A Pleasant Stroll Down Memory Lane – 1986; 1991; 1996; 2001 and, for fun, 2016

The 2021 season is now within our sights, and, with any luck, it will feel like a normal season.

As we wait for the September 3rd opener against Northern Colorado, let’s spend some quality time this summer with some great Buff teams of the past. The 2021 season will be the 35th anniversary the 1986 season (with the greatest CU game in the past 50 years), the 30th anniversary of the 1991 season (Big Eight three-peat); the 25th anniversary of the 1996 season (the first season of the Big 12); and the 20th anniversary of the 2001 season (62-36, anyone?). Oh, and it’s already the fifth anniversary of the Buffs unexpected run to the Pac-12 South title in 2016.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look back at the 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2016 seasons, posting the week-by-week results (if you want to read ahead, the CU at the Game Archives are always there for you). I look forward to your reading your comments, and hearing your stories …

Previously postedPreseasonGame OnesGame TwosGame ThreesGame FoursGame FivesGame SixesGame SevensGame EightsGame NinesGame TensGame Elevens

*** Note *** … The CU at the Game Podcast has been dovetailing with this series. Episode 9 of Season Two, includes our discussion of the 1986 Nebraska game (20-10!!) and the 1991 “Ice Bowl” v. Nebraska (a 19-19 tie). Episode 10 of Season Two, meanwhile, includes our discussion of the 2001 Nebraska game (62-36!!) and the 2016 Oregon game (“The biggest play in Colorado football for years!!”).  Those episodes, along with every other CU at the Game Podcast, can be found here

Game Twelves …

1986 Season – “A Game For the Ages” 


Game Twelve (CU came into the game 6-5, 6-1 in Big Eight play) … December 31, 1986 – at Houston, Texas  – Bluebonnet Bowl

No. 14 Baylor 21, Colorado 9 … It was great to be in a bowl game for the second consecutive year, but the game itself was yet another reminder that the 1986 Colorado Buffaloes, for all that they had accomplished, were still a young and unpolished team. Four turnovers killed the Buffs, as defenses ruled the day in the 21-9 Baylor win.

The game was played in front of 40,470 fans, mostly from nearby Waco, the home of the Baylor Bears. Colorado sold only 2,937 tickets for the game, making the contest for all practical purposes a Baylor home game.

Baylor came into the game ranked 14th in the nation, carrying a 8-3 record. What was more, the Bears were only ten points away from being 11-0, having fallen by less than a touchdown to USC, Southern Methodist, and Texas A&M. Baylor was a worthy opponent for the Buffs, and played as if they had something to prove.

The defense kept Colorado in the game, surrendering only one touchdown drive of over 21 yards. After the Buffs put together a 20-yard drive early in the second quarter, culminating in a 36-yard Dave DeLine field goal, Colorado was very much in the game. The score was 7-3 Baylor, but Colorado had the momentum.

Two turnovers took care of that.

Pushed back to their own eight yard line with 6:17 to go in the first half, the Buffs fumbled the ball away. Baylor required just three plays to score, pushing the lead to 14-3. After the half, Colorado again shot itself in the foot, as the Buffs’ fumbled on its second play from scrimmage. Baylor took over on the Colorado 21-yard line. Four plays later, halfback Derrick McAdoo scored his second one yard touchdown, and all of the sudden it was 21-3 Baylor with 12:56 to go in the third quarter.

Despite the deficit, there was plenty of time for the Buffs to get back in the game.

Finally, late in the third quarter, quarterback Mark Hatcher broke loose on a 31-yard touchdown run to make the score 21-9. Coach Bill McCartney opted to attempt a two point conversion in order to get the Buffs back within ten points, but the run failed.

Twice in the fourth quarter, Colorado threatened. On both occasions, however, the Bears were able to force a fourth down, and on both occasions the Buffs were unable to convert. The fourth quarter wound down without any additional scoring, and most of the 40,000 fans who were in attendance went home happy.

For the first time all year, the Buffs’ offense was led by the passing game. This was not due to big numbers being put up by Mark Hatcher and Marc Walters, who combined to complete seven-of-14 passes. Rather, it was because the 111 yards passing was simply more than the 83 yards the rushing game mustered.

