Buffs’ Defense Lifts CU to Pac-12 South Title

Enveloping a capacity crowd of 52,301, Folsom Field saw its first division championship clincher since 2005 as the 9th-ranked Colorado Buffaloes defeated the 22nd-ranked Utah Utes 27-22.

Colorado’s defense makes plays, and Colorado’s defense wins games. 

Head coach Mike MacIntyre’s mantra has inspired each of his players to perform above and beyond expectations throughout this season of ‘The Rise’, but nowhere is that slogan born out more clearly than in the play of his entire defensive unit, which led the way to a division championship crown. 

“We knew it was going to be a physical game, they’ve got a great offensive line real physical,” said linebacker Addison Gillam. “We tried to go out there and be more physical than them and stop the run. We don’t get down on anybody. Whether we make a play or not it’s like ‘OK next play, what are we doing?’”

“Our defense is all about senior leadership, we’re a tight brotherhood,” added senior Jordan Carrell. “We trust each other and we know that defense wins championships. We knew that the best defense was going to win today.”

As they’ve done throughout the season, the Buffalo defense answered the bell time and time again picking up an inconsistent offense and a struggling special teams unit. At halftime they had held the Utes to just a 2.5 yards per play average, and by the end of the night Utah quarterback Troy Williams finished 13-40 with two interceptions to go along with two crucial fumbles surrendered by tailback Joe Williams. The Buffs were successful in limiting Williams all night, Utah's primary weapon, holding him to a 3.7 yards per carry average across 26 carries. 

“We definitely had to look at where they were going to score their points, so for that run game it was everyone having to be gap sound,” said safety Ryan Moeller. “It was everyone having to do their 1/11th. We had faith in everyone and we knew where everybody was going to be so we just had to execute.”

Offensively, the Buffs sputtered throughout the evening, squandering two sure touchdowns in the red zone allowing Utah to stay in the game and committing two ill-timed turnovers, one of which indirectly led to the Utes’ only lead of the night. However they were successful when it mattered most, scoring touchdowns at the end of the first and third quarters and putting Chris Graham in position to make two short field goals to give the defense all the cushion it needed, which is to say not very much. 

Senior linebacker Kenneth Olugbode, recovering a fumble forced by battery-mate Rick Gamboa, capitalized on that slim cushion scoring from 10 yards out to give Colorado its largest lead of 11 and its game-winning touchdown.

“We knew that the offense was struggling a little bit and that defensively we needed to make a play,” said Gamboa. “We were talking about forcing a turnover and getting the offense the ball or scoring as a defense. I held the running back up and I pulled the ball out and he was in the perfect spot to pick it up and score.”

But, as is tradition in a Pac-12 meeting between Colorado and Utah, this matchup must come down to a single score and the 2016 iteration, it can be argued, was decided on a standout special teams play.

Following CU’s 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ended in a Shay Fields’ fade route score and gave the Buffs a 20-13 lead at the beginning of the 4th quarter Utah’s Kyle Fulks returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards to the Colorado 3. The only reason he didn’t wind up celebrating in the end zone is because all-world corner Chidobe Awuzie chased him down, saving what proved to be a critical four points.

“That was huge at the time, he could have not gave that effort,” said MacIntyre. “I think that’s a prime example of a senior giving everything he’s got and he barely knocked his foot out of bounds. I thought that was a big momentum play when we stopped them right there.”

The sheer magnitude of the accomplishment that was capped off on Saturday night in Boulder is hard to fathom. On a cool November evening, reminiscent of Thanksgiving weekends past, Colorado recaptured that late season magic and became the first team to improve by 7 wins year over year in Pac-12 history. 

The Buffaloes literally started from the bottom and flipped over their 1-8 conference record in 2015, they won the most conference games in school history, won 10 overall for just the 7th time in CU history, went undefeated at home for the first time since 1994, and they became the fifth different South team in five years to earn a championship game berth, beating Utah to the feat. They did it all with an average recruiting class ranking over the past four years in the 70’s.

Throughout this season, the Buffaloes have been quick to note that they knew this potential was within them all along, that they had complete faith that this turnaround was not only possible but imminent. This attitude is evident throughout the program, and it all stems from one place.

“Earlier I sent a text out to Coach Mac, because last year on December 31st he said to us ‘I can’t wait to coach you as 2016 Pac-12 champs.’” said Carrell. “Just looking back at that text it’s a great feeling to know that we made it to this championship.”

Colorado’s stated goal wasn’t only to make it to the conference championship, but to win it. These players have now earned their opportunity to continue to make plays, and to continue to win games, plural. 

“Now it’s time to give Buff Nation what they deserve, to win another championship here in Colorado,” continued Carrell. “We’re ready to get back to work tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM tomorrow after the banquet. It’s going to be a great one on Friday at Levi’s Stadium.”

Notes:

- The win gives Colorado its most since finishing the season 10-3 in 2001. This marks CU’s 7th 10-win season in its history.

- Colorado also finished undefeated at home, posting a perfect 6-0 mark. It’s the sixth time this has been done in CU history and the first time since 1994.

-Tonight’s attendance of 52,301 was the first sellout since October 4, 2008 against Texas. Tonight’s crowd was also the largest since October 2, 2010 when Georgia came to Boulder. Additionally, this was the largest crowd for a non-Nebraska finale since November 16, 1996 against Kansas State.

- CU has defeated ranked teams in back-to-back weeks for the first time since 2002, when they knocked off #20 UCLA 31-17 and #13 Kansas State 35-31.

- Tedric Thompson had one of the best defensive “farewell” games in Folsom Field history. Thompson recorded 4 passes broken up, 1 tackle for a loss, 2 interceptions, and 4 third down stops. His fourth quarter pick tied him for a school single season best, matching Dick Anderson (1967) and Cullen Bryant (1972) at 7.

- CU now leads the overall series with Utah 32-28-3, and is now 2-4 against the Utes in Pac-12 play. The past six games have been decided by a total of 32 points.

- The Buffalo defense has forced 24 turnovers this season, and given up only 23 touchdowns.

- Colorado was not flagged for a single penalty on the night.


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