The 2004 Season – From “Win One for the Stripper” to CU’s Last Bowl Win

As college football remains in limbo, we’ll continue to take a look back at some of the best seasons in the CU at the Game Archives.

Previously posted

Here is a look back at the 2004 Season. It was the winter of CU’s discontent, with the “sex scandal” from two years earlier rearing its ugly head (see chronology, below). The season opened with goal line stands against Colorado State (at home) and Washington State (in Seattle), and finished with a soul-crushing (to Cornhusker fans) win over Nebraska, and CU’s last bowl win in Houston (with a forgettable loss to No. 2 Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game …

The 2004 Season … 

Preseason – 2004

The setting for Preseason, 2004, for the Colorado Buffaloes had its origins over two years earlier.

On December 7, 2001, Colorado football players and recruits attended an off-campus party.  At least one woman indicated she was raped at the event, though no sexual assault charges were ever filed. Four players did have their scholarships revoked for providing alcohol to minors at the party.

It was this recruiting visit which initiated a firestorm of controversy which dominated Colorado football in the early months of 2004.

A brief chronology:

On December 9, 2002, a year after the party, a woman, later identified as Lisa Simpson, filed a federal lawsuit against the school, alleging that she was raped by players and recruits of Colorado.  The suit also accused Colorado of fostering an environment hostile to women.

Another year later, on December 10, 2003, a second woman sued Colorado, also alleging that she was raped by football athletes.

January 14, 2004.  Former Colorado soccer player Monique Gillaspie files suit, alleging that she too was raped by two football players during the party.

January 28, 2004.  A deposition given by Boulder County district attorney prosecutor Mary Keenan is released, accusing the Colorado athletic department of using sex and alcohol as recruiting tools.  These allegations are quickly denied by Colorado head coach Gary Barnett and athletic director Dick Tharp. Colorado Governor Bill Owens immediately demands a public accounting.

February 2, 2004.  Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman announces an independent commission will look into Keenan’s allegations.

February 17, 2004.  Former Colorado kicker Katie Hnida tells Sports Illustrated she was raped by a teammate in 2000.

February 18, 2004.  Gary Barnett is placed on administrative leave over comments about Hnida, including a comment that Hnida was an “awful” football player.

February 20, 2004.  Assistant coach Brian Cabral is named interim head coach.

As a result of Barnett’s suspension, the Colorado football team conducted spring practice in 2004 without a head coach.  While Gary Barnett was later reinstated, and the numerous investigations resulted in no new criminal charges being filed, the cloud hanging over the Dal Ward Athletic Center was dark and low-hanging.  Self-imposed recruiting restrictions, including the elimination of player hosts and most official on-campus visits during the football season, did little to appease the Colorado critics.  The Buffs received more bad news later in the summer of 2004 when wide receiver/kick returner Jeremy Bloom exhausted his appeals with the NCAA to be able to play football and ski professionally at the same time.

Preseason, 2004 – Roster Issues

The outlook on the field did not provide much solace to the Colorado faithful.  The 2003 Buffs had struggled to a 5-7 mark, and, while there was talent returning, there was no way to measure how the off-season turmoil would affect the team.  The players, for their part, were saying the right things.  Joel Klatt, returning starter at quarterback, reflected the party line, stating, “Everybody on this team came here for two reasons: to get an education and play football for the Buffaloes.  When we’re together, when were with each other, we can concentrate on those things.”

How full was the Colorado cupboard?  A bright spot was Joel Klatt.  The junior quarterback threw for 2,614 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2003.  The question in 2004 was: who would he throw to?   Very little experience returned at wide receiver.  Senior Ron Monteilh, who had all of 18 catches in 2003, led a talented but untested corps of wide-outs, including Evan Judge, Blake Mackey, Mike Duren, and Dusty Sprague.

