Game(s) of the Day – September 11th

NoteTo help us get through our CU football withdrawal, I’ll be posting a “Game of the Day” everyday through to Thanksgiving weekend, with links to some of the best CU games over the past 40 years.

September 11th is a meaningful date for Americans, and it has a special place for Buff fans as well. The 2004 game against Washington State was the makeup game for the 2011 game which was supposed to be played on September 15, 2001. September 11th also was witness to a rout of No. 24 Baylor in 1993, and Gary Barnett’s first victory as CU’s head coach in 1999 … 

September 11, 1993 – Boulder           No. 10 Colorado 45, No. 24 Baylor 21

Just like that, the would-be questionable Colorado Buffaloes looked like world-beaters.

After forcing six turnovers against Texas, the Buffs’ defense forced three first-half fumbles against Baylor, helping the Buffs cruise to a 21-0 first quarter lead. By half, it was a 35-0 laugher as Colorado went on to crush 24th-ranked Baylor, 45-21.

“Our defense is like a time bomb”, said wide receiver Michael Westbrook. “When we (the offense) get to the sidelines anymore, we don’t take our helmets off. We know we are going to go right back in.”

The first few series of the game gave evidence of the truth of Westbrook’s comments. On Baylor’s first possession of the game, senior cornerback Dennis Collier recovered a fumbled pitch by Bear quarterback J.J. Joe. Nine plays and 45 yards later, Lamont Warren scored from a yard out to put Colorado on top to stay, 7-0. After the Buffs’ defense forced a punt, the offense went 80 yards on just two plays, culminating in a 69-yard bomb from Stewart to Charles E. Johnson.

On Baylor’s very next offensive play, the Bears fumbled again. This time the ball was recovered by senior safety Greg Lindsey. Taking the field, the Buffs turned to its improving running game. Taking off on the option on Colorado’s first play after the fumble recovery, Stewart pitched to James Hill. Hill rambled downfield, but fumbled the football into the endzone. There the ball was recovered by the ever-present Charles E. Johnson. Johnson had his second touchdown in 19 seconds of game clock, and the Buffs had a 21-0 lead with 5:08 still remaining in the first quarter.

The game was now essentially over, even though there was still some 50 minutes left to be played.

The second quarter was more of the same, as Stewart did the honors on a two-yard run early in the stanza to raise the lead to 28-0. Then, on the final play of the half, Stewart hit Charles E. Johnson from 39 yards out on a pass which was tipped by Michael Westbrook. The third touchdown of the game for Johnson gave the Buffs a 35-0 halftime advantage.

The second half was played mostly with backups.

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Basking in the Sun

There was only one thing I could find to complain about while watching the Buffs cruise past Baylor on a bright, sunny, afternoon in Boulder …

… that being the bright, sunny afternoon itself.

The official temperature at kickoff was 84 degrees, but down near the field where we were (in 1993, our season tickets were down in the endzone underneath the Dal Ward Center), the temperature as the sun reflected off of the Astroturf and silver bleachers had to be at least 100. I felt empathy for the black-jerseyed Buffs as they took the field. Fortunately for all of us, the Baylor Bears did not give any of us reason for any extra sweat. The 21-0 first quarter lead made all discomforts palatable.

Driving back to Bozeman the next day, as the bleak landscape of eastern Wyoming rolled past, thoughts turned to a run for the national championship.

The Buffs had dominated two presumably good teams. The remaining schedule, though difficult, would help pave the way to a title if it could be survived. The win over Baylor attracted enough converts to raise the Buffs to 7th in the polls. Stanford, though ranked 20th, was not looking dominant. The Cardinal had lost to Washington in its opener, and had just survived against San Jose State, pulling out a 31-28 win.

It appeared that the Stanford game would be just another opportunity for the Buffs to expose another pretender on the national stage.

A pretender did emerge … but it was not Stanford.

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September 11, 1999 – Boulder            Colorado 63, San Jose State 35

What a difference a week makes.

After coming perilously close to being shut out by Colorado State, the Buffs responded seven days later with a record-setting performance. Playing on a grass field at home for the first time since 1970, Colorado cruised to a 28-0 first quarter lead on the way to a 63-35 rout of San Jose State.

Quarterback Mike Moschetti, criticized for his mistakes against Colorado State, connected on 25-of-35 passes for a school-record 465 yards. Before connecting for two touchdown passes, Moschetti opened the scoring with a 12-yard run just over a minute into the game as Colorado took only four plays to travel 70 yards. The Buffs’ opening 63-second drive was just a sign of things to come, as Moschetti connected with tight end Daniel Graham a few minutes later from 23 yards out to put the Buffs up 14-0. Before the first quarter was over, two one-yard touchdown runs by Cortlen Johnson had Colorado ahead 28-0.

The teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter, with the Buffs’ scores coming by way of a Damion Barton three-yard run and a 65-yard scoring strike from Moschetti to Marcus Stiggers. At the break, it was 42-15, Colorado.

In the second half, the Buffs were on cruise control. Dwayne Cherrington scored on a three-yard run as the Spartans kept pace with a 7-7 third quarter. In the final stanza, the teams combined for four more touchdowns. Cortlen Johnson picked up touchdown number three on an 11-yard run, with Barton picking up touchdown number two on a 15-yard run before the Spartans collected two consolation scores in the final six minutes.

“This was just a wonderful job of play-calling,” said Gary Barnett, posting his first win as head coach of Colorado, “But surgery might be a better word to use by (offensive coordinator) Tom Cable and our offensive coaches.”

As the final score reflected, Moschetti was not alone in lighting up the scoreboard. Cortlen Johnson rushed for a career-high 104 yards and three touchdowns, while wide receiver Marcus Stiggers made the best of his five catches, totaling 174 yards. Stiggers had two catches covering over 60 yards, including the 65-yarder for a touchdown, becoming the first CU receiver to collect two passes for over 60 yards in a single game.

Marcus Stiggers, whose 174 yards receiving was the fifth-highest one game total ever, was confident that the Buffs who had dismantled San Jose State were the real Buffs. “This sends a message to our teammates about working hard and working together,” said Stiggers, who had more to celebrate than just a Buff rout. Stiggers was a newlywed, having just taken the plunge the week of the game with the Spartans.

While enjoying the easy win over San Jose State, the dominance over the Spartans also gave rise to new questions about the Buffs:  Which team would appear in the next game against Kansas? Would the Buffs rise to the occasion, or fall flat? And what of the dominant defense? Granted, CU had played looser with a huge lead, but giving up 35 points and 507 yards of total offense to San Jose after surrendering 41 points to Colorado State in the opener was disconcerting.

The Buffs’ next opponent, Kansas, was coming off a rout of its own, destroying Division 1-AA Cal State Northridge, 71-14. The Jayhawks were 1-1 on the season, having fallen to Notre Dame 48-13 in their opener.

And Kansas still had David Winbush, who had torched the Buffs for a record 268 yards in 1998 (a record which would stand until 2012).

Grass is Always Greener ….

Only 41,716 attended the Buffs’ home opener on a beautiful September afternoon. Those who were in attendance witnessed the first home game played on a grass field since 1970. Sportgrass, similar to the system used at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, came with a price tag of $1.2 million. Also new for the 1999 season were video boards installed at both ends of the stadium.

The Buffs initiated the grass field in fine fashion, setting several school records. The 767 yards of total offense bettered the 758 yards gained in a 66-14 rout of Northeast Louisiana in 1995. The 293 yards rushing was the best since the Buffs put up 326 yards against Iowa State, also in 1995.

While the grass at Folsom Field was 1-0, the Buffs could not avoid the reality that they were 1-1.

With Kansas, Washington, and Missouri up next, the Buffs had three games which they could easily win. They were also games which they could easily lose. Colorado had responded to the adversity of the CSU debacle by racing out to a quick 28-0 first quarter lead against outmanned San Jose State. The Colorado team which dominated in game two was quite different from the one which had been dominated by Colorado State in the season opener.

Fans would have to wait and see which team would show up to play against Kansas.

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September 11, 2004 – at Seattle          Colorado 20, Washington State 12

For the second time in as many weeks, the Colorado defense preserved a Buff win in the game’s waning moments.  Against Washington State, senior defensive tackle Matt McChesney recovered a fumble by Cougar quarterback Alex Brink at the Colorado two-yard line with just seconds remaining, sealing a 20-12 victory.  “I was getting the ball,” said McChesney of his recovery.  “I think somebody might have had it (first), but I got the ball.”

On a sunny afternoon at Seattle’s Qwest Field, the Buff defense stepped up when the Colorado offense sputtered.  Colorado’s defense had eight sacks, an interception return for a touchdown, and two fumble recoveries.  “Our defense just picked it up,” said Gary Barnett.  “They told us in the locker room that they had our back at halftime, and they did it.”

