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The 1995 Season – A Look Back at Rick Neuheisel’s First Campaign

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 Buffs’ first season under Rick Neuheisel. Hall-of-Fame head coach Bill McCartney had shocked the Buff Nation with his unexpected retirement the previous November, with CU athletic director shocking the Buff Nation once again shortly thereafter with the announcement that quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel would be next head coach.

With great expectations, the Buffs opened the season with a big win over a ranked Wisconsin team on the road, but then had to work their way through five ranked opponents in the final year of the Big Eight. In a season in which CU was a November loss away from finishing fourth in its own conference, the Buffs rallied to a ten-win season and a top-ten national ranking …

The 1995 Season … 

Aftershocks

As Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel set out to prepare for the 1995 season, the nation was still abuzz about Bill McCartney’s surprise announcement to resign, and Athletic Director Bill Marolt controversial decision to hire Neuheisel.

Marolt’s choice to pass over assistant head coach Bob Simmons, who is black, created rumblings of a racial bias against African-American coaches.  Neuheisel was as diplomatic as possible.  “The Rainbow Coalition stance is a respectable stance,” said the Buffs’ new coach about Jesse Jackson’s organization, which had been the most outspoken critic of Neuheisel’s selection.  “I’m just not sure it applies to Colorado.  Just because the coalition believes there should be more black coaches doesn’t mean Rick Neuheisel shouldn’t apply.”

Simmons left the CU program after Neuheisel’s selection, landing the job of head coach at Oklahoma State.  Also gone were the other in-house candidates, Mike Hankwitz and Elliot Uzelac.

In addition to replacing three coaches, Neuheisel faced the daunting task of replacing a host of key players from the 11-1, third-ranked 1994 edition of the Buffs.  Kordell Stewart, the Big Eight’s all-time career offense leader, was gone.  So too was the 2,055-yard rusher and Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam.  If these losses were not enough, Michael Westbrook, CU’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns, was off to the NFL, along with tight end Christian Fauria, the Buffs’ all-time leader for receptions by a tight end.

Nor was the defense spared from losses to the pros.

Thorpe Award winner Chris Hudson was gone, as were defensive tackles Darius Holland and Shannon Clavelle.  In all, ten players were drafted by the NFL, including underclassmen Salaam and Clavelle.

Neuheisel was realistic:  “Any time you lose a senior class that we lost, as well as two prominent juniors, to the NFL, you have a reloading job to do.”

But McCartney had not left the cupboard bare.

Junior Koy Detmer returned with over 1,100 career passing yards already to his credit.  The running game would be led by sophomore Herchell Troutman, who had set the CU freshman scoring record with eight touchdowns in 1994.  The receiving corps remained deep in talent, if not game experience.  Juniors Rae Carruth and James Kidd returned, joined by sophomores Chris Anderson and Phil Savoy.  The offensive line, with three seniors and two juniors starting, looked to be the strongest unit of the offense.  “I promise you we’ll get down the field just as fast as we used to”, said Neuheisel.

The defense returned seven players with starting experience, led by middle linebacker Matt Russell and safeties Donnell Leomiti and Steve Rosga.  Neuheisel brought in A.J. Christoff from UCLA to be his defensive coordinator, and Christoff installed a 4-3 defense to replace the 3-4 of recent years.  “Defensively, it’s to our benefit to increase the pressure on the quarterback”, said Neuheisel.  “We feel that the 4-3 suits this desire.”

The national pre-season magazines were undecided about the Buffs.

“So much talent gone, with an un-tested head coach at the helm”, was the common theme.  How would the returning players react?  Would they jell in time to face a non-conference slate which included games against Wisconsin, Colorado State, and Texas A&M?

The Buffs, who had finished 1994 with only one loss and ranked third in the nation, were ranked in the top ten by only two preseason prognosticators (Sports Illustrated and Sports magazines, which both had the Buffs 8th).  Most rankings were in the 13-16 range, with Athlon feeling the best the Buffs would do was 20th.