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Preseason, 2004 – The Schedule

Overall, the Buffs looked like a team hoping to turn a 5-7 record into a bowl-worthy 6-5 squad.  The schedule did include nine bowl teams from 2003, but was still less daunting than the previous year’s slate.  The Colorado State home opener was set for Boulder instead of Denver, followed by a trip to play Washington State in Seattle.  A home game against the Mean Green of North Texas set up a conference slate wherein the Buffs traded Oklahoma, Baylor, and Texas Tech for Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas A&M.

No publication put the Buffs in their Top 25, and no one picked the Buffs to win the Big 12 North.  In the South Division, Oklahoma and Texas were the consensus picks to dominate, while in the North, the field was wide open.  Defending Big 12 Champion Kansas State was an obvious choice to win the North Division, though a trendy pick was Missouri behind all-everything quarterback Brad Smith.  Nebraska was considered an unknown quantity, with new head coach Bill Callahan looking to improve on the 58-19 record posted by ousted coach Frank Solich.

When the preseason polls came out, USC was pegged as the number one team in the nation.  Big 12 teams were well represented, with Oklahoma coming in at No. 2, Texas at No. 7.  The North was represented by Kansas State (No. 12) and Missouri (No. 18).

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Game One … 

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.

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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.

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Game Two … 

September 11th – 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?

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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.

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Getting the family together in Seattle for pre-game boat ride

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Game Three … 

 September 18th – Boulder          Colorado 52, North Texas 21

After going almost two complete games without an offensive touchdown, Colorado put up 586 yards in total offense in putting away North Texas, 52-21.  Joel Klatt completed 26-of-33 passes for 371 yards and three touchdowns in guiding what had been an anemic Colorado offense since the first half of the Colorado State opener.  Bobby Purify amassed 112 yards and three scores on only 15 carries as the Buffs let their fans enjoy a victory prior to the last five seconds of the game for the first time in 2004.

In posting a 3-0 record for the first time since 1998, the Buffs’ offense finally clicked.  After spotting North Texas early 7-0 and 14-7 leads, the Buffs dominated.  Colorado scored on five consecutive possessions in the first half to take a 35-14 halftime lead.  Punter John Torp, pressed into service ten times against Washington State, had only two punts against the Mean Green.  “We felt like we could do just about whatever we wanted to out there”, said Gary Barnett.

Joel Klatt, held to 195 passing yards after two games (zero touchdowns, two interceptions), had the 11th-best passing day in school history against North Texas. At one point, Klatt completed 13 passes in a row.  “With Joel, we just need to do what we do,” said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.  “We don’t need to get cute.”  Overall, Klatt connected with 11 different receivers, including two touchdown passes to tight end Joe Klopfenstein and a 21-yard scoring pass to Evan Judge.

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Game Four … 

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.

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Game Five … 

October 9th – Boulder           No. 22 Oklahoma State 42, Colorado 14

The 46,521 on hand for Colorado’s 2004 Homecoming game against No. 22 Oklahoma State were just settling into their seats when the Cowboys took control of the game.  On OSU’s third play from scrimmage, running back Vernand Morency broke away for a 58-yard touchdown run and a quick 7-0 Cowboy lead.  The Buffs would keep in close throughout the first half, but a quick score just before halftime gave Oklahoma State a 21-0 halftime lead on their way to a 42-14 win.

The game-breaker, if there can be one in a 28-point game, came with no time left on the second quarter clock.  Seemingly content with a 14-0 lead with 1:20 left before the break, Oklahoma State ran three consecutive running plays.  With nine seconds left, though, and the Buffs inexplicably in man-to-man coverage, Cowboy quarterback Donovan Woods faked a handoff before launching a 58-yard scoring strike to Prentiss Elliott as time expired.

The Buffs were down 28-0 before scoring two consolation touchdowns in the fourth quarter.  V-back Lawrence Vickers, who had a 29-yard touchdown called back in the third quarter, scored from six yards out.  Later, James Cox, subbing for an injured Joel Klatt, connected on a 21-yard touchdown pass to Dusty Sprague.

On the day, the Buffs out-gained the Cowboys, 447-429.  Oklahoma State, however, made their yards count, posting three scores of over 50 yards, returning an interception for another touchdown with 2:07 remaining to complete the rout.

