performance

Droplets of water dripped from the edges of my baseball cap.

As I peered out into the darkened Mile High night from behind my water-logged CU hat, raindrops alternated falling from the right and left edges of the brim. The 28-minute lightning delay had come and gone, but the rain had persisted. Along with the return of the drenching rain came the equally annoying CSU Rams, making yet another comeback.

Twice down 14 points, CSU was clawing its way back into the game. Overtime looked inevitable. When Bradlee Van Pelt tied the score on a 30-yard run just below our seats in the endzone with only 1:50 remaining, my first thoughts were not of our chances in overtime.

My first thoughts were of the stadium bathrooms.

“Are the bathrooms heated?” was the question which ran through my mind. I was cold, damp, and frustrated, and the television delay before the start of overtime was destined to be lengthy. I needed to get away. How could we give up a 14-point lead? Twice? To VanPelt?

How could we lose this game?

Fortunately for me and the remaining resilient Buff faithful, Joel Klatt came to the rescue. Klatt calmly led the Buffs on a 75-yard drive, taking only 1:10 of clock to put the Buffs back on top to stay. Bobby Purify’s nine-yard touchdown run put a cap on a debut no one had seen coming. Klatt had spent three years playing minor league baseball, and was a walk-on at CU, but by the end of the night Klatt had the Buffs’ first 400-yard passing performance in four years.

“Joel was sensational”, understated Gary Barnett. Klatt, who sent the college football intelligentsia running for their media guides to read up on Colorado’s new hero, was not seen as part of CU’s future when he came out of Denver’s Pomona High in 1999. Craig Ochs was the primary focus of the CU recruiting class, and Ochs had played as a true freshman in 2000. Other top quarterbacks, including perhaps the top two quarterbacks on the CSU depth chart, steered clear of Boulder and went elsewhere in search of playing time. Then, when Ochs suddenly left the Buffs, there was an immediate void at the position. Robert Hodge filled in admirably for the Buffs in 2002, but Hodge was not the prodigy that Ochs had been.

The 2003 season had opened with reduced expectations at the quarterback position. The Buffs had recruited two top high school prospects, but they were not slated to play until 2004 at the earliest. Klatt had been named as the starting quarterback less than two weeks before the opening kickoff, and the consensus was that the best the Buffs could hope for was that Klatt would be mature enough to not lose games, keeping the Buffs in games long enough for the defense to secure wins.

Instead, Klatt was the star, eclipsing the efforts of his outspoken counterpart, Bradlee Van Pelt. Van Pelt had spent much of the week leading up the CU game talking trash. “It feels great”, said junior defensive lineman Brandon Dabdoub after the win. “You know, (Van Pelt) questioned our heart and character, for a full week. Nobody does that.” Chimed in Gary Barnett, “Anytime anyone questions our heart and character, they’re way out of bounds.”

For his part, Klatt continued to keep his cool, even after the game. “They are a great team,” said Klatt of the Rams. “I have all the respect in the world for them, and I can’t wait to play them again the next two years.”

The next two games would be in Boulder, as the Rocky Mountain Showdown, at least until 2006, would be played on the Buffs’ home field. The two teams had played six times in Denver, splitting 3-3. Ironically, in each of the six games, one of the teams had entered the contest ranked; the other not. In each of the six games, however, the unranked team had emerged with the win. In 2003, the 23rd-ranked Rams fell to the unranked Buffs, 42-35.

“If you were a fan,” said Barnett, “this game had everything you could want.”

True enough. The win over CSU had provided Buff fans with a new star quarterback, production from a host of receivers, even a lightning delay …

… to go with an all-important season-opening win.

I just needed to replace my rain-soaked hat.

Game Notes

– The 76,219 on hand for the 2003 Rocky Mountain Showdown represented the largest crowd to ever witness a college sporting event in the state of Colorado.

– The 28 second quarter points was the most productive 15 minutes for the Buffs since putting up 28 in the first quarter against Nebraska in 62-36 win in 2001.

– Joel Klatt’s four touchdown passes tied him with Kordell Stewart for the second most by a Buff passer in their debut. The record is five, set by John Hessler v. Oklahoma in 1995 (a 38-17 Buff win).

– The 82-yard touchdown pass from Klatt to McCoy ranked as the 10th-longest in school history. McCoy’s 192 yards on the night were the third most by a CU receiver in a game. (Record at that time: 222 yards by Walter Stanley v. Texas Tech in 1981, a 45-27 CU win; matched by Rae Carruth v. Missouri in 1991, a 55-7 CU victory).

Here are some video highlights from the CU/CSU game:

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