The nation, apparently, wanted to see what Neuheisel could do before jumping on his bandwagon.  Colorado’s young coach understood.  “You get a honeymoon period,” noted Neuheisel.  “Then you go into the fishbowl and get labeled.  The question then becomes ‘can you last?’  It’s not what you inherit, it’s what you build.”

The building began with fall drills in August, 1995.

Camp Rick

For his part, Rick Neuheisel, who at 34 was the second youngest head coach in Division 1-A college football (Louisville’s Ron Cooper was all of four days younger), entered Fall Camp, 1995, with optimism and confidence.

“I’m prepared for whatever comes along,” said Neuheisel in a pre-season interview with Sports Illustrated. “But I’m not going to over prepare for failure.”

The safe road would have been to maintain as much continuity in the program as possible. After all, the players in Boulder were talented; the program in high gear. There was no reason to rock the boat.

But the status quo was not Neuheisel.

McCartney had been old-school – a God-fearing, intense, conservative coach. The only trait Neuheisel shared with his predecessor was that of intensity. “I don’t think it’s any less intense around here,” noted running backs coach Ben Gregory, “but it just comes out a little differently.”

During freshman practices, Neuheisel demonstrated his willingness to be his own man. He took the incoming class inner-tubing in Boulder Creek. He canceled practices. He had the Boulder police called to his home when a pre-season party for staff went too long and became too loud. Camp Rick was not a McCartney camp (by contrast, when Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne stepped down after the 1997 season, all the pre-season articles concerning the upcoming 1998 campaign remarked on the lack of change by incoming head coach Frank Solich).

The players seemed to respond well to the changes.

“He’s fun, he’s personable and he’s played the game not too long ago,” said quarterback Koy Detmer. “Obviously they’re different,” noted safety Steve Rosga, comparing McCartney and Neuheisel. “But as far as what we’re doing, I don’t know that there is that much difference than last year.”

Matt Lepsis, who would be trying to fill the shoes of record-setter Christian Fauria at tight end, concluded: “He’s been working us really hard getting us ready for Wisconsin like coach Mac would have. Neuheisel is a little more hands-on, getting involved.”

Baptism by Fire

On September 2, 1995, some of the questions about Rick Neuheisel, head coach, would begin to be answered.

Colorado, which opened the season as the 14th-ranked team in the nation, would go on the road to face the Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin players had plenty to prove themselves. The Badgers had been embarrassed by Colorado, 55-17, in Boulder in 1994, and wanted to let their Big 10 brethren know that they would be a force to reckon with in 1995. What better way to accomplish this by defeating the Buffs in a night game regionally televised by ABC?

The Badgers came into the season opener ranked 21st in the nation.

Over 79,000 fanatical Badger fans poured into Camp Randall Stadium to witness the debut of Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel. Although schedules are made years in advance, commentators could not help but note that Neuheisel would coach his first game as head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.

Pressure?

Nah.

Game One … 

September 2nd – at Wisconsin           No. 14 Colorado 43, No. 21 Wisconsin 7

In the kickoff to the “Neu Era” in Colorado football, the Buffs served notice to the college football world that Colorado could not be taken lightly. Despite losing 10 starters to the NFL, the Buffs dominated the Badgers throughout, taking a 26-7 halftime lead before cruising to a 43-7 romp.

Not a bad entrance, Rick.

Quarterback Koy Detmer showed there was reason to believe he would ably succeed Kordell Stewart at the helm, completing 17-of-24 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns. Rae Carruth hauled in only four of Detmer’s passes, but covered 100 yards in doing so, converting half of his receptions into two first-half scores.

Detmer, for his part, credited the offensive line for his success. “I didn’t have much pressure on me all night”, said the Buffs’ quarterback.

“The offensive line did a great job of keeping those guys out, picking up twists and stunts all night.” Three Buff rushers, dubbed by some in the media as the “Thoroughbred Trio”, combined for 157 yards and one touchdown on 32 carries. Sharing the offensive wealth were sophomore Herchell Troutman (15 carries for 76 yards), junior Marlon Barnes (10-for-48 yards, one touchdown), and junior Lendon Henry (7-33).

