The 2001 Season – A Look Back

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 10-3 2001 Colorado football season. The Buffs were coming off of a 3-8 season in 2000, and opened the 2001 campaign with an embarrassing home loss to Fresno State. From there, however, the Buffs got their act together, knocking off five ranked teams to claim the Big 12 championship. The wins over No. 2 Nebraska and No. 3 Texas to claim the title rank among the favorites on many a Buff fan’s all-time list …

Preseason – 2001

Coming off of a 3-8 record in 2000, Colorado had to dig deep to find cause for justifiable optimism.

The Buffs tried to put a good spin on the 2000 debacle, pointing out how Colorado had faced the fourth toughest schedule in the nation during the year, including seven bowl teams.  The apologists went on to point out how Colorado had actually led in five of its eight losses, and six of the eight losses were by eight points or less.  A bounce here and a bounce there, the argument went, and who knows how the season may have turned out?

Still, 3-8 was 3-8.

The Buffs’ 2000 record was the worst in 16 years, and the 2001 schedule did not promise any easy wins.

The season opener was against Fresno State in the inaugural Jim Thorpe Classic.  The Bulldogs were predicted to win the Western Athletic Conference.  Up next were the Rams of Colorado State, winners of the previous two Rocky Mountain Showdowns.  In addition to carrying the burden of losing two straight to their in-state rivals, the Buffs knew that the Rams were coming into the game as defending Mountain West Conference champions, with predictions for similar success in 2001.

The remaining non-conference foes, San Jose State and Washington State, were not receiving much national attention, but had the potential to be dangerous.

If Colorado could survive the non-conference slate, the Big 12 was not doing CU any favors, again putting the Buffs in harms way.  After opening the conference campaign against Kansas, the Buffs had to face Kansas State, Texas A&M, and Texas in succession.  All three of those teams figured to be ranked in the national polls.

The good news for the Buffs was that almost everyone who played for Colorado in 2000 returned in 2001.  Only seven seniors who had lettered in 2000 were lost.  At the same time, 16 players made their first career start during the 3-8 campaign (tying for third most in the last 17 seasons), and ten true freshmen saw action in 2000, the most in CU history since at least the early 1950’s.

Leading the Buffs’ offense was sophomore quarterback Craig Ochs.

Named starter midway through the 2000 season, Ochs set numerous freshman records in passing for 1,778 yards and seven touchdowns.  The running game had a number of talented backs, led by senior Cortlen Johnson and freshman Marcus Houston.  Houston had dazzled in his first three games in 2000 before being injured, and had been granted a medical red-shirt year.  The medical red-shirt meant that Houston would still have four years of eligibility remaining to play for Colorado. If Houston was not ready to return to form, Bobby Purify and Chris Brown were primed to make names for themselves.

The receiving corps would be manned by seniors John Minardi, Roman Hollowell, and Cedric Cormier.  Minardi was expected to see the most passes, while Hollowell’s primary contributions would come by way of kickoff and punt returns.  The wideouts would be complimented by senior tight end Daniel Graham.  Graham already possessed numerous team receiving records, and was poised to pass his position coach, Jon Embree, for several more.

The offense, though, would only go as far as the offensive line could carry it.

Thin and inexperienced in 2000, the line was anchored by All-Big 12 and All-American candidate guard Andre Gurode (the Buff senior was listed on no fewer than five preseason All-American teams, as was listed as a preseason candidate for the Nagurski Award, given annually to the nation’s top interior lineman).  Fellow senior Victor Rogers lined up next to Gurode at tackle, spearheading a line which looked to be much improved from 2000.

The defense was led by pre-season All-American linebacker Jashon Sykes.

Sykes had made second-team All-American as a sophomore before slumping in 2000.  Sykes came into the 2001 campaign ready to show his detractors that he was a talent who could play on Sundays in the future.  To assist Sykes was a defensive front led by senior defensive tackle Justin Bannan, while senior safety Michael Lewis took on the task of leading the suspect secondary.

In 2000, Colorado’s defense had surrendered an average of 422.1 yards per game, 2nd worst in the Big 12, and a lowly 99th in the nation.  For the Buffs to improve, the defense would have to step up.

Colorado’s head coach Gary Barnett chose to see the Buffs’ cup as half full.

At a meeting of Big 12 coaches in Dallas in July, Barnett was asked if he felt his team could rebound and be considered as a dark-horse for the league title.  “Naw, we’re better than a dark-horse,” Barnett replied.  “We’re a contender.  We fully expect to be back in Dallas on December 1st (for the Big 12 Championship game).”  Barnett conceded that his prediction would raise some eyebrows, suggesting, “Now that’s a sound bite.”

Barnett carried his bold statement a step further, taking senior captains Andre Gurode and Michael Lewis, who were on hand for the media event, on a tour of Texas Stadium, site of the league title game, before returning to Boulder.

Nationally, the prognosticators either believed Barnett, or allowed the Buffs to live off of the goodwill of the past decade.  Despite coming off of a 3-8 season, the Buffs nearly cracked the 2001 preseason poll, coming in with enough votes to be listed at 27th.

