September 4th – Boulder          Colorado 27, Colorado State 24

A pitch from Colorado State quarterback Justin Holland to running back Tristan Walker was stopped at the Colorado three-yard line by defensive backs  J.J. Billingsley and Lorenzo Sims as time expired, preserving a wild 27-24 Buff win. The frenetic finish, before a record Folsom Field crowd of 54,954, gave Colorado head coach Gary Barnett and his players something other than scandal to talk about for the first time in 2004.

The game started out about as well as the Buffs could have hoped.  Colorado scored on its opening drive, a one-yard plunge by senior running back Bobby Purify.  Junior quarterback Joel Klatt scored from a yard out on the Buffs’ second drive, giving the Buffs an opening quarter 14-0 lead.  The lead was up to 17-0 before CSU quarterback Justin Holland connected with tight end Matt Bartz 23 seconds before halftime to make the score at the break 17-7.

The second half witnessed the pendulum of emotion swing back and forth between the two benches.  Colorado State climbed back into the contest, tying the score at 17-all with a 26-yard field goal by Jeff Babcock early in the fourth quarter.  The Buffs regained momentum with a 55-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Mason Crosby.  A few plays later, the Buffs seemingly regained command of the contest when junior linebacker Brian Iwuh intercepted a Holland pass, returning the pick 37 yards for a touchdown and a 27-17 Colorado lead with just 6:25 remaining.

The Rams were not finished, however.  Holland quickly led CSU down-field, hitting Tristan Walker from 31 yards out with 4:35 still left to be played, making the score 27-24.  The Buffs could not move the ball on their next possession, punting the ball back to the Rams with 2:36 remaining, setting the stage for the game’s final drama.

With the game seemingly slipping away from the Buffs, the Rams confidently marched down the field.  Holland, who would torch the Colorado secondary for 403 yards passing on the evening, hit wide receiver David Anderson for an 11-yard gain to the Buff one-yard line with 30 seconds left.

On first down, Holland spiked the ball, killing the clock.  On second down, running back and former Colorado Buff Marcus Houston was given the call, but Houston was stopped for no gain by freshman linebacker Jordan Dizon.  With the crowd roar at its peak, Holland did not spike the ball on third down to stop the clock. Rather, he called a play, an ill-fated toss to Walker that safety Billingsley and cornerback Sims were able to stop for a two-yard loss as time expired.

One yard from victory; a spiked ball away from overtime, Colorado State had allowed the Buffs to get out of Folsom with a win.

“I was just reading my keys,” said J.J. Billingsley of his gave-saving tackle.  “I had (secondary) coach (Craig) Bray in my head, saying, ‘read the keys, read the keys’.  To tell you the truth, I heard cheering, but because we were so close to the CSU fans I didn’t know what happened.  I thought they had scored, but then all of the sudden I turned around and saw (Tristan Walker) on the ground.”

There was some question about how the last play unfolded.  Colorado head coach Gary Barnett said he admired CSU head coach Sonny Lubick’s decision to go for the win instead of overtime.  “That was coaching without fear,” said Barnett.  But Lubick wasn’t taking credit.  Lubick indicated that the Rams were “all out of sync”, stating, “I think it was a good call to try and go in, but I wish we would have spiked it.”

In any event, the Buffs had the win.  The Colorado rushing game, dormant for most of 2003, put up 255 yards against the Rams, including 189 yards by Bobby Purify.  The much-maligned Colorado defense did surrender over 400 yards through the air, but only 44 yards rushing.  The Buff kicking game appeared solid, with Mason Crosby connecting on CU’s first field goal of over 50 yards in eleven seasons, while junior punter John Torp averaged over 50 yards on his three attempts.

All that was good statistically, though, would have been overshadowed with a Buff loss.  “These kids needed this – they needed it in a big way,” said linebackers coach Brian Cabral, who had served as interim head coach during Gary Barnett’s spring suspension.  “It was big for us coaches, but it was the kids who really deserved this.”

The 1-0 Buffs were now on to Seattle to face Washington State.  The Cougars were also 1-0, rallying on the road to defeat New Mexico, 21-17.  Washington State in 2004 was not projected to repeat its 10-3 performance of 2003, but there was certainly talent to be reckoned with, and Colorado was in no position to look past a team which had dominated the Buffs, 47-26, in Boulder in 2003.

Win One for the Stripper

The 2004 season represented the start of my 25th season as a Colorado fan.  Now 18 years removed from the senior student section, I had become as jaded and cynical as the next alumus about the apathy and indifference of the student body towards Buff athletics.  From my seat on the 50-yard line (okay, call it the 47-yard line:  row 72, down seven rows and over five yards from the previous few years), I looked down upon the Colorado student section in more ways than one.