On defense, the questions concerning a shaky secondary were also answered. Wisconsin quarterback Darrell Bevell, victimized for four first half interceptions by the Buffs in the 1994 game, fared little better in 1995. Bevell was picked off only once by the Buffs, but could muster only 175 total yards passing, and was sacked five times.

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Game Two … 

September 9th – Boulder                     No. 10 Colorado 42, Colorado State 14

With less than half of the first quarter gone, the Folsom Field scoreboard read:  Colorado 21, Colorado State 0.  In 7:27 of playing time, the Buffs ran out to a quick 21-0 lead, not to be seriously threatened the remainder of the game.

On their first possession of the evening, the Buffs drove 62 yards for a score.  Herchell Troutman carried the ball six times for 37 yards in the drive, including a four yard run to put CU up 7-0 with 10:53 left in the first quarter.  After allowing one first down on the Rams’ next possession before forcing a punt, the Buffs took over at their own four yard line.  Three plays later, highlighted by an 89-yard screen pass and run from Detmer to Troutman, the Buffs were on the board again.  This time the four-yard scoring run was provided by Marlon Barnes.

14-0, Colorado, with 7:42 left in the quarter.

On CSU’s very next play from scrimmage, the game, for all intents and purposes, came to an end.  Ram quarterback Darren Wilkinson dropped back to pass, but was immediately accosted by senior defensive tackle Kerry Hicks.  Hicks stripped the ball away from Wilkinson, falling on the ball in the endzone for a CU score.  21-0, Colorado, and still 7:33 of the first quarter remained to be played.

The Rams did pull within 14 points, 21-7, early in the second quarter, but Barnes scored on another four yard run later in the second to give Colorado a commanding 28-7 lead.  Troutman and Carruth posted Buff scores before a 31-yard scoring pass late gave CSU some respectability and a 42-14 final score.

Koy Detmer again led the Buffs, completing 18-of-26 passes for 255 yards and a score.  In all, the Buffs out-gained CSU 461-331 in total yards.

Despite the easy win, Detmer was not satisfied.  “Certainly it wasn’t the sharpest night we’ve had,” said the Buffs quarterback. “But it’s a win.  We’ll just go into next week and try to get better before the next game.”

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Game Three … 

September 16th – Boulder          No.9 Colorado 66, Northeast Louisiana 14

Class: Get out a fresh piece of paper.

It’s time to start noting all of the new school records set by the Buffs in mauling the Indians of Northeast Louisiana (now Louisiana-Monroe), 66-14.  The point total for the game set a modern record, besting by one the 65 points put up against Arizona back in 1958.

Prior to the Northeast Louisiana “contest”, the highest total offensive output ever by a Buff team in CU football history was 676 yards (v. Oklahoma State, 1971).  The 1995 Buffs obliterated that record, posting 758 yards of total offense.  The 35 points scored in the first quarter tied a school record; the 49 points on the scoreboard at half set a new one.

Get the picture?

Perhaps NLU head coach Ed Zaunbrecher summed it up properly when interviewed the week leading up to the game.  “I’ve been sleeping like a baby all week”, said the Indians’ coach.  “Sleeping for four hours and then waking up and crying the rest of the night.”

Individually, quarterback Koy Detmer quite literally had a field day.  Before leaving the game early in the third quarter, Detmer had tied the team record for passing touchdowns in a game (4) and the school mark for passing yards in a quarter (192).  The 426 yards passing for the game set a new standard, as did his passing yards for a half (352).

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Game Four … 

“Fightin’ Words”

The lopsided win over Northeast Louisiana raised the 3-0 Buffs to No. 7 in the nation.  The next two opponents, though, would show if Colorado’s rise in the polls was merited.

The Aggies of Texas A&M were coming to Boulder for a top ten showdown, the first of Neuheisel’s coaching career.  Undefeated on the young season, Texas A&M featured Heisman-trophy candidates Leeland McElroy at halfback and Corey Pullig at quarterback.  In dominating Tulsa, 52-9, the week before the Colorado game, McElroy accounted for 285 yards of total offense and four touchdowns, while Pullig threw three passes for scores.