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Game Six … 

October 16th  – Boulder           Colorado 19, Iowa State 14

There were certainly more attractive games on the Big 12 slate for the weekend of October 16th, as Missouri (4-1,2-0) was playing at No. 9 Texas, No. 2 Oklahoma was on the road against a desperate Kansas State squad, and No. 16 Oklahoma State hosted No. 23 Texas A&M.

Iowa State (2-3, 0-2) at Colorado (3-2, 0-2) drew little national attention.

Who knew the game would be for the Big 12 North title? …

Colorado kicker Mason Crosby set several Buff field goal kicking records on his way to leading Colorado to an “ugly” 19-14 win over Iowa State.  Crosby kicked four field goals, including a school record 60-yarder, on an afternoon otherwise marred by sloppy play by both teams.  A total of seven turnovers and 20 penalties combined to leave the 44,285 in attendance, the smallest crowd to ever witness a Big 12 game in Boulder, mumbling to themselves.

“We played hard”, said Colorado head coach Gary Barnett, “It wasn’t beautiful and not Top-20ish.”

Colorado sophomore James Cox received his first start as a Colorado quarterback against the Cyclones.  Cox directed the Buffs to a 13-0 second quarter lead which could have been much larger. Colorado scored early in the first quarter after recovering a muffed punt at the ISU 11-yard line.  Three plays later, Cox hit tight end Jesse Warren from three yards out for a 7-0 lead.  The Buffs had a first-and-goal later in the first quarter turn into a 28-yard Mason Crosby field goal, and could get Crosby no closer than the ISU 41-yard line in the second quarter before the sophomore kicker put through the 60-yarder just off the left upright.  Crosby’s record-setting effort was two yards longer than Jerry Hamilton’s 58-yard effort against the Cyclones in 1981.

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Ineptitude

Ineptitude, according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, is the state of being inept, or acting in such a way as to be considered “clumsy or bungling; inefficient”.

For the Colorado Buffs and their opponents, the Cyclones of Iowa State, the battle on the warm, sunny October afternoon in Boulder was not a battle of teams trying to win their first conference game of 2004, it was a comedy of errors between two teams setting new standards for incompetence on the football field.  Colorado tried gamely all afternoon to allow Iowa State back into the game after taking a 13-0 lead, but the Cyclones were just as efficient at refusing the gifts of their hosts.

Other than the kicking game, the Buffs were atrocious.  Colorado’s lone touchdown drive – are you ready for this? – covered 11 yards, coming after a muffed punt return by Iowa State’s Todd Miller.  The Buffs could not even do the touchdown correctly, as Jesse Wallace, on the receiving end of a three-yard scoring pass from James Cox, received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting the ISU defender.

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Game Seven … 

October 23rd – at Texas A&M          No. 17 Texas A&M 29, Colorado 26 OT

Texas A&M kicker Eric Pegram connected on a 19-yard field goal in overtime, lifting the Aggies to a 29-26 win over Colorado.  The Buffs’ opportunity to tie the game, or better yet, to pull out a road conference win, ended when Colorado fumbled on its overtime possession.  The 73,745 on hand at Kyle Field witnessed five lead changes and over 1,000 yards of offense in the hotly contested battle.

The scoring and the offensive output began slowly, as the Buffs forged a 3-0 lead in the first quarter on a Mason Crosby field goal. Colorado stretched the advantage to 13-7 at halftime on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Joel Klatt to Evan Judge.  Colorado looked to take command of the game early in the third quarter after taking the opening second half kickoff and marching 78 yards for a second Klatt-to-Judge touchdown connection.  The Buffs went for two after the score but failed, leaving the score at 19-7.

Rather than folding, the Aggies scored on their next four drives, including three Pegram field goals and a Courtney Lewis two-yard touchdown run to give Texas A&M a 23-19 lead with just 4:09 remaining in the game.  Then it was up to the Buffs to respond to the challenge.  Klatt led the Buffs on an 82-yard drive, culminating with a one-yard touchdown run by Bobby Purify, giving the Buffs a 26-23 lead with just 1:05 left to play.