I was surprised to read, then, the week before the 2004 season opener that Colorado had sold out its 12,000 student season ticket allotment.  The sellout represented the first time since 1992 that the number of tickets allocated for students had been completely sold out prior to the season.  In light of the off-season that the Buffs had endured, it would have been understood, if not expected, that the student season ticket numbers would have dropped.  After all, it was not seen as a badge of honor to be associated with the program.  The Buffs were not ranked in any preseason poll, and not much was expected on the field.

Yet the Colorado students came.  And they were ready to be loud and raucous.

Much had been written about how relieved the Colorado coaches and players were to be back on the practice fields in August, at long last able to talk about football for the first time in months.  I felt the relief as well.  I was anxious to pull stories on Colorado football off the internet which were not related to scandal.  I had not anticipated, however, that about 50,000 of the record 54,954 in attendance would carry with them the same needs.  There was a palpable need to have Colorado football on the field. There was a need to cheer for the players in black and gold – a need to win the game.

The Colorado faithful had much to cheer about early.  You could not have scripted a better start: A touchdown on the opening drive of the season, followed by a three-and-out by the Rams, followed by another touchdown drive.  In the second half, though, a sense of dread fell over the crowd.  The Colorado secondary, which had not stopped anyone in 2003, was still a sieve.  It took a 55-yard Mason Crosby field goal and a Brian Iwuh interception return for a touchdown just to give the Buffs a lead to cling to in the waning moments.

Yet the yelling for the Buffs continued.  There was a sense of urgency in the air.  If the Buffs faltered after having leads of 17-0 and 27-17, the loss would have been magnified.  Barnett would have been crucified by the pundits.  The Colorado faithful would have been left to silently slink home – left to put their Colorado sweatshirts into the dresser drawer, lest the owner be associated with such a dismal program.

The Buffs had to win this game.

The Rams marched down the field. A quick CSU score after Brian Iwuh’s 37-yard interception return made the score 27-24 with 4:35 left.  The Buffs went nowhere on offense, giving the ball right back to the Rams.  CSU again set off down the field.  A touchdown to win the game was a real possibility.  A tying field goal, sending the game into overtime with the Rams loaded with momentum, was all but a certainty.

With confusion all around, quarterback Justin Holland spiked the ball.  A run up the middle by Colorado ex-patriot Marcus Houston was stuffed.  The seconds ticked away.  Unclear about his options, Holland regrouped his team, but instead of spiking the ball, Holland pitched the ball to running back Tristan Walker.  Walker was stopped three yards short of victory as the clock struck 0:00, and bedlam ensued.

“We were all out of sync,” said CSU head coach Sonny Lubick.  “The crowd was so loud, we couldn’t hear a darn thing”.  Gary Barnett agreed with Lubick’s assessment on the crowd’s influence at the end, admitting, “We might not have won this had we played at Invesco.”

Surely amongst those yelling the loudest were the 12,000 Colorado student season ticket holders.  Tony, with whom I went to the game, spotted a student at the game wearing a t-shirt with the motto: “Win One for the Stripper”.  While not politically correct, the sentiment was unmistakable.  After months of scandal, accusations, and ridicule, those associated with the University of Colorado football program – its coaches, players and fans – were ready to talk about something else for awhile.

The dramatic last-second win over the Rams gave us just that.

Game Notes:

– The 54,954 in attendance for the 2004 CSU game bettered the old record for Folsom Field, besting the 54,215 on hand when the Buffs fell to #1 Oklahoma, 34-20, on October 25, 2003.

– There was some symmetry to the Buffs’ scoring on their opening drive of 2004. Colorado had not done so in an opener since 1997 – the last time Colorado played Colorado State in Folsom Field (before playing the next six contests in Denver).

– Colorado State did not have a single rushing first down for the game. It was only the fifth time that the CU defense had recorded such a feat, and only the second since 1961 (a 38-24 win over Oklahoma, 10/30/99).

– Running back Bobby Purify entered the 2004 season with 1,999 rushing yards in his career, so breaking the 2,000 mark was expected. In posting 189 yards, Purify not only became the 15th Buff in CU history to rush for over 2,000 career yards, he put up the second-most rushing yards ever in a season opener (2nd only to the 217 yards rushing by Mike Pritchard in the 1990 season-opener against Tennessee – a 31-31 tie).

– Freshman linebacker Jordon Dizon started the game, becoming just the sixth player in Colorado history to start a game as a true freshman. Dizon joined a group including wide receiver Billy Waddy (1973), cornerback Victor Scott and linebacker Scott Hardison (1980), running back Eric Bieniemy (1987) and offensive guard Clint Moore (1991).

– In 2004, 12,000 student season tickets were sold (the maximum allotment). The record for student season ticket sales was set in 1972, when 14,442 were sold.

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