The Bluebonnet Bowl was the only game in 1986 that the Colorado wishbone had been held under 100 yards rushing in a game.

… The 1986 team had finished 6-6.

It would prove to be the last non-winning season for Colorado football for the next decade.

Continue reading game story here

My Essay for the Bluebonnet Bowl … “On the Road Again” …

The 1986 season was a watershed in Colorado football history.

Yes, the Buffs had finished 1985 with a winning season (7-5), and had gone to a bowl game for the first time in almost a decade, but it is the 1986 season which is seen as the turning point in Buff fortunes. Still, when the Buffs opened the 1986 campaign 0-4, it was hard not to consider that 1985 was an aberration, and that the aura of losing was once again to permeate the Colorado campus. Colorado rallied, though, to post a surprising 6-1 Big Eight record, including an historic 20-10 win over Nebraska.

Even a 28-0 loss to No. 4 Oklahoma did little to dampen fans’ spirits. After the Buffs dominated Kansas State, 49-3, to post a 6-5 record and the right to participate in a bowl, Colorado fans didn’t care where the game was or who the opponent would be. We were just glad to be invited.

The location? Houston, Texas.

The game? The Bluebonnet Bowl against the Baylor Bears.

What was a Buff fan to do?

Two words: “Road Trip”!

Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” sings the praises of the open road. One would assume that Willie, being a country singer, has often traveled the open road across the Texas prairies.

He can have it.

Buoyed by the euphoria of the Nebraska game, and not dissuaded by the memory of long drives across the states of Nebraska and Kansas in 1985, plans were made to attend the 1986 Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, Texas. Rather than fly to Houston, however, three poor (you might prefer “financially challenged”) third year law school students set out to drive from Colorado to Texas for the bowl game.

What a dumb idea.

This trip would be without Brad, the one and only time I have not attended a bowl game with my cohort. For the journey to Houston, I would travel with Dave and Bill. Friends from law school, neither was as fanatical about Colorado football as Brad and I, but both were up for the adventure.

Our journey started at Stapleton International Airport in Denver, where Dave picked me up in his car. (I had spent Christmas at home in Bozeman, Montana). From there we headed south, leaving Interstate 25 to head southeast to La Junta, Colorado.

La Junta, where Bill was from and was staying over the holidays, is as close to the end of the earth as you can get without falling off the edge. I say this as someone who grew up in Montana, one who has driven across North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, and who has traveled across eastern Wyoming so many times that I know hundreds of antelope on a first name basis.

There was nothing in La Junta.

No snow. No horizon. No color. No people.

And no car.

No car?

Continue reading story here

1991 Season – “Kissing Your Sister”


Game Twelve (CU came into the game 8-2-1, 6-0-1 in Big Eight play) … December 31, 1991, Blockbuster Bowl, Miami, Florida

No. 8 Alabama 30, No. 15 Colorado 25 … Alabama completed its best season since 1979 with its best offensive output in two months. Behind three long scoring drives, the 11-1 Crimson Tide held off the Buffs, 30-25.

Jay Barker threw three touchdown passes and David Palmer contributed two scores to lead Alabama to the win. Colorado was led by Darian Hagan, who passed for 210 yards and two scores.

The game was a tossup in the first half, with David Palmer putting Alabama on top 7-0 with a 52-yard punt return for a score in the first quarter. A Ronnie Woolfork blocked punt set up a  one yard touchdown run by sophomore fullback Scott Phillips to tie the score. Early in the second quarter, linebacker Ted Johnson tackled Martin Houston in the endzone for a safety and a 9-7 Colorado lead. Both teams managed field goals before the break, with Jim Harper’s effort for the Buffs going through from 33 yards out.

At the half, the Buffs were up, 12-10. The first half scoring was aided by a blocked punt, an interception, and a fumble. The longest scoring “drive” of the half by either team was three yards.