Overall, the Florida Gators received enough support to be tabbed as the No. 1 team in the nation, but Miami was right behind.  In fact, Miami received more first place votes than Florida (33-20), but was listed at No. 2 based on overall points.  Defending national champion Oklahoma was picked to be the No. 3 team in the nation, receiving ten first place votes, followed closely by two Big 12 rivals.  Nebraska came in at No. 4 (four first place votes), with Texas being ranked No. 5 (five first place votes).  The only other Big 12 team to receive national recognition in the preseason poll was Kansas State, ranked 13th.

In addition to Nebraska, Texas, and Kansas State, the only team on Colorado’s 2001 schedule ranked in the preseason poll was Colorado State, tabbed as the 24th-best team in the nation.  As a result, while it was a tough slate, the Buffs’ 2001 schedule seemed easier than the one which had led to four opening losses in 2000.  In fact, a 5-0 opening run prior to hitting the KSU, Texas, Texas A&M trifecta seemed plausible.

It was a new year.  The Buffs had a stable full of returning talent.  The schedule was less arduous.  Perhaps the No. 27 ranking wasn’t out of line.  Perhaps there was reason for optimism.

Then the Buffs played their first game …

Game One … 

The Jim Thorpe Classic

The Buffs were anxious to play a 12th game in 2001- anything to get the season started, and put behind them the 3-8 nightmare which was the 2000 campaign.

The inaugural Jim Thorpe Classic provided such an opportunity.

The game was designated to honor the legendary Thorpe, who had starred in college at Carlisle Indian School in 1912 and 1913 before going on to help bring recognition to the fledgling National Football League.  The Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back since its inception in 1986, had a special place in the hearts of Buff fans.  Colorado had already had two winners of the award, with Deon Figures claiming the prize in 1992, followed by Chris Hudson in 1994.

The Buffs’ opponent for the game was Fresno State.  The Bulldogs were in search of respect.  In order to bring attention to his program, head coach Pat Hill scheduled ambitiously.  In addition to the Buffs, Fresno State would in 2001 play non-conference games against Oregon State and Wisconsin.  The Beavers were ranked No. 11 in the preseason poll (and ranked No. 1 by Sports Illustrated in its preseason picks), while Wisconsin was ranked No. 22.  On paper, the Buffs appeared to be the Bulldogs’ best chance at an upset.

August 26th – Boulder           Fresno State 24, Colorado 22

The CU Buffs kicked off the 2001 season in inauspicious fashion, turning the ball over five times in falling to Fresno State, 24-22.  The most costly turnover came with 3:32 remaining in the game and CU trailing 24-22.  On third-and-goal on the Bulldogs’ two-yard line, quarterback Craig Ochs threw an ill-advised pass in the direction of fullback Brandon Drumm.  The pass was intercepted by cornerback Devon Banks, and the Buffs fell in their season opener for the third consecutive year under Gary Barnett.

Barnett called the play “a good, safe, run-pass option … Craig tried to force it.  Just throw it away; we line up, kick a field goal and go up 25-24.”  Instead, the Buffs fell for the ninth time in 12 games.  “I committed the cardinal sin,” said Ochs.  You never throw an interception in the red zone.”

Still, the Buffs would not have been forced to rely on a late score had the first 56 minutes of the game not been a comedy of errors.  Four Buff turnovers led to 17 points for Fresno State.

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Circle the Wagons

The loss to Fresno State was a tough one to take for the Buff players and fans.  It was even harder on head coach Gary Barnett.  The criticism came quickly, and it was ruthless.

Woody Paige, columnist for The Denver Post, called Barnett and his offensive coordinator Shawn Watson “daft and dumb”.  Recalling the squib kick against Nebraska which had led to a last second loss in the Buffs’ last game, Paige noted, “The CU coaches obviously didn’t go to summer school and take smart pills.”

The Denver Rocky Mountain News columnist Bernie Lincicome chimed in: “Colorado lost, and deserved to lose.  Colorado lost stupidly.  Colorado lost early.  Colorado lost late.  If there were other ways to lose, they would have, but time ran out.”

The Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla was even more harsh, stating the Buffs’ season, before Labor Day had hit on the calendar, was already “on the brink of disaster.”  Kiszla went on to report: “Some of us are seriously beginning to wonder if Colorado made a huge error in hiring Barnett, because the third-year coach repeatedly proves himself far better at making lame excuses than producing meaningful victories.”  Kiszla finished his column with a prediction.  “Either he must beat the Rams, or Barnett must go.”

While no one in the Colorado athletic department was giving such an ultimatum to Barnett, it was clear that a loss to Colorado State would end the speculation as to whether the 3-8 season just past was an aberration.  Barnett, for his part, was trying in vain to put the game in perspective.  When discussing the CSU game, Barnett said, “We can’t let Fresno State beat us twice.  We have to bounce back from this.”

Game Two … 

September 1st – at Denver                        Colorado 41, No. 24 Colorado State 14

For a change, it was Colorado who seized early momentum in a big game.

