October 2nd – at Missouri          Missouri 17, Colorado 9

Missouri quarterback Brad Smith generated just enough offense to lead Missouri to a win over Colorado in the Big 12 conference opener for both teams, 17-9.  Pre-season All-American Smith passed for 186 yards and ran for 76 more in leading the Tigers to their first win in six tries against a Gary Barnett-coached Buff squad.

Statistically, the Tigers dominated, holding the ball for ten minutes longer than the Buffs, and out-gaining Colorado, 415-254.  But Missouri couldn’t capitalize, missing three field goals and suffering 70 yards in penalties, including an offensive pass interference call which negated a touchdown late in the first half.

Missouri and Smith started out well, scoring on an 80-yard drive to start the game.  The Buffs countered with a long drive of their own, but had to settle for a 21-yard Mason Crosby field goal to cut the lead to 7-3 late in the first quarter.  After a 45-yard field goal by Missouri kicker Joe Tantarelli upped the Tiger advantage to 10-3, a four-yard touchdown run by Bobby Purify cut the lead to 10-9, with the Tigers retaining the lead after the extra point attempt was blocked.

Missouri opened the second half in much the same manner as the first, scoring on its first drive, this time with Brad Smith connecting with wide receiver Sean Coffey on a 51-yard catch and run touchdown to put the Tigers up 17-9 with 11:24 left in the third quarter.  Little did the 60,000 on hand at Faurot Field, the largest crowd to witness a Colorado game in Columbia since 1980, realize that the Coffey touchdown would be the last points of the game.

The Tigers squandered multiple opportunities to put the Buffs away, missing on three field goals while holding the Buffs’ offense at bay. Colorado could only muster two second half first downs.  Star running back Bobby Purify went down with a re-occurring shoulder injury on the first play of the third quarter, and while he did return in the fourth quarter, he was just as ineffective as the rest of the Colorado offense.  “We just couldn’t make the plays we needed to make,” said Gary Barnett.  “We shot ourselves in the foot.”

Still, the Buffs had chances to pull out another miraculous win.  Senior safety J.J. Billingsley forced a fumble early in the fourth quarter, setting up the Colorado offense in Missouri territory.  The Buffs did manage to get the ball inside the Missouri ten-yard line, but, on second-and-goal from the eight, cornerback Shirdonya Mitchell intercepted a Joel Klatt pass to Evan Judge in the end zone, ending the Colorado threat.

The Klatt-to-Judge pass looked for a moment to be a Colorado touchdown.  Both Judge and Mitchell went up for the ball, with Judge taking the pass at the outset.  But as the players fell to the ground, Mitchell grabbed the ball away from Judge.  With 6:47 left to play, the only Colorado threat of the second half was over.

With the loss, the Buffs fell to 3-1 overall, 0-1 in conference play.  More importantly, Colorado fell, in essence, two games behind the Tigers in the race for the Big 12 North title.  Still, after one conference game, there was much left to be determined.   Kansas State, another preseason pick to win the North, fell 41-30 to Texas A&M in its conference opener, while perennial powerhouse Nebraska just managed to hold off Kansas, 14-8 at home.

Up next for the Buffs was 22nd-ranked Oklahoma State, 36-7 winners over Iowa State.  The game against the undefeated Cowboys represented a crossroads for the 2004 Buffs.  A win over a ranked team would propel a 4-1 Colorado team into the second half of the season with great optimism.  A second consecutive defeat would make the first two emotional wins over Colorado State and Washington State seem more and more like aberrations.

Un-Happy Birthday

Colorado junior back-up quarterback Erik Greenberg celebrated his 24th birthday in Columbia, failing to see any action against the Tigers.  Greenberg had seen action in seven Buff games to that point in his Colorado career, including two starts in 2003, but would not take the field on October 2nd.

Evan Judge was not so lucky.

October 2nd also happened to be Evan Judge’s birthday.  The junior wide-out turned 22 while on the field against the Tigers.  For the day, Judge had four catches for 37 yards, raising his team leading totals for the season to 13 catches for 183 yards and one touchdown.

But it will be the one catch Judge didn’t make that was the birthday surprise Judge did not want.

The Buffs, inept on offense for the second time in three games, had no business being in the game late in the fourth quarter against the Tigers.  Missouri had dominated, but, thanks to three missed field goals by the Tigers, combined with some timely plays by the Buff defense, Colorado trailed by only a touchdown throughout the second half.  One play, along with a two point conversion, could send the Buffs into overtime against Missouri for the third time in six years.  One play would make up for the lack of offense and missed opportunities.  One fantastic play – and Colorado would be the most unlikely 4-0 team in the nation.

On second-and-goal from the eight yard line, Joel Klatt lofted a pass to the far corner.  Only Evan Judge and Missouri cornerback Shirdonya Mitchell were out there.  Both leapt for the ball.  Judge leapt higher, and had the ball in his arms.  Gravity, though, brought him and the ball down to earth, with Mitchell in the way.  Mitchell had his hands on the ball as well, and ripped the ball from Judge on the way down.

The play was ruled a touchback instead of touchdown.  Colorado never threatened again.

“It was a big letdown”, said the birthday boy.  “I had a chance to be a hero, and it didn’t come out like that.”

At breakfast on the morning before the game, my wife Lee asked me how I felt about the upcoming game against the Tigers.  “Queasy”, was my reply.  The Buffs had won two games which they could well have lost.  Missouri, despite the surprise loss to Troy, was still a talented team.

After the game, I was certainly disappointed, but had come away with new respect for the 2004 Buffs.  They certainly were a resilient bunch. With the offense going nowhere, the much-maligned defense made just enough plays to give the Colorado offense a chance to win.  Just as the Buffs had weathered the spring and summer of controversy, they had weathered adversity on the field in September, finishing off wins.  Now the Buffs had suffered a loss.  To make matters worse, it was a loss in conference to a team which the Buffs would have to hope would lose twice in order for Colorado to have a chance at the Big 12 North.

How would the young team react?  Practices are easier after wins.  Confidence begets confidence.  Oklahoma State was 4-0, having dismantled Iowa State, 36-7.

Evan Judge did not have a happy birthday in Columbia, Missouri.  How happy would he and his teammates be after the Homecoming game against the Cowboys in Boulder?

 Game Notes:

– The Missouri win over the Buffs marked the first time in six tries that the Tigers had defeated Colorado with Gary Barnett as head coach. Barnett, a Missouri alumnus, had been 5-0 against his alma mater.

– Joel Klatt threw three interceptions against Missouri, his first three pick game since a 26-21 loss to Texas Tech, on November 1, 2003.

– The 17-9 loss to Missouri marked the first time in 11 games in which the Buffs had failed to score at least 20 points. The 11-game streak was the longest for Colorado since going 17 straight games with over 20 points between 1994 and 1996.

– Colorado opened Big 12 play with a loss for the second consecutive season. The back-to-back losses in conference openers marked the first time the Buffs opened 0-1 in conference play since 1987-1988. The loss gave Colorado a 5-4 record in Big 12 openers.

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