Rick Neuheisel, for one, was not intimidated by Texas A&M.

“We (the Colorado coaching staff and players) all have a great deal of respect for (Texas A&M)”, said the Buffs’ head coach.  “But we feel like we’re right with ’em and we’re not going to back down to anybody.  And if those are fightin’ words, so be it.  We’re ready to play Texas A&M.”

 September 23rd – Boulder          No. 7 Colorado 29, No. 3 Texas A&M 21

A Folsom Field record crowd of 53,849 and a national ABC television audience looked on as the Colorado Buffaloes lost their leader in the first quarter, only to have a local boy turn out to be the hero in a huge 29-21 win over Texas A&M.

Back-up quarterback John Hessler, from nearby Brighton, Colorado, was called on to play against the vaunted Aggie defense after starter Koy Detmer went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the first quarter … and Hessler came through.

Hessler, backed by a staunch effort from the defense and some crafty play calling by Neuheisel, finished the day with adequate numbers (10-of-20 passing for 177 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions).  But the real story was how well Hessler, a red-shirt sophomore, stood up to the pressure.  Hessler came into the contest having thrown only 15 passes in his career, none with the first offensive unit.  “It was real nerve-racking when I first went in,” understated Hessler.  “I missed a lot of passes early, but I think Neuheisel had a lot of confidence in me to run the offense.”

How much confidence?

When asked how much of the offensive game plan was used with Hessler, Neuheisel responded:  “Maybe twenty percent.  Twenty percent of the offense that we practiced for the game we kept.”

That twenty percent proved to be enough.

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Game Five … 

Koy Detmer Under the Microscope

Everyone knew shortly after the Texas A&M game was over that quarterback Koy Detmer, whose efforts over the first three games of the season had merited a “Colorado’s Detmer throws his hat into ring” Heisman-watch headline from USA Today (9/18/95), was seriously injured.

What happened?

Detmer:  “It was weird the way it happened.  I went to spin out of the pocket and take off running, but my foot was hung up in the turf and when I pushed, my knee kind of dug way in and just kind of twisted it and shifted the bones a little bit.”

A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury can be career threatening.  But how serious was Detmer’s injury?

Speculation in the media ran from the positive:  “Detmer could return in two weeks” (Buffalo Sporting News, 9/25/95), to the hopeful:  “Detmer optimistic despite knee injury” (Denver Post, 9/24/95), to the negative:  “Detmer may be out for the season” (Rocky Mountain News, 9/24/95).

What was the truth?

“It looks as though if they can brace him and stabilize the knee, he might be able to play”, reported head coach Rick Neuheisel.  “Koy is of the mind that he wants to play …. if he wants to play and is able to play, we’re excited to have him play.”  Neuheisel then added, in a remark which would come back to haunt him a few weeks later:  “If the risks (for additional injury) are significant, he won’t play.”

One issue had been decided … Detmer would not play against Oklahoma.

The job as the starting quarterback now fell to super-sub John Hessler.  Colorado would thus enter its final season as a member of the Big Eight conference with a first time starter at quarterback … on the road … at historic and raucous Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma … before a national television audience on ESPN (the fourth national television appearance in five games for the Buffs) … against the No. 10 team in the country.

An Associated Press article the week leading up to the game was headlined:  “Colorado title hopes on hold“.  If Colorado was to compete for the national and conference titles, though, there were no second chances.  Any loss from here on would severely impact the Buffs chances in the polls and in the standings.

The Buffs could look back on what head coach Rick Neuheisel had said after the Northeast Louisiana game: “You only get 11 shots.”

Fire away, John Hessler.

September 30th – at Oklahoma          No. 4 Colorado 38, No. 10 Oklahoma 17

How did John Hessler do in the pressure-packed game before 75,004 crazed Sooner fans?

Try a new school record for touchdown passes in a game.

In an atmosphere where most Colorado fans were hoping that Hessler would produce an effort sufficient to keep the Buffs in the game, the sophomore delivered five touchdown passes to lead the Buffs to a 38-17 romp over Oklahoma.