Junior cornerback Donald Strickland returned an interception for a touchdown in the first minute of play to set the tone as the Colorado dominated No. 24 Colorado State, 41-14.

Playing before 75,022 at the new Invesco Field at Mile High, the Buffs’ secondary, which had given up big plays to the Rams in two consecutive losses, came up with four interceptions on the afternoon, returning two for scores.  “They got a brief glimpse of the defense you are going to see this season,” said Strickland.

To compliment a dominating defense, the CU offense clicked on all cylinders.

Bobby Purify and Chris Brown both rushed for career highs, leading the Buffs to over 300 yards of rushing offense for the first time in almost six seasons.  Purify put up 191 yards alone, including an 18-yard scoring run in the first quarter to put the Buffs up 14-0.  Brown contributed 121 yards and two short-yardage scores.  With the Buffs crunching out 315 yards of rushing offense, quarterback Craig Ochs only had to be efficient in the passing game, and he was, connecting on 15 of his 18 passes.

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Game Three … 

 September 8th – Boulder            Colorado 51, San Jose State 15

Colorado demonstrated that the convincing victory over Colorado State was no fluke, amassing 560 yards of total offense in dominating San Jose State, 51-15.  Sophomore Chris Brown scored three touchdowns in leading the Buffs’ balanced attack.  In all, CU, improving to 2-1 on the young season, put up 297 yards through the air and 263 yards on the ground.

“Our plan was just to go out and run the ball first and see how they were going to adjust to that,” said Gary Barnett.  “All we wanted to do was turn around and hand the ball off.”  The Buffs did just that, carrying the ball 55 times on the day.

In the first quarter, Chris Brown had scoring runs of twelve and five yards, while Bobby Purify contributed a 30-yard score to put the Buffs up 21-0 in the first quarter, effectively ending any doubt as to the final outcome.

… Continue reading story here …

September 15th – at Washington State          Cancelled

It was supposed to be a test.

Two teams who had struggled in 2000 were to use the September 15th match-up to make a statement to the rest of the college football world that they were back.  Colorado was 2-1 on the young season, coming off of two dominating performances.  Washington State was 2-0, shaking off the effects of a 4-7 campaign in 2000 with two easy wins over local rivals Idaho and Boise State.

Both teams wanted to use the game as a springboard to the national consciousness and to spark nervousness among those teams in the upper echelons of their respective conferences.

Neither would get the chance.

September 11, 2001, intervened.

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Game Four …

September 29th – Boulder             Colorado 27, Kansas 16

“The first thing you have to say,” said a relieved Gary Barnett after his Buffs had finally put away the Kansas Jayhawks, 27-16, before 47,495 on a beautiful fall afternoon in Boulder, “is that it looked like we took two weeks off.”

For much of the game, the 2001 Buffs looked like their much-maligned 2000 counterparts.  Dropped passes, mental errors, and penalties – especially the penalties – kept Kansas in the game until very late in the second half.

The game started out well enough for the Buffs.

After spotting Kansas an opening field goal, Colorado marched smartly down the field, covering 80 yards in eight plays, completing the scoring drive when Chris Brown scored from seven yards out to give Colorado a 7-3 lead.  The Buffs’ second drive was equally impressive before it stalled inside the Kansas ten yard line.  Jeremy Flores connected on a 22-yard field goal to put the Buffs up 10-3.

With two drives resulting in two scores, it seemed like the Buffs would be able to score at will, and another 41-14 or 51-15 score appeared imminent.

Instead, for the next two quarters, the Buffs became their own worst enemy.

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Game Five … 

October 6th – at Kansas State         Colorado 16, No. 12 Kansas State 6

The Buff players handed 3rd-year head coach Gary Barnett his first big win as CU head coach, manhandling 12th-ranked Kansas State, 16-6.

The Buffs allowed only a late fourth-quarter touchdown to a team which had torched the Sooners for 37 points in Norman a week earlier.  In moving to 2-0 in Big 12 play, the Buffs made a statement.  “I felt like we dominated them all around,” said CU redshirt-freshman defensive tackle Brandon Dabdoub.  “I think we showed the Big 12 and the whole country we’re for real.”

The Buffs’ defense limited the Wildcat offense to just 196 total yards.  Kansas State quarterback Eli Roberson, who passed for 257 yards against Oklahoma, hit just 10-of-29 passes for 107 yards and two interceptions.  He was also sacked six times by the Buffs, including two sacks each by sophomore defensive end Matt McChesney and junior defensive end Tyler Brayton.

But the Buffs’ offense was merely adequate against the Kansas State defense, which entered the game ranked eighth nationally.  Quarterback Craig Ochs connected with tight end Daniel Graham from 21 yards out in the second quarter to give the Buffs a 7-0 halftime lead. Graham’s circus catch would be the only contact the Buffs would have with the Wildcat endzone on the day.  It was then left to Jeremy Flores to extend the lead, hitting on field goals of 31, 20, and 22 yards.

