Deja vu – “Cougin’ it” against Washington State

Wake me up! This bad dream has got to come to an end!

Oh, it’s not a dream.

And it’s not the first time it has happened.

On Saturday, in the first conference game as a member of the Pac-12, the Colorado Buffs honored the 1961 Colorado football team. Those Buffs earned Colorado’s first title after joining the old Big 7 in 1948. All members of the team (players, coaches, staff) were invited back for the game. The Buffs finished 1961 with a 10-3 record with a 7-1 mark in conference games. Colorado finished the regular season ranked 6th in the nation, falling to No. 4 LSU in the Orange Bowl, 25-7.

While it was right and appropriate to honor the 1961 team, it may have been more appropriate to host the 1981 Colorado Buff team. It was 30 seasons ago that Colorado played its first-ever game against Washington State.

The final minutes of the 1981 game bear an eerie resemblance to what happened to the 2011 Buffs.

It was a home game for Colorado, and, surprisingly enough, the Buff Nation was confident. Colorado had been 1-10 in 1980, and had not posted a winning season since 1978, but 1981 was different, or at least the Buff Nation thought it would be.

The September 19th game was the second of the 1981 season, and the Buffs were coming off of a huge 45-21 win over Texas Tech to open the season. In that game, an impressive receiving record had been set, with Walter Stanley catching five passes for a school-record 222 yards (stop me when this begins to sound familiar). True, Washington State was also undefeated, but the Cougars opening win was against a 1-AA team, Montana State.

Colorado played well the entire game, and led 10-0 with less than five minutes remaining. The Colorado defense dominated the contest.

A 2-0 start to the 1981 season – after a 1-10 debacle in 1980 – was in the offing.

Then the wheels fell off.

Colorado was held on downs by the Washington State defense. On fourth down, the Buffs failed to get the punt off, leading to a five-play, 34-yard drive for a touchdown.

10-7, with time still left on the clock for a Cougar comeback.

On the next series, the Buffs again went three-and-out, except the Buffs forgot the “and out” part. This time the punt was blocked and returned 43 yards for a touchdown by Cougar free safety Paul Sorenson. What had been a 10-0 defensive gem turned, in less than five minutes, into a 14-10 loss. The first defensive unit for Colorado more than held it’s own, but it was wasted.

My memory from the game is entitled, “You’ve Got to Be Kidding“, with the following write up:

“It takes a special talent to lose a game this way. Ahead the entire game, with a stifling defense, Colorado committed the unthinkable not once, but twice, in the fourth quarter. The Oklahoma debacle a year earlier (the epic 82-42 track meet) was almost fun by comparison. Against the Sooners, it was embarrassing. This was worse, because the Buffs should have won. Washington State was on our level, and, if Colorado was to show any noticeable signs of improvement, we had to beat this caliber of team at home. As fans, we returned to the pessimism of the 1980 season. With #11 ranked BYU, #16 ranked UCLA, and a trip to Lincoln coming up over the next three weeks, the euphoria of the Texas Tech game was already starting to wane.”

Sound familiar?

The 2011 Colorado Buffaloes have had two chances to demonstrate that they belong in the Pac-12. Three weeks ago, the Buffs had the ball inside the Cal five yard late, not once, but twice, when a touchdown could have / would have won the game. Instead, once at the end of regulation, then again in overtime, the Buffs settled for field goals in what proved to be a 36-33 overtime loss.

Against Washington State, the Buffs had a second-and-five near midfield with under three minutes remaining in the game. Washington State was down to one time out. A first down – one first down – would have ended the game with a 27-24 Colorado victory. Instead, the Buffs not only failed to gain yardage, but threw an incompletion on third down, preserving time for the Washington State offense.

Not that they needed it.

With everyone in the stadium geared for another overtime game against a Pac-12 rival, the Buff defense instead surrendered a 63-yard touchdown pass to send the Buff Nation home mumbling about what might have been …

… and what will now be.