The Buffs’ new offense, which had a total of 31 yards of production at half, added quickly to the total with a 62-yard pass and catch for a score early in the third. Darian Hagan hit wide receiver Michael Westbrook over middle on a short pass which Westbrook turned into the longest scoring pass in Colorado bowl history. Meanwhile, Barker put the Alabama offense in gear, marching the Crimson Tide on 90, 75, and 71 yard drives in the second half. The third drive culminated with a five-yard pass to David Palmer with 8:10 left to put Alabama up 30-19.

Down two scores, the Buffs were still not done. Darian Hagan hit Charles E. Johnson on a 13-yard strike to pull the Buffs to within 30-25 with 3:30 left. The Buffs had one last opportunity, taking over with 1:49 to play. Any hopes of a comeback ended, however, when James Hill was stopped short on fourth-and-one at the Alabama 33-yard line with 45 seconds to play.

The new one-back, pass oriented offense had resulted in 210 passing yards, but the debut could not be called a success. Hagan completed only 11 of 30 passes, while the rushing game came to a complete halt. For the day, the Buffs ran the ball 30 times, with the total output being -11 yards.

The loss gave the defending national champions an overall record of 8-3-1. When the final polls were released, the Buffs fell to 20th. The 1991 season had given the Buffs a third straight Big Eight title, but there was no feeling of fulfillment. Three losses after two seasons with only one loss each seemed a step down.

The Buffs would lose Hagan and other major contributors like center Jay Leeuwenburg, a unanimous first team All-America selection. Also lost were long time starters in nose tackle Joel Steed and safety Greg Thomas. Still, the talent remained for a run at a four-peat as Big Eight champions.

If only the Buffs could get the taste of the 8-3-1 season out of their mouths.

Continue reading story here

My Essay for the Blockbuster Bowl“The Introduction of ‘Air Bill’ “

While not in the national spotlight of the Orange Bowl, the second annual Blockbuster had a marquee matchup.

The Buffs were defending national champions, and Alabama was no pushover. The Crimson Tide, led by quarterback Jay Barker and all-everything David Palmer, were 10-1 and ranked 8th in the nation. After being shut out, 35-0, by Florida in the season’s second week, Alabama had run off ten straight wins.

It was clear that if the Buffs were to have any chance of posting a top ten finish, a convincing win over Alabama would be required. Logic required that it was time for the Buffs to go with their strengths – including a punishing rushing attack which had led the Buffs to a 20-0-1 Big Eight conference record (and a 30-4-1 overall record) over the previous three seasons.

Unless, of course, you are Bill McCartney.

Despite the undeniable success of the “I-bone”, Colorado head coach Bill McCartney decided that, if the Buffs were going to compete on the national stage in the 1990’s, the offense had to be upgraded. As a result, McCartney took advantage of the preparation time allowed for the bowl game to prepare for the 1992 season; not for Alabama bowl game. McCartney installed a new one-back, pass-oriented offense to replace the I-bone.

New offenses are normally installed during spring practice, when there is more time to focus on detail, with fall camp giving the offense the opportunity to fine tune the offense before the season opening game. But Coach Mac saw things differently. Why not start in December? With only one game to prepare for, the Buffs could get a head start on a successful 1992.

The only problem was that Alabama was still looking to finish off a successful 1991.

Continue reading Essay here

1996 Season – “Ooooh, So Close”


Game Twelve (CU came into the game 9-2; 7-1 in Big 12 play) …

The actual “Game Twelve” for CU in 1996 was the Holiday Bowl against Washington. I’m going to hold off on that game story until next time, as between the end of the regular season and the bowl season in 1996, there was some intrigue …

From my Essay, “The $8 Million Dollar Extra Point” … The fallacies of the Bowl Alliance were never more acutely displayed than in the final weeks of 1996. Notre Dame, Syracuse, Wyoming, BYU and yes, even Colorado were victims of the system which was designed to end arguments over polls and bowls.

Notre Dame played Southern Cal in its regular season finale. The Fighting Irish were 8-2, ranked No. 8 in the country, and poised to play in either the Fiesta or Orange Bowl. Either of the two Alliance Bowls would have guaranteed an $8.486 million payday. A loss to the Trojans, though, would mean slim bowl pickings. Only the Independence and Copper bowls had at-large openings, and Notre Dame, being Notre Dame, had indicated that it would not be interested in “lesser” bowls. Thus, the stage was set: win against USC, and a New Year’s Day bowl would be the reward; lose, and go home.