Flores’ last field goal came with 2:37 left in the game, and capped a final flourish by the Buffs which was indicative of their play on the day.

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Game Six … 

October 13th – Boulder          No. 20 Colorado 31, No. 25 Texas A&M 21

Ranked for the first time in season under Gary Barnett, the 4-1 Buffs endured a late Texas A&M rally to defeat the Aggies on Homecoming weekend, 31-21.

With less than a minute to play, the Aggies trailed only 24-21 and had the ball deep in CU territory.  A game-tying field goal attempt seemed imminent.  Then linebacker Joey Johnson, making his second start in place of injured star Jashon Sykes, scooped up a fumble by Aggie quarterback Mark Farris and returned the ball 52 yards for the deciding points.

With six minutes remaining, the Buffs seemed to have the game well in hand.

Up 24-14, Colorado marched the ball into A&M territory.  Taking time off the clock with a balanced attack which would net 353 yards on the afternoon, victory seemed secure.  On a third down in A&M territory, however, quarterback Craig Ochs threw an interception, giving the Aggies the ball and new life.

It took only two plays and 21 seconds for A&M to score to cut the Colorado lead to 24-21 with five minutes still remaining to play.  The Buffs were not able to run the remaining time off of the clock on their next possession, and the Aggies took over on their own nine-yard line with two minutes left.

Farris marched the Aggies quickly down the field, and had A&M on the edge of field goal range when a blitz by linebacker Kory Mossoni forced the Farris fumble.

“It was getting ugly out there for a while at the end,” Johnson said.  “We were definitely on our heels.”

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Game Seven … 

October 20th – at Texas          No. 9 Texas 41,  No. 14 Colorado 7

Looking to secure their return to the national spotlight, the Colorado Buffaloes instead stumbled badly, falling to No. 9 Texas in Austin, 41-7.

With the loss, the Buffs absorbed their worst drubbing since a 52-7 disaster against Nebraska on Halloween, 1992.  Freshman Longhorn running back Cedric Benson rushed for 100 yards and two scores as Texas cruised to 425 yards of total offense.

Three first half turnovers and a missed field goal from short range doomed the Buffs to a long afternoon.  Still, Colorado was down only 17-7 late in the second quarter.  Senior quarterback Bobby Pesavento started for injured Craig Ochs, who was out with recurring symptoms from a concussion suffered a month earlier. For his part, Pesavento was efficient if not effective.

The Buffs, despite the turnovers, had moved the ball, and had put up a nine-yard scoring run by Cortlen Johnson to make the score 10-7 in the second quarter.

With just under two minutes to play in the first half, though, the game changed for good.

Texas was up, 17-7, but was pinned inside its five-yard line.  The Longhorns seemed content on going into halftime with a ten-point lead, when a safe screen pass to Cedric Benson turned into a fifty-yard gain.  A few plays later, Benson scored from four yards out, and the rout was on.

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Game Eight … 

October 27th – at Oklahoma State          No. 25 Colorado 22, Oklahoma State 19

Against Oklahoma State, Colorado continued what was becoming an agonizing pattern for the 2001 season: play well early; let the opposition control the game for a significant portion of the mid-section of the game; then finish with a flourish.

The formula had worked well against Kansas, Kansas State, Texas A&M, and now was a successful formula against the Cowboys.  The net result was a hard-fought 22-19 win in Stillwater.

… The fourth quarter, while tense, was dominated by the Buffs.

The Colorado defense gave up drives which entered Buff territory, but did not surrender any more points.  Twice Oklahoma State was forced to give up the ball on downs, and Buff safety Michael Lewis contributed an interception on a ball tipped by teammate Kory Mossoni.

The game’s winning points came with 5:55 remaining, as Bobby Pesavento hit tight end Daniel Graham from 21 yards out to put the Buffs up 20-19.  Two unsportsmanlike penalties – one for Graham spiking the ball, the other for tackle Victor Rogers removing his helmet – put the Buffs at the 33-yard line.  With nothing to lose, the Buffs went for two points.  Bobby Pesavento proceeded to hit Derek McCoy alone in the end zone for the 22-19 final.

“That was a struggle and a fight,” said Gary Barnett after the game.  “We overcame what we were doing to ourselves (including 13 penalties for 112 yards).”

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Game Nine … 

November 3rd – at Boulder          No. 25 Colorado 38, Missouri 24

Colorado spotted the Missouri a 14-0 second quarter lead before roaring back to take a 38-24 win at home over the Tigers.  Bobby Pesavento, Cortlen Johnson, Bobby Purify, and Roman Hollowell each took turns leading the Buffs, who improved to 7-2 overall, 5-1 in the Big 12.

Bobby Pesavento completed 16-of-19 passes in the first half for 252 yards and two scores to lead the Buffs to a 17-14 halftime lead.  In the second half, Pesavento threw just three passes, as CU’s strong running game took over.  Cortlen Johnson carried the ball 11 times for 102 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, while Bobby Purify contributed 92 yards and a 31-yard score.  In all, the Buffs posted 499 yards of total offense.