What the defense did was mask an awful showing by the Colorado offense.  The Buffs had only 125 yards of total offense on the day, and only seven first downs.  Joel Klatt produced only 78 yards through the air, and the Colorado rushing attack was held to a net of 47 yards.  Conversely, Washington State had 402 yards of total offense.

How then, did the Buffs manage to emerge 2-0 on the season?

The game was tied, 3-3, at halftime, thanks to Mason Crosby’s second 50+ yard field goal in as many weeks.  In the third quarter, Colorado free safety Tyrone Henderson blocked his second punt of the day.  The first blocked punt managed to get past the line of scrimmage, but this punt rolled back into the Cougar end zone, where it was recovered by Colorado V-Back Lawrence Vickers and a 10-3 Colorado lead.  After a WSU field goal late in the third quarter cut the Buff lead to 10-6, red-shirt freshman linebacker Joe Sanders, substituting for injured starter Brian Iwuh, intercepted an Alex Brink pass and raced 51 yards for a 17-6 Colorado advantage with 9:13 remaining.

Just had been the case against CSU, however, the Buffs could not stand the prosperity of a double-digit lead.  After holding the Cougars out of the end zone for three quarters, the Buffs’ defense surrendered a score in just over a minute, as Brink hit wide receiver James Hill for a 60-yard touchdown. The lead remained at five points, 17-12, a few moments later, when the Cougars’ two-point conversion attempt failed.

With momentum on the side of the home team, the Buffs needed a lift.  They got one from Terrence Wheatley, who returned the ensuing kickoff 59 yards, setting up a 41-yard field goal by Mason Crosby, giving the Buffs a 20-12 lead.  Washington State then drove 54 yards in eight plays before McChesney’s fumble recovery saved the day.

“Maybe that’s who we are this year,” Barnett said.  “We’re just going to find some way to win and not worry about who’s on the field and how good individually we are. We’re going to be good as a team.”

In the Big 12 North, being “good as a team” was taking on new meaning.  While the Buffs were defeating Washington State, other contenders in the North Division were showing their vulnerabilities that same weekend.  Kansas State, ranked 13th in the nation, was dismantled at home, 45-21, by Fresno State.  Missouri, in at #19, lost on the road, 24-14, to Troy State.  Nebraska, playing its first game against a Division 1-A team under new head coach Bill Callahan, lost to Southern Mississippi at home, 21-17.  With Iowa State falling to Iowa, 17-10, only Colorado and Kansas were left undefeated in the North Division (and Kansas had only played – and beaten – football powerhouses Tulsa and Toledo).

Gary Barnett summed up the status of the cardiac kids who were the 2004 Buffs.  “There aren’t enough wins.  You appreciate every one you get in life,” said Barnett.  “They don’t ever come down the way you thought they would come.  So when they don’t come down that way, you tend to label it ugly.”

“They don’t put UW in the press guide,” concluded Barnett.  “They just put W”.

The 2-0 Buffs now returned home to face North Texas.  The Mean Green was 0-2, having been dominated by Texas, 65-0, and surprised by Florida Atlantic, 20-13.  On paper, the game looked like an easy path to the Buffs’ first 3-0 start since 1998.

But the 2004 Buffs were not familiar with easy paths.

Deja Vu

The similarities to the CSU game the week before were too numerous to ignore, even as they unfolded beneath a (thank God!) partly cloudy Seattle sky:

Against the Rams, Colorado had taken a ten point lead midway through the fourth quarter after an interception return for a touchdown.

Against the Cougars, Colorado took an eleven point lead midway through the fourth quarter after an interception return for a touchdown.

CSU struck quickly thereafter, scoring to cut the lead to three.

WSU struck quickly thereafter, scoring to cut the lead to five (after a failed two-point conversion attempt).

The Rams were afforded the opportunity for a last minute drive to win the game or send the game into overtime.

The Cougars were afforded the opportunity for a last minute drive to send the game into overtime (after a Colorado field goal had boosted the lead to eight).

CSU connected on a third-and-long pass to put the ball on the Colorado one yard line with less than a minute to play.

WSU connected on a third-and-long pass to put the ball on the Colorado five with less than a minute to play.

The Rams, arguably using poor clock management, failed on a frantic last second run, sealing the Buffs’ win.

The Cougars, arguably using poor clock management, terminated their chance for victory with a fumble at the Buffs’ two-yard line.

Five yards away from an 0-2 start, the Buffs were 2-0.