Undaunted, quarterback Reggie McNeal drove the Aggies to the Buffs’ goal line, before A&M settled for a fourth Pegram field goal, this time from 20 yards out, to tie the game at 26-all as time expired.  In overtime, A&M again drove to the Colorado one-yard line before settling for a field goal, this time giving the Aggies a 29-26 lead.

On the third play of the Buffs’ possession, Bobby Purify ran around left end, picking up five yards and what would have been a first down.  However, the officials ruled that he had also fumbled on the play.  When linebacker Lee Foliaki came out with the ball, the game was over, and the Buffs were 1-3 in conference play.  “It was a great effort by our guys,” said Gary Barnett after the game.  “Our whole team hung in there across the board.  It’s hard to lose a game like this.”

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Game Eight … 

October 30th – Boulder          No. 8 Texas 31, Colorado 7

Texas quarterback Vince Young was able to put two early interceptions behind him before guiding the Longhorns to a 31-7 romp over Colorado.  Running back Cedric Benson rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns, leading the 8th-ranked Longhorns to a 7-1 record.  The Buffs, in losing their eighth straight game to a Big 12 South Division team, managed only three yards rushing on the day, the fewest since Alabama held Colorado to minus-11 in the 1991 Blockbuster Bowl.

The day did start out with promise for Colorado.  On Texas’ seventh play, Young was picked off by Colorado sophomore cornerback Terrence Wheatley.  Wheatley returned the interception 37 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Colorado lead.  On the Longhorns’ next possession, Young was picked off again, this time by another Buff sophomore cornerback, Lorenzo Sims.  The Buffs, though, were not able to take advantage.

So much for the Colorado highlights.

Texas did not score until midway through the second quarter, tying the game on one-yard run by Vince Young.  A two-yard scoring run by Cedric Benson with 0:52 left gave the Longhorns a 14-7 halftime edge.  Any hopes of Colorado being competitive in the second half were dashed by two third quarter turnovers.  A Joel Klatt fumble quickly resulted in a score, and Benson put the game out of reach with a six-yard run after Texas’ Michael Griffin picked off a deflected Klatt pass.  Two drives totaling just 37 yards made the score 28-7 midway through the third quarter.

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Now What?

After the dismantling by Texas, the players and coaches all talked about moving forward.  “Possibly going to a bowl game is one bright spot,” said cornerback Terrence Wheatley, “We can still prove to people that we are not the team they think we are, and make a turn-around in the next three games.”

Echoed quarterback Joel Klatt: “Our goal is to beat Kansas. We know that we have some things that we need to fix, but our goal is to go out and beat Kansas and see where things go from there.”

There seemed little to do but look ahead, as looking back showed four losses in the past five games.  A bowl bid, such a certainty at 3-0, looked less likely for a 4-4 team – which finished with two of its final three games on the road.

If it was any consolation, the Buffs at least were not the only Big 12 North team with problems.  Nebraska lead the division at 5-3 (3-2 in conference play), but had been blown out by Kansas State, 45-21, and completely mauled by Texas Tech, 70-10.  Missouri was 4-4 (2-3) after losing to Nebraska, 24-3.  Iowa State was also 4-4, (2-3), but the Cyclones wins were over lightweights Northern Iowa and Northern Illinois, combined with a one-point conference win over Baylor and a six-point win over Kansas.  Kansas State was perhaps the biggest disappointment, at 3-5 (1-4).  The Wildcats had a win over Nebraska, but the defending Big 12 Champions had lost to every other conference opponent they had faced.

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Game Nine … 

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.

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“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.”

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Game Ten … 

November 13th – Boulder          Colorado 38, Kansas State 31

The stakes were not as high.  It was not  No. 7 Colorado versus No. 4 Michigan in front of 106,427 fans and a national television audience.

Instead, it was 5-4 Colorado versus 4-5 Kansas State in front of 46,502 fans and no television coverage.

But the yardage was the same.