Still, the game was close throughout.

In the first half, the Buffs turned the ball over three times and missed two field goal attempts, keeping the Tigers in the game.  When a Pesavento pass to Daniel Graham was picked off by MU defensive back Kevin Johnson and returned 59 yards for a 14-0 Missouri lead, the Buffs’ statistical advantage was of little consolation.

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Game Ten … 

November 10th – at Iowa State                    No. 21 Colorado 40, Iowa State 27

Senior tailback Cortlen Johnson became the first player in CU history to have over 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game, leading the Buffs to a 40-27 win over Iowa State.  Johnson had 27 carries for 172 yards and six catches for 105 yards in leading the Buffs to a showdown with Nebraska for the Big 12 North Division championship.

After Colorado opened the scoring on the first of four Jeremy Flores’ field goals, the Buffs fell behind an opponent for the fifth consecutive week.  Cyclone quarterback Senaca Wallace passed and rushed for scores to give Iowa State 7-3 and 14-10 leads.

A four-yard touchdown pass from Bobby Pesavento to Cedric Cormier combined with two Flores’ field goals to give the Buffs a 16-14 lead late in the second quarter, setting up Johnson for some late first half heroics.

Taking over on their 19-yard line with under two minutes to play in the first half, the Buffs methodically moved the ball to midfield.  With just 15 seconds to play, quarterback Bobby Pesavento hit Johnson on a screen pass.  The senior tailback made excellent use of his blocking, winding his way 50 yards for a touchdown and a 23-14 halftime lead for the Buffs.  The play of the game, played before a national television audience on FoxSportsNet, helped Johnson secure national player of week honors in The Sporting News.

“He’s an amazing football player,” said Pesavento of Johnson.  “He’s hands down the best football player on this team.  I knew he was playing good, but when he broke that screen pass for a touchdown, I knew it would be an awesome day.”

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“Seems like old times”

For the previous month, the party line for coaches and players was consistent.  “We still have everything we have been playing for if front of us”.  That was true in only the strictest of interpretations.  Sure, if Colorado beat Oklahoma State, Missouri, and Iowa State in succession, the game against Nebraska would be for a berth in the Big 12 title game.

After the disaster in Austin, though, that seemed like fantasy.

Yet, in the visiting locker room after the 40-27 win over Iowa State, the unlikely had become true.  Despite trailing all three opponents after the Texas loss, Colorado had rallied to win each game, twice by double digits.

“Seems like old times”, screamed a euphoric Eric Bieniemy in the locker room.  Bieniemy, who had been a senior running back for the Buffs the last time Colorado had defeated Nebraska, was now the Buffs’ running backs coach.  For the first time since 1996, the Colorado/Nebraska game would have title implications for both teams.

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Game Eleven … 

No. 14 Colorado v. No. 2 Nebraska – November 23, 2001

Nebraska – Pre-game

Everyone who knows me knows that when it comes to CU football games, I am a “glass is half empty” fan.  I can usually find a dozen reasons to worry about any opponent the Buffs face.  If you had asked me the week of the San Jose State game whether I was concerned, I would have countered with details of a  team with a Heisman candidate in Deonce Whittaker and a 7-5 2000 record.  The best you can usually get out of me before a game in terms of a prediction is that I am “cautiously optimistic”.

For some reason, though, the Nebraska game was different.  Where the confidence came from, I can’t say, but I just knew the Buffs were going to win.  Before I left Bozeman for the game, I asked my wife, Lee, to tape the game.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the Buffs were just re-entering the national stage, and seeing the Buffs on television was still something of a novelty, I taped a number of games.  Since the ‘94 season, though, I hadn’t taped a single game.  For some reason, though, I knew before I left Montana that I wanted a tape of this game.

My outward confidence continued on gameday.  At a tailgate party before the game, Randy and I caught up with fellow season ticket holders Brad and Scott.  Scott is my opposite when it comes to predictions.  For him, the glass is always half full.  When he asked for my prediction, he was shocked at my answer.  “That’s the kiss of death”, he muttered, certain that my change of attitude would doom the Buffs.

Perhaps my greatest show of confidence came as we were walking into the stadium.  Friends Tony and Julie were also going to the game, but the tickets I had obtained for them were in the bowl of the stadium.  Tony asked where we should meet after the game.  “The twenty-yard line”, I responded.  When asked to repeat my response, I assured Tony he had heard correctly.  “The twenty-yard line”, I repeated.  Thirty minutes before kickoff, I was so confident that the Buffs would not only win, but that we would be able to participate in the post-game celebration down on the field, that I didn’t allow for any additional possibilities.

It would be up to the Buffs to make me a prophet.

“CU on the 20-yard line” … Buffs reward my confidence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 November 23rd – Boulder               No. 14 Colorado 62, No. 2 Nebraska 36

The Colorado Buffaloes exorcised a decade’s worth of demons in one afternoon as the Buffs demolished the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 62-36, before a raucous crowd of 53,790 and a national television audience. No. 14 Colorado scored early and often against the nation’s No. 2 ranked team (No. 1 in the BCS standings), posting the highest point total ever allowed by a Nebraska team.