Hessler struggled early in the game, but came on to complete 24-of-34 passes for 348 yards.  Oklahoma jumped out to a 10-0 advantage before Hessler caught fire.  Hessler’s first touchdown pass covered 19 yards to Phil Savoy, making it a 10-7 game six minutes into the second quarter.

After another Sooners score, Hessler connected with Rae Carruth from 11 yards out to finish off a 13-play, 71-yard drive to pull the Buffs to within 17-14 at the break. The key play in the drive came on a fourth-and-one at the Oklahoma 13 yard line with 31 seconds left before half. Rather than kick a 30-yard field goal, the Buffs went for the first down, with Hessler picking up the necessary yardage on a quarterback sneak. The very next play was the touchdown toss to Carruth, getting the Buffs back into the game.

In the third quarter, Colorado raced ahead and then pulled away.

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Here is the YouTube video of the game … 

 

Game Six … 

October 7th – Boulder           No. 24 Kansas 40, No. 4 Colorado 24

A funny thing happened on the way to Colorado’s battle with Nebraska for the Big Eight title and the right to play in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.

The schedule called for a game against Kansas.

The Jayhawks, the No. 24 team in the nation, came into Boulder and defeated the Buffs for the first time since 1984, taking down No. 4 Colorado, 40-24.

The Jayhawks served notice early that they were not intimidated by the Buffs or Folsom Field, scoring on a 35-yard field goal on the game’s first drive.  Colorado’s first drive stalled, and after punter Andy Mitchell’s effort was blocked and run in for a touchdown, the Buffs were quickly down 9-0 (the PAT attempt was blocked by Ryan Olson).

Five minutes into the game, Colorado was not looking like a national title contender.

The Buffs did mount a comeback, taking a 14-9 lead late in the first quarter after quarterback John Hessler connected with Rae Carruth (for a 58-yard score) and Chris Anderson (from 17 yards out). Early in the second quarter, though, the Jayhawks retook the lead on a four-yard run.

A CU drive late in the second quarter stalled at the Kansas two yard line, with the Buffs settling for a 19-yard Neil Voskeritchian field goal. The 17-16 Buff lead did not stand up, as the Jayhawks completed an 11-play, 80-yard drive with a two yard touchdown run by June Henley to take a 23-17 halftime advantage.

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Game Seven …

October 21st – at Iowa State           No. 9 Colorado 50, Iowa State 28

Offer college football teams a 22-point win on the road against a conference opponent, and a 50-point total on the scoreboard, and most of those teams would walk away quite content.

Not the Buffs.

Against a 2-5 Iowa State team heading nowhere, Colorado fell asleep at the switch, allowing a 27-10 halftime lead become a 28-27 deficit before rallying for the 50-28 win.  If ever there was a “lucky” three-touchdown win, this was it.

On a blustery 40-degree day, the Colorado passing offense was grounded.  Fortunately, the rushing game responded, picking up a season-high 326 yards, with three Buffs rushing for at least 80 yards.

Iowa State took leads of 7-0 and 10-7 early, with touchdown runs by Herchell Troutman from seven yards out and Lendon Henry from 14 yards giving CU a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter.

After Henry, who had 111 yards on 18 carries on the afternoon, scored on a two yard run with 3:46 to go before halftime, the Buffs were up 21-10.  When senior safety Donnell Leomiti returned a fumble 75 yards for a score with less than a minute before the break, the wind seemingly had been taken out of the Cyclones sails.

Iowa State was not finished, however.

Aided by 20 mph winds in the third quarter, the Cyclones took advantage of a poor Colorado execution.  A punt was blocked out of the endzone for a safety, a second punt traveled only 14 yards, and John Hessler threw an interception.  Iowa State super sophomore sensation Troy Davis, who went for 203 yards on 33 carries, ran for two touchdowns during the Cyclone rally, the second coming with 14:12 remaining in the game to give the Cyclones a 28-27 lead.

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Game Eight … 

October 28th – Boulder          No. 2 Nebraska 44, No. 7 Colorado 21

The largest crowd to ever witness a college football game at Folsom Field, 54,063, watched as the Buffs’ pre-game antics failed to fluster the undefeated Cornhuskers, with 2nd-ranked Nebraska taking out 7th-ranked Colorado, 44-21.

Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel had the Buffs enter through the student section in the southeast corner of the stadium to the beat of a Samoan war drum.  But it was Nebraska which played to the beat of a National Championship cadence, mauling the Buffs to formally eliminate Colorado from the national title chase.

Nebraska played flawlessly, committing neither a turnover nor a penalty, while Colorado was flagged 12 times for 92 yards, losing the ball twice on John Hessler interceptions.  Tommie Frazier passed for a career-high 241 yards and two touchdowns.  “He’s a good player”, conceded Neuheisel.  Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne gave a higher rating, calling Frazier, “a great player who really holds things together.”

The Cornhuskers took the Buffs’ record crowd out of the game early.

After a brief opening drive by Colorado stalled, Nebraska took over at its own 43-yard line.  One play later, Nebraska was on top, 7-0, as Ahman Green took a Tommie Frazier pitch around the left side, eluding all 11 Buff defenders for a 57-yard touchdown run.  Less than two minutes into the contest, the Buffs were behind.

Midway through the first quarter the Buffs re-grouped, pulling even with an 18-yard touchdown pass from John Hessler to sophomore wideout Phil Savoy.

As with the 22-point win over Iowa State the week before, the 23-point loss to Nebraska did not reflect the entire story.  A huge momentum swing took place on the Cornhuskers’ next series.  Ahman Green fumbled, with junior strong safety Kenny Wilkins returning the fumble for a Colorado touchdown.

But wait ….

The officials, contrary to what replays would later clearly show, marked Green down (the error was later admitted by the league offices, but that would be of little consolation to the Buff Nation).  No score for the Buffs; a huge break for Nebraska.  Before the Buffs would score again, the margin was 21-7, Nebraska.  Later, in allowing Nebraska to score a touchdown in the final minute before half for the third time in four years, the Buffs fell behind 31-14 at the break.

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ESPN College GameDay on hand for No. 7 Colorado v. No. 2 Nebraska

Here is the YouTube video of Colorado/Nebraska game … 

Game Nine … 

November 4th – at Oklahoma State          No. 10 Colorado 45, Oklahoma State 32

Each week of the 1995 season, first year Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel faced a new and dramatic challenge.

The calendar said November 4th was the date scheduled for the 6-2 Colorado Buffaloes to face the 2-7 Oklahoma State Cowboys.  Reality and the media, however, knew it was time for Rick Neuheisel v. Bob Simmons, Round One.

Bob Simmons had been Bill McCartney’s choice to succeed him as head coach.  Mike Hankwitz, who had also been passed over for the job, had successfully extracted a measure of revenge as the defensive coordinator for the Kansas Jayhawks, who had previously dispatched the Buffs.

Now it was Simmons’ turn.

Fortunately for the emotionally drained Buffs, Bob Simmons did not have the talent Neuheisel had to work with, and Colorado prevailed, 45-32, behind yet another record-setting performance by quarterback John Hessler.

Hessler, who may have wished to stay behind in the Sooner state when the Colorado plane left Stillwater, completed the sweep of the Oklahoma schools by again throwing for five touchdown passes.  Against Oklahoma in Norman on September 30th, Hessler had set a school and Big Eight record by throwing for five scores.  Five weeks later, the sophomore matched his own record in Stillwater, completing 22-of-31 passes for 301 yards.

But the win did not come easily.

Oklahoma State head coach Bob Simmons and his players put the Buffs on notice early that they had come to play.  OSU won the coin toss, but instead of deferring possession to the second half, the Cowboys chose to take the ball.  The decision paid off ten plays later as OSU took a 7-0 lead on an 18-yard run by running back David Thompson.  It took only five plays for the Buffs to respond, though, with quarterback John Hessler hitting tight end Matt Lepsis for a 52-yard catch and run to tie the score.

The first three quarters saw the teams play to a 24-24 draw.