And – importantly to the Buff Nation – the results were the same.

Ten years after Kordell Stewart hit Michael Westbrook for a 64-yard touchdown and a 27-26 win over Michigan, Joel Klatt hit Ron Monteilh for a 64-yard touchdown and a 38-31 win over Kansas State.  The score came with five seconds remaining, culminating a wild finish which witnessed a total of 35 fourth quarter points.

The contest started out well for the Buffs, with Colorado taking a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.  Joel Klatt scored on a one-yard run, and Mason Crosby connected from 51 yards out to give Colorado the advantage.  The Wildcats came right back, however, mirroring the Buffs with a one-yard run by running back Darren Sproles, and a 52-yard field goal by Joe Rheem to tie the score 10-10 just before halftime.

Colorado seemingly took control of the game in the third quarter.  Bobby Purify, who rushed for 155 yards on the day, scored from three yards out early in the third, giving the Buffs a 17-10 advantage.  Later in the stanza, Klatt hit tight end Joe Klopenstein for a five-yard score and a 24-10 Colorado lead.  The Buffs held that advantage into the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the fantastic finish.

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Senior Day

I was going to write a Letter to the Editor.

The Monday before the Kansas State game, I went online, found the website for the school newspaper, The Colorado Daily, (a/k/a The “Daily Pravda” when I was in school), and looked for a link to letters to the editor. I wanted to send an open letter to the 12,000 student season ticket holders.  The Colorado student section, criticized virtually every season for showing up late for games, as well as for demonstrating indifference to the game’s outcome when they did show up, had stepped up in 2004.  The student allotment had been sold out, an impressive statement after an off-season which could only be described as tumultuous. It spoke well, in my opinion, of the commitment of the students towards the program.  The student section had been loud and proud in the season-opening win over Colorado State.

By the time of the Texas game, however, the situation had changed.  The Colorado student section was back to showing up late, so much so that I couldn’t help but remark to Brad before Ralphie came out onto the field before the Longhorn contest.  “Look at the endzone,” I commented.  There, you could see almost three full sections of empty seats.  One section would ultimately be occupied by the band, which was still on the field, and the remaining two sections would largely fill up during the first quarter.

“How hard must it be for these athletes,” I went on, “to put in as many hours as they do, only to run out onto the field facing empty seats every week?”

The reason I wanted to write to the Daily the week before the Kansas State game was straightforward – for Bobby Purify.  “Show Up For Bobby” was to be the title of my letter.  I wanted to ask the 12,000 students to not only show up for the Kansas State game, but to show up early.  Surely, there would be an introduction at the beginning of the game for Bobby Purify and the remaining ten Colorado seniors.  How nice would it be to have the seniors introduced before a loud – and full – student section?

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Game Eleven … 

November 26, 2004 – at Nebraska          Colorado 26, Nebraska 20

Senior running back Bobby Purify ran for 130 yards and a touchdown as Colorado stayed alive in the Big 12 title hunt with a 26-20 win over Nebraska in Lincoln.  As much the story of the day, though, as Colorado’s third straight win, was the loss which sent the 5-6 Cornhuskers to its first losing season in 43 years.

The Buffs, who have a long history of having the Cornhuskers jump out on top, set the tone early.  Nebraska recovered an onsides kick to start the game (try and remember the last time the Cornhuskers felt the need to do that!), but could not move the ball, punting after three plays.  Taking over at their own ten-yard line, the Buffs moved 90 yards in 14 plays, with Joel Klatt hitting sophomore wide receiver Blake Mackey for a six-yard touchdown.   A Mason Crosby 37-yard field goal and a nine-yard Bobby Purify scoring run pushed the Colorado advantage to 17-0 early in the second quarter.

Nebraska responded with a two-yard touchdown run by quarterback Joe Dailey, but a Mason Crosby 39-yard field goal put the Buffs up 20-7 as time expired in the second quarter.  Two Crosby field goals in the third quarter upped the lead to 26-7, and the 77,661 on hand, the 268th consecutive sell-out for Nebraska, could only sit and watch the carnage.