Chris Brown rushed for 198 yards and a school record six touchdowns to lead the long list of Buff heroes.  Bobby Pesavento completed only nine passes, but they went for 202 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Graham.  To compliment Chris Brown, Bobby Purify rushed 20 times for 154 yards and a score.  In all, Colorado put up 582 yards of total offense, including 380 yards on the ground against a defense which had been allowing only 93 yards/game entering the contest.

First Half

In the most recent Colorado/Nebraska games, it was the Cornhuskers who habitually started quickly.  In fact, in the past 11 games between the Buffs and the Cornhuskers, Nebraska had scored a touchdown within the first four minutes of game time a mind-numbing seven times.  For the Buffs, who had lost the last five games to Nebraska by a total of only 15 points, a quick start was imperative.

Mission accomplished.

Nebraska took the opening kickoff, and on the first play from scrimmage, sophomore linebacker Sean Tufts tackled Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch behind the line for a three-yard loss.  Two plays later, the Cornhuskers were forced to punt.

Advantage, Colorado.

On third down after taking possession, the Buffs hit on what may have been the most important play of the early going.  Bobby Pesavento hit wide receiver Matt Brunson for a 26-yard completion to the Cornhusker 39-yard line.  The play was significant as the Buffs, rather than give the ball back to the Nebraska offense, kept the ball and the early momentum.  On the very next play, Bobby Purify dashed up the middle through a gaping hole for a 39-yard touchdown.  7-0, Colorado.  12:17 left in the first quarter.

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Postgame

Of all the records set on the day, the number 62 received the most attention.

The 62 points represented the most points ever scored against Nebraska.  Ever.  The previous high was 61 points posted by Minnesota in 1945.  “You never think it will go like this, obviously,” said Gary Barnett.  “But every once in a while, it all works.  Sixty-two points.  That’s almost too overwhelming for me.  It’s going to take a while to sink in.”

The Buffs’ offense had a field day against one of the nation’s best defenses.  But record-setting Chris Brown was quick to credit the offensive line.  “When you have guys up front like we do, who make dominating blocks and open those gaping holes, it makes it very easy for us tailbacks,” said Brown. “All I had to do was run through and get to the end zone.”  Said Barnett of the offensive line: “I don’t know that I’ve seen a more dominating performance from a team at CU.”

Where to go from here?

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Down on the Field

I had not been down on the grass of Folsom Field since the new turf had been laid in 1999.  I had not been down on the field to celebrate a CU win in over a decade.

It felt great to be back.

It took some time to get down to the floor of the stadium.  The students rushed the field as the final seconds ticked off, making quick work of the goal posts.  For us in the 79th row, though, there would be a wait.

No one moved towards the exits.  No one moved at all.

We just stood and watched. And yelled.  And savored.

By the time the four of us – Randy, Brad, Scott, and myself – made it to the stadium floor, many of the celebrants had moved on.  That was fine with us.  I took a run out to the 20-yard line, where I had told Tony and Julie to meet us, just to stomp the grass.  It felt wonderful.  Tony and Julie weren’t there, having more sense than the four of us than to fight there way down to the field, but we did take the time to have our pictures taken with the scoreboard in the background.  (On seeing the pictures later, my wife Lee couldn’t help but remark how the grins on our faces made us look as if we were convinced that we had dispatched the hated ‘Huskers ourselves).

It was sweet.  We caught up with Tony and Julie at the site of our tailgate party, and the celebration began anew with the group assembled there.  Whereas the win over CSU almost three months earlier had brought a sense of relief, this win brought nothing but joy.  62 points – against Nebraska!  It couldn’t possibly get any sweeter than that!  Big 12 North champions after going 3-8!

The bad weather predicted for the game had never materialized.  It was cool, but pleasant.  Still, it was late November, and the sun was long gone.  After a quick beer and a few hugs, it was time to move on.  Everyone was hungry, so we were off to dinner and more celebration.

As we left the tailgate party, we walked in front of my old dorm, Libby Hall, just a few hundred feet from the stadium.  I paused for a moment as the group started off for the parking lot.  I looked back at the now nearly quiet stadium, brightly illuminated by flood lights.  An occasional whoop or holler cut through the night.  I heard a honk of a horn, but somehow I just knew it was a celebratory sound, not one made in anger.  How could anyone be impatient at a time like this?

Final score: 62-36. I just wanted to soak it in for a moment longer. I closed my eyes. I felt a smile cross my face. It was perfect.

Through the cool night air I heard Brad call my name. I opened my eyes and hurried to catch up with my friends.

Game Notes:

Where to start?