The rest of October? A road game against an undefeated and top ten Stanford, a road game against Washington (which will have a bye week to enjoy its 31-14 victory on the road against Utah), then a home game against an Oregon offense which makes the Washington State offense look pedestrian, then a road game against Pac-12 South favorite Arizona State.

See any victories in that quartet of October games?

Me, neither.

Colorado has had its chances to make a statement to its Pac-12 brethren, and has failed both tests. The Buffs now are staring the first conference basement finish since 1915.

The Washington State game was won … but they ended up “Cougin’ it”.

“Cougin’ it”?

I went to the game with two Washington State fans, and learned that Cougar fans, in enduring a run in which Washington State won five games in three seasons, had a term for when the home team snatched a loss from a sure victory. They labeled such come-from-ahead losses as “Cougin’ it”.

Now the Buffs have to live with a come-from-ahead loss to a Washington State team which had been 1-18 on the road under Paul Wulff.

Two touchdowns in the final five minutes?

“Cougin’ it”, indeed.

The 1981 Colorado team, after giving up two touchdowns to Washington State to turn a 10-0 lead with five minutes remaining into a 14-10 loss, recovered to post two Big Eight wins to stay out of the conference cellar. The 3-8 record, though, was not enough to keep Chuck Fairbanks in Boulder.

Jon Embree certainly isn’t going anywhere at the end of this season, but, right now, those two conference wins posted by the 1981 team must seem mighty appealing.

Whether Embree can keep the team together through the rest of October, so that winnable games in November can be approached with some degree of confidence, remains to be seen.



4 Replies to “Deja vu – “Couging it” v. WSU”

  1. I was at that game 30 years ago. Weren’t those the only two punts that Art
    Woods wasn’t able to get off in his entire CU career? It was a really weird day.

  2. Stuart you and I are in the same age group. I graduated in 1981 and remember it well (although I have tried to forget!) I also rememeber it did get better after Fairbanks left and Coach Mac got things going. I am keeping the faith that Embree will do the same. GO BUFFS!

  3. This one really hurt. I know we have injuries, I know we have a secondary of children and fill ins, I know there have to be growing pains. All of this I “know” but losing this way when it was finally the other team that seemed to be making the mistakes, when we finally seemed to find the ground game, when our big guys made the plays, it just hurts. Optimism may come someday. Right now it just feels like a very very dark tunnel.

  4. This game was a sucker punch. I had the feeling when we couldn’t kill the clock with 2 minutes to go we were going to lose but not like the way we did. For most of the game it was impressive that the secondary held so well and I’m happy Lockridge and Espinoza found playing time and some success on the defensive side of the ball. However, it is clear that after losing at home to a team that has had definitively less success under coach Wulff than CU had under Hawkins that the prognosis is indeed grim. If, and that word is a serious element of my commentary for the first time, Embree can bring back the prominence and glory of days gone by, it will be a while. We can look forward to a few players next year, but with a quarterback that hasn’t taken a snap, a young offensive line, and tailbacks light in carries, we had better hope for a defense that can turn opposing teams into three-and-out repeating machines. I will always stand “shoulder to shoulder” with my fellow Buffaloes but it is pretty clear that unless you take over a program playing at a consistently elite level (David Shaw) it is going to take more than the four years most fan bases and media outlets allow for a head coach to change the “culture” of a program. This will be a long year on the field and as Steve Fairchild to the north can probably tell you, it won’t make recruiting easier. Perhaps the players will find a way to get the job done above my expectations and my comments will be a hasty untruth on the near fate of the program. I sure hope so.

    Thank you for allowing my pessimistic and cathartic analysis to sully the already pungent air surrounding the program. I assure you that CU and the sports programs that represent the school is a bright spot in my life and I will quickly turn optimistic when the chance presents itself. The Cross Country team looks to be pretty good this year…

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