With the game well in hand, the Buffs allowed the Cornhuskers to make the contest interesting in the game’s final minutes.  An ill-advised pass by Joel Klatt was intercepted and returned to the Colorado four-yard line.  A touchdown pass from Dailey to Steve Kriewald ensued, making the score 26-13 with 3:53 remaining.  A second four-yard scoring pass, this time from Dailey to Ross Pilkington, came with 1:38 left.   The score at 26-20, Nebraska failed in its attempt at its third onside kick of the day, and the Buffs ran out the clock for the win.

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Payback

There is always something special about beating Nebraska.  The 1986 20-10 game lives on so vividly in my memory that it may as well have been played yesterday.  Only six times (plus one tie) in my 25 years as a Colorado fan had the black and gold emerged victorious over the Husker Nation.  Now Colorado had wins in three of the past four years over the Cornhuskers.  Had the joy faded?  Had the enjoyment been diminished?

Not a chance.

What made the 26-20 win over Nebraska special in 2004 was what it meant in historical terms.  Always the stats junkie, I can’t watch a Colorado game without there being some reference to other games; other players; other seasons.  But this win also represented payback.  The 5-5 Cornhuskers needed a win to become bowl-eligible.  The same scenario had faced the Buffs in 1997 and 2003.  Both seasons came down to the Nebraska game. A win, and Colorado would play on.  A loss, and the season was over.

The results?

1997: Nebraska 27; Colorado 24.  The Buffs finish at 5-6, CU’s first losing season since 1984; first bowl-less season since 1987.

2003: Nebraska 31, Colorado 22.  Colorado stayed home for the holidays with a 5-7 record.

After the Kansas State win, two weeks before the Nebraska game, I was on the phone with Randy.  “Bowl-freakin’-eligible!!” I kept repeating about the now 6-4 Buffs.  Colorado would not have to go to Lincoln in need of a win to play in the post-season.  No possible repeats of the disappointments of 1997 and 2003.  How great was that?

Apparently it was not so great, at least not to others.  Randy pointed out a few days later that in all of the articles he had read online about the Colorado/Kansas State game, very little mention was made of the “bowl-eligibility” of the Buffs.  Attention still focused on winning the Big 12 North, and all the permutations it would take to make that a reality.  Yes, I conceded, bowl-eligibility was not the focus when loftier goals were still obtainable, but I was soooo relieved that it was the other guys – the Cornhuskers, of all people – who would need the win to go bowling.

Now, with the victory in hand, the 7-4 Buffs and their fans were riveted to their televisions, watching the drama unfold between Missouri and Iowa State. There was time to reflect on the enormity of the Buffs’ win.  Or, more precisely, there was time to reflect on the enormity of the Cornhuskers’ loss.

First and foremost, with the Colorado win, two major milestones halted in Lincoln:  the first losing season for Nebraska since 1961; and the first season without a bowl game since 1968.  They were huge records, and Colorado had played its part in sending the now 5-6 Cornhuskers home for the holidays for the first time since the Johnson administration.

“I feel like it hasn’t really set in all the way yet”, Nebraska junior defensive tackle Titus Adams was quoted as saying after the game.  “I know that it is a shock.  There’s just a lot that’s been going on, and it don’t really feel right.”

There was a great deal of “it don’t really feel right” going on in Husker-land.  Starting in 2002, the walls of the empire had begun to crack:

40 consecutive winning seasons: ended in 2002 with a 7-7 record;

33 consecutive nine-win seasons: ended in 2002;

33 consecutive years ranked in final Top 25: ended in 2002;

348 consecutive weeks ranked in Top 25: ended in 2002;

36 consecutive games unbeaten against Oklahoma State: ended in ‘02;

24 consecutive wins over Missouri: ended in ‘03;

And now:

35 consecutive bowl bids: (an NCAA record): ended in 2004; and

42 consecutive non-losing seasons: ended in 2004.

