November 7th – at Kansas          Colorado 30, Kansas 21

Overcoming an early 14-0 deficit, the Colorado Buffaloes rallied to defeat the Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence, 30-21.  Assisted by a fumble return for a touchdown by safety Dominque Brooks and a punt return for a touchdown by Stephone Robinson, the Colorado offense generated just enough points to keep the Buffs improbable hopes of a Big 12 North title alive.

Early on, it was the Jayhawks who came ready to play.  Kansas took the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead.  On Colorado’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Joel Klatt was intercepted by Kansas defensive back Rodney Harris.  Three plays and 28 yards later, Kansas was up 14-0 after a second short scoring run by running back John Randle.

The Buffs were down 14-0, and had run only one offensive play.  11:15 still remained to be played in the first quarter.  Colorado players and fans seemed destined to endure a long afternoon.

A ray of hope came from an unlikely source a few minutes later.  Colorado safety Dominque Brooks scooped up a fumble at the Kansas 41-yard line and returned it for a Colorado score to cut the deficit to 14-7.  The only other points in the first half came on a Mason Crosby 19-yard field goal early in the second quarter.

Colorado opened up the second half with its first offensive touchdown since the fourth quarter of the Texas A&M game.  Joel Klatt hit tight end Joe Klopenstein on a four-yard pass to give the Buffs their first lead of the contest, 17-14.  Kansas, however, responded with a long scoring drive of its own, reclaiming a 21-17 advantage midway through the third quarter.

Enter Stephone Robinson.

The redshirt-freshman safety was pressed into duty when Jeremy Bloom was denied eligibility to play.  While Robinson had performed competently during the season, he had yet to make fans forget Bloom’s style.  Taking a punt at the Kansas 48, Robinson picked up several key blocks, picking his way to the end-zone for a 24-21 Colorado lead.  “There has been a couple of times where it has been just one block away or one tackle away from being a big play,” Robinson said.  “I felt like I was due.”

The game remained very much in doubt throughout most of the fourth quarter.  Nursing a three-point lead, Colorado took over near midfield with 7:01 to play.  The Buffs then engineered a drive which had not been easy to come by all season: a time-consuming, 10-play drive to put the game away.  With 3:27 left, Lawrence Vickers scored on a four-yard run to give the Buffs a 30-21 lead (the extra point was missed).

Still, these were the 2004 Colorado Buffs.  These were the same Buffs who had two score leads late against both Colorado State and Washington State, only to survive with last minute goal-line stands.  Almost predictably, the Jayhawks marched down the field after the Vickers score.  This time, however, there would be no need for last second heroics, as sophomore cornerback Terrence Wheatley intercepted Kansas quarterback John Nielsen’s pass in the Colorado endzone with 57 seconds to play.

The win raised Colorado’s record to 5-4, 2-4 in the Big 12.  Amazingly enough, the Buffs were still alive in the chase for the Big 12 North crown.  In the eight previous seasons of conference play, no team had ever won a division title with more than two losses.  That would not be the case in 2004, however. Nebraska lost to Iowa State, 34-27, and now the Cornhuskers and Cyclones shared the division lead with 3-3 conference records.  (Colorado, at 2-4, was tied with Kansas State and Missouri, with only Kansas, at 1-5, eliminated from title contention). A 4-4 conference record from Colorado, along with some help, could mean a trip to Kansas City to face a top ten team from the Big 12 South.

“We can’t be in any better situation considering everything that has happened to us,” said Gary Barnett.  Yet, without wins over Kansas State at home and against Nebraska in Lincoln, the “situation” would become irrelevant.  The Wildcats, also at 2-4 in conference play, were coming to Boulder on the heels of a 35-24 win over Missouri in Columbia.  Before Colorado could talk about conference titles, there was a more immediate hurdle to overcome.

Bowl eligibility.

“Why not us?”

I was in the fourth grade, and a photographer from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle was in our classroom.  Our class had done a project (I don’t remember exactly what it was about), and the results were preserved on a bulletin board on the classroom wall. The photographer wanted a picture of the bulletin board, with our teacher, Ruth Sommerfeld, on one side.  On the other side, he wanted a class member.  He asked the assembled semi-circle of students, “Who wants to have their picture in the paper?”  Immediately, thirty hands shot up.

Perhaps I was centrally located, or perhaps my red hair stood out, but the photographer looked right at me. “Why should you be in the paper?”, he asked me with a grin. “Why not me?”, I replied.

I got my picture in the paper.

I was reminded of this story when I read the quote of running back Lawrence Vickers in the newspaper the day after the Kansas win.  Somehow, the Buffs, destroyed by Oklahoma State, embarrassed by Texas, and 1-4 in conference play coming into the Kansas game, had a shot at the Big 12 North title.  “Why not us?”, Vickers said.  “Anything that happens to us is meant to happen to us.  We were put in this position for a reason, to show us that all of the stuff we’ve been through, and all of the losses we’ve been through, that it’s still meant for us to go.”

Cornerback Terrence Wheatley chimed in: “Something tells us it’s meant to be.  It’s almost like it’s destiny for us.  So we’ve got to go out and take it.”

“Taking it” required not only having Colorado win its next two games, against Kansas State and Nebraska, but some help from Iowa State and Missouri as well.  Still, it was amazing that a 5-4, 2-4 team still had title dreams.  “It’s in our lap,” said Barnett.  “We’ve got what it takes.  We’ve just got to make the decision to go out and do it.”

I was trying not to be a glass “half empty” kind of a guy, but as I “watched” the fourth quarter against the Jayhawks unfold (on the internet, and, for the last few minutes of the game, with Brad over the phone as he listened to the radio broadcast), my first thoughts were of bowl eligibility.  A sixth win, and a December date for a bowl game, so easy to imagine when the Buffs were 3-0, had still not come to fruition.  The Buffs had lost four of five coming into Lawrence, and had fallen behind 14-0 in four minutes of play against Kansas.  The offensive had gone six consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown.  Kansas State, the Buffs’ next opponent, had been down 21-0 to Missouri, but had rallied to rout the Tigers, 35-24.

One win did not a charmed season make.  It would take a three game winning streak to put the Buffs in a position to hope for a title.  One win down, two wins to go – if the Buffs were to have any hope of traveling to Kansas City.  It would take only one more win, however, for Colorado to earn a bowl bid.  “After this game,” said tight end Joe Klopenstein, “in the locker room we were more excited than we’ve been in a long time.  I think it will keep driving us to be better these next two weeks.”

I was certainly hoping so. After the near miss against Kansas, I was still uncomfortable about even talking about a bowl bid.  But after reading the players post-game quotes, I was becoming more of an optimist.

As Lawrence Vickers observed, “Why not us?”

 Game Notes:

– The Buffs rally from a two score (14-0) deficit tied for the sixth largest comeback in school history (the best being a 20-point comeback v. Missouri in 1978, as the Buffs rallied from a 27-7 deficit to a 28-27 win).

– Dominque Brooks and Stephone Robinson had an interception and punt return for a touchdown, respectively, against Kansas. The two scores were the fifth and sixth return scores of the season, tying the Buffs for the nation’s lead (with Miami). There would be no other such returns in 2004 for Colorado, and the Buffs six would tie them for the sixth most in the country for the year.

– With 52 yards against Kansas, running back Bobby Purify moved past his former backfield mate, Chris Brown, into fourth place on the Colorado all-time rushing list. Purify now had 2,724 yards, besting Brown’s career total of 2,690.

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