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Here are YouTube highlights from the game (Bob Simmons show) … 

Game Ten … 

November 11th – Boulder          No. 9 Colorado 21, Missouri 0

In one of its latest Homecoming dates in school history, Colorado played its final home game of 1995 against a struggling 2-7 Missouri squad which was winless in Big Eight play.  A crowd of 50,645 endured some wind gusts of up to 60 mph, but generally enjoyed balmy November temperature readings of over 50-degrees, leaving Folsom Field satisfied with a methodical 21-0 win for the home team.

Quarterback John Hessler, who against Oklahoma State had broken the school record for touchdown passes in a season (the old mark being 12, jointly held by Steve Vogel, Darian Hagan, and Kordell Stewart), added touchdown passes No. 17 and No. 18 for the year, also chipped in a 36-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.  The much-maligned Buff defense chose to strut its stuff against an overmatched Tiger offense, posting its first shutout since a 28-0 win over Oklahoma State in 1992.

After a scoreless first quarter, Hessler hit tight end Matt Lepsis for a one-yard score midway through the second period. Midway through the third quarter, Hessler gave the Buffs some breathing room with a 26-yard touchdown pass to James Kidd. The final score of the day came on Hessler’s 36-yard run, culminating a ten-play, 96-yard drive to remove any doubts about a Missouri comeback.

“You all can’t say any more bad things about our defense,” joked junior linebacker Matt Russell to reporters after the game.  “We finally eliminated some mistakes.  We’d always been playing hard, but when we eliminated our mistakes it turned out to be great for us.”  With the assistance of the wind, Colorado held Missouri to just 230 yards of total offense, a paltry 38 coming through the air.

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Game Eleven … 

 November 18th – at Kansas State          No. 9 Colorado 27, No. 7 Kansas State 17

The series between Colorado and Kansas State dates back to 1912.  The teams had faced each other 50 times previous to the 1995 meeting.

The 51st contest, though, would be special.

The 1995 match-up represented the first time in the long history of the rivalry in which the Buffs had faced a Kansas State squad ranked in the top ten.

An overflow crowd of 42,454 crammed into the 42,000 seats of Kansas State Stadium to try to cheer on the Wildcats to the best school record since the 1910 squad went 10-1.  The game was not decided until the final moments, with 24 of the games 44 total points coming in the final five minutes of the contest.  Fortunately for Colorado fans, it was the Buffs who used some late game magic to earn a 27-17 win and a Cotton Bowl bid.

Colorado dominated much of the game, but could not convert opportunities.

For the day, Colorado out-gained KSU 526-287 in total yards, but two interceptions thrown by John Hessler, two missed field goals by the usually reliable Neil Voskeritchian, and a blocked punt returned by the Wildcats for a touchdown netted the Buffs a 10-10 tie heading into the fourth quarter.

A drive by the Buffs early in the fourth quarter was thwarted by a fumble by Rae Carruth at the Kansas State 11-yard line.  The Colorado defense, which had surrendered only a field goal on the day, stiffened, quickly forced a punt.  The Buffs’ offense, taking over after a short punt on the Kansas State 28-yard line, could manage only three yards of progress before bringing in the field goal unit.  This time Voskeritchian was true from 42 yards out, and Colorado had a 13-10 lead with 5:53 to play in the final Big Eight game ever for both teams.

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Game Twelve … 

Colorado v. Oregon – Cotton Bowl – January 1, 1996

The “Forgotten Bowl”

Colorado had its wish come true.  After losing two conference games early, the best Colorado could hope for was nine wins and a New Year’s Day game.  The win over Kansas State in the regular season finale allowed the Buffs to achieve both goals.

The only problem was, no one seemed to notice.

Dubbed the “Forgotten Bowl”, the Colorado/Oregon match-up represented the first time in 55 years that the Cotton Bowl would be played without a Southwest Conference team.  A lack of interest on the local level was reflected nationwide.  While the two 9-2 teams had much to play for (Colorado needed a win to cement its status as a national power; Oregon was playing for its first 10 win season and top 10 ranking in school history), there was little to spur national attention.