For Colorado, there were also impressive milestones:

The first back-to-back wins in Lincoln since 1951-53; and

The first stretch of winning three-of-four over Nebraska since winning five out of six between 1956 and 1961.

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Game Twelve … 

Big 12 North Champions

There was reason to cheer for Iowa State the day after the Buffs’ win over Nebraska.  An Iowa State win would give the Cyclones the Big 12 North title, relegating Colorado to a minor bowl bid.  After the Nebraska win, the Buffs were 7-4, on a three-game winning streak, and the darling of the media for the first time in several years.  Why not root for Missouri?  Who wanted to spoil the positives of the last three games with a potentially disastrous confrontation with #2 Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game?

Well, me, for one.

It had bothered me over the past several seasons that Nebraska had gotten too much credit for their 2001 season.  When Frank Solich was fired after the 2003 season, comments were made like: “Nebraska, only two seasons removed from playing for the National Championship … ”.  Then when Bill Callahan was hired, the comments were like: “Callahan will try to restore the Cornhuskers to championship game form from three years ago ……”.

Wait a second.

In 2001, Nebraska got to the National Championship game on a fluke.  The Cornhuskers didn’t even win their own division, much less their own conference.  Humbled by the Buffs, 62-36, Nebraska got to the Rose Bowl against Miami based on obscure computer rankings, only to be shelled. Didn’t anyone remember that Miami was up 34-0 at halftime?  No, it was always, “Nebraska, which played for the national title in 2001 … ”.

Who was to say that Colorado would string together three titles in four years again anytime soon?  Who was to say, what with recruiting restrictions or further scandals, that it might not be years before the Buffs would win another championship?  Who wanted to hear: “Even Iowa State has won a title since the Buffs put a championship season together”?  Not me.  I liked the sound of “three rings in four years”.  I rooted hard for Missouri, though with a few minutes left, it certainly seemed as if Iowa State was going to prevail.  When Missouri pulled it out in overtime, there was time to cheer the Buffs’ title – then it was time to look at the daunting task ahead.

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December 4th – Big 12 Championship – Kansas City          No. 2 Oklahoma 42, Colorado 3

In 2004, the South Division of the Big 12 dominated the North Division.  The North went 3-15 against teams from the South – 0-15 if you didn’t count games against Baylor.

Make that 0-16.

Colorado entered the Big 12 Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City against Oklahoma with every intention of demonstrating that the 22-point spread on the game was inaccurate.  Unfortunately, the Buffs just added fuel to the fire, as the Sooners completely overwhelmed Colorado, 42-3.  Oklahoma scored on its first offensive possession, and never looked back.

Heisman trophy candidates for the Sooners shone, as quarterback Jason White connected on 22-of-29 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns, while freshman tailback Adrian Peterson ran for 172 yards and three more scores.  The game was 28-0 at halftime, with the Sooner faithful spending much of the second half confirming travel plans to Miami, where Oklahoma would be slated to face #1 USC in the Orange Bowl.

The outcome was never in doubt, as Oklahoma scored on its first three possessions.  Meanwhile, the Colorado offense went nowhere.  The Buffs had only three first downs in the game (two by penalty), and, with sacks included, ran for a minus-4 yards on sixteen carries, the fourth worst showing in school history.  Overall, the Buffs managed only 46 yards of total offense, third worst ever, and the worst in 58 years.  The only bright spot was a Mason Crosby 34-yard field goal late in the third quarter, coming after a Lorenzo Sims’ interception.

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Game Thirteen … 

Colorado v. UTEP – Houston Bowl – December 29, 2004

Bowling For Dollars

The Buffs reward for winning the Big 12 North in 2004 was a trip to Kansas City to face No. 2 Oklahoma, one of the most dominant teams in the country.

The result? A 42-3 debacle.

Still, Colorado was still 7-5 on the season, and was still the Big 12 North champions. The winning season merited an invitation to play in the EV1.Net Houston Bowl against the University of Texas, El-Paso (UTEP).

