As Saturday afternoon blended into Saturday evening beneath an expansive early-winter sunset the Pac-12 South-leading Buffaloes played to their ranking in front of a network television audience, and gave the home fans the first win over a ranked team in 7 years.
“At the end when everyone was rushing the field I just kind of had to take a step back and let it all sink in,” said center Alex Kelley. “We’ve just been through hell and back so many times and now that we’re in this position we never want to go back. I’ve got one more game here in Folsom next week, and the atmosphere is going to be phenomenal.”
Kelley was at the center of an offense that put up 584 yards, the Buffaloes’ third-largest output of the season, and averaged 6.1 yards per play to outdo Mike Leach’s prolific unit. Colorado outgained the Cougars on the ground 235-131 and imposed their will further and further on the line of scrimmage as the game wore on. That rushing total was split nearly evenly between tailback Phillip Lindsay (144 yards on 31 carries) and quarterback Sefo Liufau (108 yards on 23 carries), who took full advantage of the Cougars’ struggles in defending the read option.
"It’s all up to the offensive linemen and the receivers, all I do is get the ball to my playmakers,” said Liufau. “For the o-line up front to get some open lanes, I think there were two times when I ran almost untouched into the end zone, shout out to them and shout out to the receivers for making plays. I’m just one piece of the puzzle.”
Colorado was also effective through the air, as Liufau was able to outduel one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and the nation in Luke Falk. Liufau’s primary targets throughout the course of the afternoon were Devin Ross, who led the Buffs in receiving with 8 catches for 121 yards, and Jay MacIntyre, who recorded the best game of his career hauling in 7 receptions for 90 yards. The trio was able to exploit Washington State’s coverage and make big plays on clutch downs.
“Coach Chev always preaches if you can stay on the field then we’re going to win the game. 3rd downs are one of our biggest goals and we happened to do really well there today,” said MacIntyre. “I think the offense came out with a great plan, the ball came my way today and that doesn’t always happen but you’ve just got to play your role. When the chances do come, take them."
“The way they play the slots was a big advantage for us and they were keying on Shay because of his big game last week so it was open for everyone else,” added Devin Ross. “It was open for all of us and we just made plays and executed our game plan.”
As has been the case throughout this charmed season, Colorado’s defense came through when their team needed it most time and time again.
First there was the crucial stop in the opening moments of the 2nd quarter. With Washington State on the CU 26-yard line and threatening to score for the third consecutive possession to take a 21-7 lead, the Buffs benefited from a Gabe Marks drop in the end zone and then proceeded to get two big plays from Nick Fisher (a run-stuffing tackle) and Ahkello Witherspoon (a pass break up) to turn the Cougars over on downs. The moment would prove critical and it wouldn’t be the last time Fisher, who was forced into action following the early ejection of Afolabi Laguda and the game-ending injury to Ryan Moeller, was heard from.
Next, with Wazzu driving to attempt to reclaim the lead at the start of the 4th quarter the Buffalo defense forced the Cougars into a 4th and 4 at the Colorado 18-yard line. Falk completed a swing pass to Kyle Sweet who was promptly met at the sideline and forced out by Fisher. The play would be Washington State’s last in Colorado territory.
Finally, with CU holding only a touchdown lead and Wazzu attempting to convert a short 3rd and 3, Addison Gillam got home in a big way, dropping Falk for a sack 9 yards behind the line of scrimmage. After struggling to put consistent pressure on the Wazzu signal-caller all evening Jim Leavitt’s unit was able to make it happen in a crucial moment.
“Coach Leavitt started calling some different things and mixing it up and I just saw a gap and shot it and it worked out,” said Gillam. “Our defense, and our whole team really, we never get down on ourselves and we always keep our heads up. We don’t worry about negative things that happen because it doesn’t matter until the end of the game.”
That may sound like cliché player-speak following a win but it has proven true game after game for this Colorado football team. These players’ ‘one snap and clear’ mentality has translated tangibly to the field and it’s been as big of a factor in this, the season of ‘The Rise’, as any other component.
The Buffaloes achieved the program’s 14th 9-win season on Saturday evening, and moved to 7-1 in conference play for the first time since the 2002 season. This team has taken the largest step yet towards achieving the lofty goal set within the locker room prior to the season.
Colorado is now one game away from earning a berth in the Pac-12 Championship game, but beyond that, a path to the third-ever College Football Playoff continues to unveil itself following each successive week.
Following the win, as students matriculated onto the field and celebrated with their classmates, senior jack-of-all-trades Jaleel Awini was running off of the field high-fiving fans in the stands. As he went, he was yelling over and over ‘Let’s go to the playoff!’
That’s not something anyone at all expected to hear around here anytime soon. After what, to this point has been the most surprising and successful season since that 2001 conference championship campaign, Colorado has one regular season game left to arrive at their stated destination.
They may have two more left to go where no one ever possibly thought they would.