It was all too familiar.  It seemed as if fate had a sense of humor.  As the last minute drama unfolded, I wasn’t all that dismayed or depressed.  After all, we had no business winning this game.  Washington State had outplayed Colorado, at least statistically, throughout the game.  After one minute of play in the first quarter, the Wildcats had over 60 yards of total offense.  The Buffs didn’t reach that total until the second half.  Colorado would punt ten times on the day, not surpassing the 100-yard mark in total offense until late in the fourth quarter.  If Washington State had not played well enough to win, it at least had an offense that had generated over 400 total yards.

Yet here were the Buffs, leading – again.  A week earlier, a loss to the Rams would have been devastating.  An opening loss – after an off-season which could only be described as tumultuous, after taking a 17-0 lead against the Rams (only to see the Rams forge a 17-17 tie), and after taking a 27-17 lead with just over nine minutes remaining – such a loss may have done irreparable damage.  To the team.  To the team’s image.  The Buffs’ numerous critics would have had a field day.

Such a feeling of dread did not come over me during the last seconds of the WSU game.  Sitting in the end zone of Qwest Stadium, the home of the Seattle Seahawks, amongst 5,000 or so fellow Colorado faithful, I knew I would be disappointed with a last minute loss to Washington State; perhaps even devastated.  But in my heart of hearts, I knew we didn’t deserve the win.  I also knew that such a loss would not be as cataclysmic as a similar loss to the Rams would have been.

This is not to say that I didn’t have a rooting interest in the outcome.  When WSU quarterback Alex Brink was flushed from the pocket, and tried to make it to the end zone on his own, I was yelling as loud as anyone.  When the Buffs stopped Brink at the two, I was counting down the seconds, in unison with the gold-clad fans in the southeast corner of the stadium.  Was it the CSU game all over again?  Would the clock run out before the Cougars could get off another play?

“10 …. 9 …. 8 …. 7 …. 6 …. 5 …. 5 ….5?!”

The referee had blown the clock dead at five seconds.  Watching the teams unpile near the endzone, my first thought was that the officials had stopped the clock because the Colorado players were too slow in getting up.  My fear was that the Cougars would be given one more chance to score.

Then I looked down at the field, and saw an official kneeling at the two yard line, pulling players away from the pile.  Just as it began to register why an official would be in such a position (looking for the ball!), the signal came up.  The official signaled toward the far end zone!

Fumble!!  Colorado ball!!  Game over!!!!

Okay, it took a kneel down to officially end the game, but the fumble started the celebration.  With the official’s signal, I let out a yell.  Not a “Yesssssss!!” type of a yell, nor a “Yeaaaaaaa!!” type of yell.  Just a yell.  Loud and long as I could make it, with my arms outstretched like a referee signaling a touchdown.

I remember my reaction to the win, largely because that was the same way I reacted after the final seconds had ticked off the clock a week earlier in Boulder.  Oddly, I didn’t share these moments of celebration with anyone.  I didn’t high-five my fellow fanatics; I didn’t hug anyone.

There was just the yell.

I think it was because I had taken the past eight months so personally.  It was tough to be a Colorado fan in 2004.  Everyone was down on the program, if not openly hostile towards it. My normal zeal for preseason magazines was non-existent.  I knew what they would say: “Colorado in turmoil”; “lack of talent”; “4th place at best in the six team Big 12 North”.  I didn’t care to read the Buffs’ obituaries over and over again.

The two opening last minute wins had been a welcome distraction to the off-season.  It was true that Colorado was a mediocre team.  It was also true that Colorado had beaten two teams who were also mediocre.  But against CSU and WSU, in those last frantic seconds that set off huge celebrations, once with 50,000 in unison, next with 5,000, I was given a great gift by the Colorado players.

I got to yell out loud for my team.

 Game Notes:

– There was an 80% chance of rain for the Washington State game (this was, after all, Seattle), but the game saw nary a drop.

– Sophomore free safety Tyrone Henderson blocked two kicks on the afternoon, setting a school record. The second kick, recovered for a touchdown, was the first blocked kick returned for a score for the Buffs since 2000 (when John Minardi recovered a block kick against Missouri as part of a 28-18 CU win – 11/4/00).

– Joe Sanders returned his first interception as a Buff for a touchdown, becoming the 11th Buff to do so since 1992 (Brian Iwuh had become the 10th the week before against Colorado State).

– The win gave the Buffs a 2-0 record against Washington State in games played in that state. Ironically, in neither game did Colorado score an offensive touchdown. In 1982, the Buffs gave Bill McCartney his first win as head coach, defeating the Cougars, 12-0 on four field goals, in a game played in Spokane.

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