The Fighting Irish faced a similar scenario in 1995, needing a win against Air Force to secure an Orange Bowl bid. The Falcons did not present a challenge, though, and order was maintained with a Notre Dame victory. As the Irish had not lost to USC since 1982, plans for New Year’s Day and a big payoff were anticipated for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame dominated most of the game, but couldn’t put the Trojans away. Notre Dame scored with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter to take a 20-12 lead. The extra point, however, which would have given Notre Dame a 21-12 lead – and more importantly a two score edge – was missed by kicker Jim Sanson. USC scored and converted the two point conversion, sending the game into overtime. In the extra period, the Trojans scored and then shut down Notre Dame, winning 27-20. The loss dropped the Irish to an 8-3 record and a No. 18 ranking.

True to its snobbish word, the Irish elected to stay home, ending Lou Holtz’s coaching career at Notre Dame without a sendoff.

The missed extra point had cost Notre Dame a cool $8,486,000.00.

The same weekend Notre Dame played USC, Syracuse played at home against Miami. The Orangemen controlled their own destiny in the Big East Conference. If they could beat the Hurricanes, Syracuse would win the conference and the automatic bid in the Alliance. A loss to Miami, though, and there would be a three way tie for the conference championship. Virginia Tech, being the highest ranked of the three, would receive the ticket to the Orange Bowl and the $8 million payday.

Miami pulled off the upset, 38-31, and the Orangeman lost out. Adding insult to injury, the Gator Bowl, which was to take the No.2 team from the Big East – presumably Syracuse, as the Orangemen were the second highest ranked team – instead went with West Virginia. Both teams were 8-3 and similarly ranked, but the Mountaineers had finished fourth in the Big East standings. As WVU would bring more fans to the bowl game, Syracuse was relegated to the Liberty Bowl against Houston, a Friday afternoon game during bowl week worth $800,000.

Syracuse fell from the Alliance to the Gator to the Liberty, all in one game.

The loss to Miami cost Syracuse over $7 million.

Wyoming’s plight was even more frustrating.

Continue reading Essay here  …

2001 Season – “Seems Like Old Times”

Game Twelve (CU came into the game 9-2; 6-1 in Big 12 play) December 1st – Texas Stadium – Big 12 Championship Game

No. 9 Colorado 39, No. 3 Texas 37 … 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.

After a Texas field goal, the Buffs received a gift from Chris Simms in the form of a fumble.  Simms was sacked by DeAndre Fluellen, with the Texas quarterback’s fumble being recovered at the Longhorn 22-yard line by Matt McChesney.  It took the Buffs only one play to score, with Bobby Pesavento hitting Daniel Graham for a 22-yard touchdown, putting the Buffs up 22-7.

It took the Buffs only three more plays to score again, as on the third play of the Longhorns’ next possession, Chris Simms was picked off again, this time by safety Medford Moore.  The Buff sophomore returned the interception 64 yards for a touchdown, and with 2:32 left in the first half, almost exactly a full quarter after being behind 7-0, Colorado had a 29-10 lead.

As had been the case with Nebraska a week earlier, however, the game was not done.  The Longhorns rallied behind quarterback Major Applewhite, subbing for the injured and ineffective Simms.  Applewhite hit B.J. Johnson on a 79-scoring strike moments after Moore’s interception, giving the Longhorn faithful hope for the second half.

The Buffs turned a 29-17 halftime edge into a 36-17 lead early in the third quarter on Chris Brown’s third touchdown run, this one from 11 yards out.  But it almost wasn’t enough as Texas scored the next 13 points of the game.

Continue reading game story here

Here are the highlights from the game … 

From my Essay for the game, “Conference Call” …

Brad couldn’t wait.

As Texas took time out to stop the clock and ice CU kicker Jeremy Flores, the phone rang.  I was watching the Colorado/Texas game at home in Bozeman with Randy, and hadn’t expected to talk with Brad until after the contest.  I had spoken with Brad at halftime, and all I remember from that conversation was saying that I was as nervous as anyone could rightfully be with their team up 19 points at the break.  The pessimist in me feared Major Applewhite and the spark he had provided the Longhorns just before the half, and what that might mean for second half momentum.