It had appeared that Colorado was going to be heading for the Champs Sports Bowl (formerly the Tangerine Bowl) in Orlando, Florida.  When the BCS final numbers were announced, though, Texas surpassed California in the calculations, sending the Longhorns to the Rose Bowl instead of the Golden Bears.  With Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 earning both earning BCS bids (Oklahoma was slated for the Orange Bowl to play USC), every other Big 12 bowl team moved up a notch, putting the Buffs in Houston.

UTEP was 8-3 under first year head coach Mike Price.  The Miners had won all of six games in the previous three years combined, so the infusion of a new coach had made a great difference.  Price, who had taken Washington State to the Rose Bowl, lost an opportunity to coach at Alabama with a scandal of his own.  After taking a year off from coaching, Price returned to college football to lead UTEP to a seven game improvement over 2003 (2-11 to 8-3).

The Miners not only had a better record than did the Buffs, they made the short trip to Houston with a decent resume.

Losses to bowl bound Arizona State and Boise State were offset by wins over bowl participants Fresno State and Hawaii.  UTEP had run off seven straight wins after starting the season 1-2.  The Miners had a 2,000-yard passer (Jordan Palmer, brother of Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer), and a 1,000-yard rusher in Howard Jackson.

Still, the Houston Bowl was a second-tier bowl.  With little else eye-catching to write about, the national media dubbed the 2004 Houston Bowl “The Redemption Bowl”.  Gary Barnett and Mike Price had both endured scandal, only to emerge with winning teams.

The Houston Bowl was also a trap game for the Buffs.  UTEP had everything to play for – the Miners’ first win over a Big 12 member since 1957 (11 games), the first bowl victory since 1967, and only the third nine-win season in school history.

The Buffs had no such lofty ambitions in mind.  A win would help erase the embarrassment of the Oklahoma game.  It would also serve, as some players were calling it, the first win of the 2005 season.

December 29th – Houston Bowl        Colorado 33, Texas El-Paso 28

Joel Klatt bounced back from a career-worst performance against Oklahoma to throw for 333 yards, leading Colorado to a 33-28 win over Texas El-Paso in the 2004 EV1.Net Houston Bowl.  Mason Crosby contributed four field goals as the Buff held off the Miners late for Colorado’s first bowl win in five years.

After Colorado took an early 3-0 lead, UTEP took control of the contest, holding the lead for almost three full quarters.  Running back Howard Jackson scored on a seven-yard run to cap an eight-play, 80-yard drive to put the Miners up, 7-3, midway through the first quarter.  A Josh Chamois one-yard run made the score 14-3 after the first quarter.

Colorado mounted a comeback in the second stanza.

Freshman running back Hugh Charles scored from a yard out, and Mason Crosby hit a 54-yard field goal to cut the UTEP lead to 14-13, but Jordan Palmer hit Jayson Boyd from 17 yards out to give the Miners a 21-13 halftime advantage.

The second half witnessed a Colorado defensive resurgence, with the Buff defense giving the Buff offense the ball near midfield on three consecutive possessions.  The Colorado offense could not respond, garnering only three points from those three opportunities, making the score 21-16.  A third Mason Crosby field goal, this time from 20 yards out, cut the UTEP lead to 21-19 heading into the fourth quarter.

UTEP seemed in control after scoring early in the fourth quarter to go up 28-19.  But, as the Buffs had done all season, their resiliency showed through.

On the first play after the UTEP touchdown, Joel Klatt hit tight end Joe Klopfenstein on a catch-and-run for a score which covered 78 yards.  Later, Klatt hit Evan Judge from 39 yards out to give the Buffs their first lead since early in the first quarter.  The game-winning drive was kept alive by a fake punt, with punter John Torp covering 22 yards to give the Buffs a first down and much needed momentum.  UTEP had two possessions after the Judge score, but never mounted a serious threat, as the Buffs held on to win, 33-28.

“Everything’s been a fight for us this year,” said Gary Barnett, now 2-2 in bowl games at Colorado.  “We were determined on August 5th (start of fall practice) that we’d be a team that would fight and stay together.”

Two plays turned the tide for the Buffs.

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