A dreary weather forecast doomed any hope of a decent walkup crowd.  The official attendance for the game turned out to be 58,214 (69,000 capacity), but the crowd shots from the CBS cameras proved that only about half of the sold tickets were utilized.  Oregon at least held up its end, bringing 14,000 fans.  Colorado, however, could muster only 6,000 faithful.

Fortunately for Rick Neuheisel and the Buffs, the extra fans in the stands did not permit Oregon to place additional players on the field.

 January 1st – Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas          No. 7 Colorado 38, No. 12 Oregon 6

Head coach Rick Neuheisel concluded a successful first campaign at Colorado, leading the Buffs to a convincing 38-6 win over 12th-ranked Oregon.  The Buffs notched their 10th win of the season behind a sluggish offense and a turnover-producing defense.  John Hessler threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, but it was the Buff defense which stole the show.

And steal the show it did.

The Colorado defense turned the ball over five times, with none more important than a record-setting 95-yard interception return for a touchdown by freshman cornerback Marcus Washington.  With the Buffs up 7-6 in the second quarter and the Ducks driving, Washington picked off an errant pass from Oregon quarterback Tony Graziani and raced down the sideline in front of his Colorado teammates to put the Buffs up 13-6 (the extra point attempt was missed).

Washington’s heroics turned the momentum over to the Buffs for good.  On the day, Oregon found its way into Colorado territory nine times, but could only post two early field goals.  Players credited defensive coordinator/secondary coach A.J. Christoff with the win.  “Coach Christoff just made the right calls at the right times today,” said Washington, named the game’s defensive MVP.  “All year our defense has been underrated even though we’ve stopped a lot of teams.”

Buoyed by the defensive effort, the offense responded in the third quarter to put the game away.  Colorado scored 19 points in the quarter on a two-yard pass from Hessler to tight end Matt Lepsis, a six yard run by Herchell Troutman (who gained 100 yards on 13 carries on the day) and a 12-yard hookup from Hessler to Phil Savoy.

The fourth quarter was played in a cold rain before few fans, but the 1996 edition of the Cotton Bowl would not be concluded without controversy.  Up 32-6 with five minutes to play, Colorado faced a fourth-and-14 from its 43-yard line.  After seven consecutive running plays, a punt was certainly in order.  Instead, Neuheisel called for a fake punt, with punter Andy Mitchell hitting Ryan Sutter for a 28-yard gain and a first down.  The trick play led to the Buffs’ final score, and some hurt feelings on the Oregon sideline.

First-year Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti gave a stern “no comment” about the play, but Neuheisel was quick to explain.  “We faked the punt …. strictly because they were lined up to block the punt,” said the Buffs’ coach after the game.  “And if you have been following Colorado football, we’ve had five of ‘em blocked.”  Neuheisel concluded with an apology: “I apologize if there are any hard feelings.”

Colorado finished the season 10-2, ranked 5th in the nation.  With undefeated Nebraska destroying Florida 62-24 to claim its second consecutive national championship, and Kansas State and Kansas winning their bowl games to finish ranked 7th and 9th nationally, respectively, the Big Eight could boast half of its membership being in the nation’s top ten as the Big Eight Conference came to a close.

Not a bad way for the Big Eight to go out.

Here is the YouTube video of the 1996 Cotton Bowl … 

Unintended consequences

From USA Today … Phil Knight remembers drinking adult beverages with Mike Bellotti, then head coach of the University of Oregon football team, at a scheduled victory party that felt more like a wake.

Colorado had just buried the Ducks 38-6 in the 1996 Cotton Bowl, and Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike who ran track for Oregon in the late 1950s, had a question for Bellotti.

“What do you need to get the program to the next level?” he asked.

An indoor practice facility, Bellotti replied.

So Knight kicked in almost $10 million to build a facility that protected the Ducks from the elements in rainy Eugene.

“It’s kind of grown from there,” Knight told USA TODAY Sports, adding that he grew intrigued with the notion of helping the program in 1995 after Oregon reached the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958. “I wasn’t really looking at a national championship. I thought we had a chance and could return to the Rose Bowl over a reasonable period of time instead of taking a while.”

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