Now the Buffs were lining up for what would be a game-clinching field goal.  Three points which would give CU a two-score lead with less than two minutes to play, and Brad couldn’t wait.  He wanted to be on the phone with Scott and I as the Buffs clinched their first Big 12 championship.  He got Scott connected on a conference call, and we watched together as Jeremy Flores kicked his way into CU football lore.

The feeling of euphoria was tempered as Applewhite quickly drove Texas down the field.  The Buffs’ defense held off the Longhorns long enough that everyone in the stadium knew that a Texas comeback would hinge on a successful onsides kick.  There was silence on the phone line after Texas scored with 31 seconds left and took the field for the onsides effort.

Continue reading Essay here

2016 Season – “Welcome to The Fight”


Game Twelve (CU came into the game 9-2; 7-1 in Pac-12 play) No. 9 Colorado 27, No. 21 Utah 22 … Colorado relied upon its defense to bring home the school’s first ten-win season since 2001, downing No. 21 Utah, 27-22. With the victory, the “worst-to-first” dream season was completed, with the Buffs going from 1-8 in Pac-12 play in 2015 to 8-1 in 2016, claiming CU’s first Pac-12 South title, and first division title since winning the Big 12 North in 2005.

The Buffs were held to 378 yards of total offense, but the CU defense held the Utes to 339 yards of total offense, forcing four turnovers along the way. A forced fumble from Utah running back Joe Williams was returned by Buff linebacker Kenneth Olugbode ten yards for a game-clinching score early in the fourth quarter. Olugbode’s score made it 27-16, and the Buff defense made it hold up.

Special teams almost cost the Buffs the game, with Utah scoring on a punt return for a touchdown early in the game, and almost scoring on a kickoff return early in the fourth quarter.

“I’m very excited to grind one out,” said Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau, who had 270 yards passing and a team-leading 59 yards rushing, but fumbled twice. “The defense got my back.”

“Nobody thought we’d be here, especially four years ago,” said senior safety Tedric Thompson, who had two interceptions and broke up four passes.

“I can’t really put it into words right now,” said Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre. “The best word I can use right now is joy. Joy from the bottom of my toes to the top of my head for the players, the coaches, everybody involved with our program, all the fans that stayed with us and all the fans that came back. It’s just really gratifying on that side of it. I’m so happy for these kids and we have the opportunity to go play for the Pac-12 Championship.”

Continue reading game story here

YouTube highlights from the game … 

My Essay for the game,  “No Conflict, No Story” …

Worst. To. First.

Last season, Colorado finished 1-8 in Pac-12 play. This year, the Buffs went 8-1 in Pac-12 play.

This past August, in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, the Buffs were pegged as the 11th-best team in the Pac-12 conference. This past week, the Buffs were ranked as the ninth-best team … in the entire nation.

With a 27-22 victory over No. 21 Utah, the Buffs completed a regular season journey absolutely no one saw coming. The statistical “best since” accolades are cascading through the record books like an avalanche:

— First ten-win season since 2001, and first eight-win conference season in school history (the Buffs only played seven conference games in the Big Eight, and went 7-1 three times in Big 12 conference play);

— First six-game winning streak since 1996, and first back-to-back wins over ranked teams since 2002;

— First undefeated home slate since 1994, going 6-0 at home for just the sixth time in school history.

Et cetera … et cetera … et cetera.

But the Buffs’ tenth victory of the 2016 season did not come easily. Colorado trailed Utah for nine minutes in the first quarter, and did not take a two-score lead over the Utes until the fourth.

Continue reading Essay here

… Up Next … Game Thirteens for the 1996, 2001 and 2016 seasons … coming soon … 


One Reply to “A Pleasant Stroll – Game Twelves”

  1. Blockbuster Bowl…still one of the most bizarre games I have witnessed, was a tough watch to see us struggling to do something we didn’t do too well (throw the ball around).
    In retrospect, huge props to CoachMac for having the guts to make the change and recruiting the players to make it work as the following seasons prove out (should have been #1 in ’94).

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