Records set by Colorado as a Nebraska opponent (some of these records have been surpassed since 2001):

Most points: 62 (old record, 61, Minnesota, 1945)

Most points in a half by an opponent: 42 (38, UCLA, 1988)

Most points in a quarter by an opponent: 28 (28, UCLA, 1988)

Most touchdowns by an opposing team: 9 (8, Oklahoma, 1954, 1956)

Most touchdowns by an opposing player (Chris Brown): 6 (5, Steve Owens, Oklahoma, 1968)

CU records set against any opponent:

Most touchdowns, rushing, game: 6, Chris Brown (old record 4, on 11 occasions)

Most touchdowns, game: 6, Chris Brown (4, on 13 occasions)

Most points scored, game: 36, Chris Brown (27, Byron White v. Colorado Mines, 10/30/37)

Most touchdowns rushing, team, game: 8 (tied record – three times. Latest v. KSU, 11/18/89)

CU records set in Colorado/Nebraska series (60 games up to 2001):

Most points: 62 (36, 11/15/51)

Most yards, total offense: 552 (504, 11/26/99)

Most yards rushing, individual: 198, Chris Brown (165, Rashaan Salaam, 10/30/93)

Most yards receiving, individual: 112, Daniel Graham (107, Phil Savoy, 11/28/97, Donnie Holmes, 10/9/82)

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In case you haven’t gotten enough, here are the video highlights:

Game Twelve …

No. 9 Colorado v. No. 3 Texas – Big 12 Championship – Irving, Texas

BCS

The Bowl Championship Series, with a mixture of polls, computer computations, and a little confusion, had taken a body blow with the CU upset of Nebraska.  The Cornhuskers had been ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings, with undefeated Miami ranked No. 2.  Had Nebraska taken care of business against the Buffs, and handled the (presumed) rematch with Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game, the computers would have matched the best two teams in the nation.

The Colorado victory, however, set in motion a series of upsets wherein a number of title contenders had the opportunity to make reservations for the Rose Bowl, only to falter.  The first to fall was Oklahoma, which was surprised at home by Oklahoma State, 16-13, the day after the Colorado/Nebraska game.

The Big 12 upsets paved the way for 9-1 Florida, now ranked No. 2 behind Miami. On December 1st, top-ranked Miami took care of its business, holding off No. 14 Virginia Tech, 26-24, to finish its regular season as the nation’s only undefeated team.  But Florida could not follow through, falling at home to No. 5 Tennessee, 34-32.

The Florida/Tennessee game ended just before kickoff of the Colorado/Texas game.  As a result, the third-ranked Longhorns knew, as they ran onto the Texas Stadium field to face the Buffs, that a win over Colorado would mean a bid to the Rose Bowl and an opportunity to play for the national championship.

Colorado, though, was not interested in other team’s opportunities.  These Buffs had dreams of their own.

December 1st – Texas Stadium          No. 9 Colorado 39, No. 3 Texas 37

Big 12 Championship game

Colorado running back Chris Brown followed up his record six touchdown performance against Nebraska with a three touchdown effort against Texas as the Buffs defeated the Longhorns, 39-37, to win CU’s first and only Big 12 title.

The Buffs turned four turnovers by Longhorn quarterback Chris Simms into 26 first-half points in eliminating yet another contender for the national championship.

The first quarter was dominated early on by the Longhorns, looking very much like a team destined to play for the national title.  Freshman running back Cedric Benson scored on a five-yard run to cap a six-play, 85-yard drive on the Longhorns’ first possession.  Two series later, Texas was again deep in CU territory, looking to pad its 7-0 lead.  Memories of the 41-7 rout of the Buffs by the Longhorns in October were being relived by the 7,000 CU faithful in the highly-partisan crowd.  Texas fans waved roses.

Then, the play of the game.

Junior linebacker Aaron Killion picked off a Chris Simms pass, returning it 73 yards to the Texas 12-yard line.  Three plays later, Chris Brown scored on a ten-yard run to tie the score and shift the momentum to the Buffs.  The Brown touchdown, with 2:21 left in the first quarter, tied the score at 7-7, and set in motion a 29-3 run by the Buffs to put CU in control.

Jeremy Flores gave the Buffs a lead they would never relinquish with a 39-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter.  Simms’ second interception, this one by linebacker Joey Johnson, set up a 64-yard scoring drive by the Buffs, highlighted by a 51-yard run by Bobby Purify.  Flores missed the extra point after Brown’s one-yard touchdown, but the Buffs were up 16-7.

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Here is the YouTube video with highlights from the Big 12 championship game …

Game Thirteen … 

Colorado v. Oregon – January 1, 2002 – Fiesta Bowl

Now What?

When the Associated Press poll came out the weekend after the Colorado win over Texas game, in the Big 12 championship game, the Buffs had moved up from No. 9 in the polls to No. 4.  Ahead of the Buffs were unanimous No. 1 Miami, No. 2 Tennessee (up from No. 5 after defeating then No. 2 Florida), and No. 3 Oregon.  Just behind the Buffs at No. 5 was Nebraska.  In the Bowl Championship Series standings, Miami and Tennessee were No. 1 and No. 2, followed by Nebraska and Colorado.

The only game of consequence left to be played – or so it seemed – was the Southeastern Conference championship game.

No. 2 Tennessee was set to play No. 21 LSU, the surprise winner of the SEC West.  All Tennessee had to do was take care of business, handle the Tigers, and the Rose Bowl would match No. 1 Miami v. No. 2 Tennessee.  The BCS would have fulfilled its role of placing the best two teams in a championship game.

In a season where nothing seemed to go according to form, the two-touchdown underdog Tigers handled Tennessee, 31-20, to win the SEC title and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.  Miami was a lock for the Rose Bowl. What was left for the BCS was to pick an opponent for the Hurricanes from amongst three less than perfect candidates:

1) No. 2 Oregon.  10-1 on the season.  Pac-10 champions.  But the Ducks had only defeated one ranked BCS team, defeating Washington State, 24-17, losing to its other ranked BCS opponent, Stanford, 49-42.  Strength of schedule all but eliminated the Ducks in the eyes of the computers;

2) No. 3 Colorado.  10-2 on the season.  Big 12 champions.  But the Buffs had two losses, and no team had ever played for the national championship with two losses, much less ever won the title.  Still, Colorado was the hottest team in the nation, having just knocked off two top five teams, Nebraska and Texas, in successive weeks; or

3) No. 4 Nebraska.  11-1 on the season.  The No. 1 team in the nation for a good portion of the season, the Cornhuskers had only one blemish on their record.  But what a blemish it was – a 62-36 thrashing by Colorado.  How could the computers put a team in the national title game which had not even won its own conference? Or even its own division?

When the final BCS standings were announced December 10th, the answer came – Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers out-pointed the Buffs by the minuscule margin of .005.  The final score, once the polls, computers, strength of schedule, and quality wins were tallied, stood at: Nebraska, 7.23; Colorado, 7.28.  Nebraska would play Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.

How small was the final margin?  As it turned out, the Tennessee/LSU game was not the only important game played on the last weekend of the season.  In a game made up from the lost weekend after September 11th, TCU upset Southern Mississippi by two points.  If TCU, Nebraska’s opening game opponent, had lost, Nebraska’s strength of schedule would have dropped by .28, more than enough to put Colorado into the Rose Bowl.

A review of the season’s results produced a series of similar “what if?” scenarios, but it no longer mattered. Nebraska was in; Colorado and Oregon were out.

“It’s hard to be gracious at this moment,” said Gary Barnett after the announcement, “but we will obviously accept and be excited about playing Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.”  Colorado running back Bobby Purify echoed the players’ sentiments, “It’s disappointing because we feel we are a better team than Nebraska.  We feel we are better than most teams right now.  We’re just going to have to go out and play well against Oregon and prove to the nation how good we really are.”

And what about the Oregon Ducks?

A conference champion (unlike Nebraska) with only one loss (unlike Colorado), many felt that the Ducks were the recipient of the greatest slight.  “I thought this morning we were in,” said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti.  “I saw both polls and knew we were No. 2 in both polls.  I thought, ‘What a great deal’.  I was gut shot when I watched the TV and saw it.”

Talk began almost immediately of a split national title.

If Miami defeated Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, there would be a unanimous choice.  If Nebraska were to upset the Hurricanes, however, there was room for a split.  The USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ poll was obligated to award its national championship to the winner of the Rose Bowl.  The writers for the Associated Press poll, however, had no such contractual obligation.  With No. 2 Oregon facing No. 3 Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, the possibility remained that the winner of the Fiesta Bowl would be awarded a piece of the national championship pie.

On New Year’s Day, 2002, one team in the Fiesta Bowl played like it wanted to prove it deserved to play in Pasadena.

Unfortunately for Buff fans, that team was Oregon.

January 1, 2002 – Fiesta Bowl                      No. 2 Oregon 38, No. 3 Colorado 16

Oregon gave the nation reason to wonder if the nation’s second best team had been given the opportunity to play Miami in the Rose Bowl, dominating Colorado, 38-16.

Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns as the Ducks routed what had been the nation’s hottest team.  “We made a statement today,” said Harrington, “We showed we deserved to be playing for a share of the national championship.”

After Colorado seized a 7-0 first quarter lead on a one-yard plunge by fullback Brandon Drumm, Oregon scored the next 38 points.  Receiver Sammie Parker caught nine passes for 162 yards, including a 79-yard touchdown in the second quarter to put the Ducks up for good.  In routing the Buffs, the Ducks never had a touchdown drive longer than three minutes.

The Buffs did have their chances.

With the score tied 7-7, the Buffs had the ball at the Oregon 40-yard line.  The Duck defense held on second-and-two and third-and-one, though, and the Buffs were forced to punt.  One play after the CU punt, Harrington hit Parker for a 79-yard score and the game’s momentum was shifted for good.

That Joey Harrington had success against the CU secondary was not a complete surprise.  What was unexpected was how the Oregon defense, ranked 81st in the nation, shut down the Buffs.  Colorado was held to 49 yards rushing, forcing the Buffs to throw.  Neither Bobby Pesavento nor Craig Ochs could generate any success through the air, combining for three interceptions.

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