Defense wins championships, and tonight at Levi’s Stadium it was the dominant Husky unit that proved that age-old adage true.
“We hurt, we lost. We lost to a good team. We made some mistakes that gave them the chance to pull away from us,” said head coach Mike MacIntyre.
When playing a defense and a team of the caliber that Washington is, those mistakes will spell certain doom.
Through one half it appeared as though the Buffs might be able to hang with the Huskies and do what they did in Los Angeles back in October. Colorado’s stout defense was withstanding blow after blow on the ground as UW racked up 148 rushing yards but had held the prolific Washington offense to only two scores.
The first quarter on its own encapsulated an entire game’s worth of emotions. Washington did what they’ve done all season and got out to a lightning-quick start, becoming the first team to score on the Buffs on their first possession. The Huskies plowed over the Colorado front seven, racking up 50 rushing yards and scoring on a Lavon Coleman 1-yard push.
Then, on Colorado’s first possession, after finding a hole and rushing for 25 yards Sefo Liufau was sacked on the ensuing 2nd down play and keeled forward to the ground clutching his right knee.
It’s the last scene Colorado and its fans wanted to see, and one they’re all too familiar with. As the impressive cohort of CU fans in attendance chanted his name, Liufau was able peel himself off the turf as he’s done time and again to gingerly walk off under his own power.
Steven Montez would enter the game and on his second possession at the helm led the Buffs on a 55-yard scoring drive capped off by Phillip Lindsay’s 16th rushing touchdown of the season.
Trailing 14-7 at the half with Liufau’s status in doubt, the 6th edition of this conference championship was hanging in the balance and surrounded by questions. Would the Buffs be able to muster a winning effort with Montez leading them? Would Liufau return and write the ultimate storybook ending to this Pac-12 season?
The answer to all of those queries swirling around the Buffs at halftime turned out to be simple. Washington proved themselves the better football team in the second half, and their depth and talent overwhelmed Colorado in nearly every matchup.
Liufau did indeed start the third quarter, only to come out and have his first throw go glancing past the outstretched hands of Jay MacIntyre and into the waiting arms of Taylor Rapp, who returned the pick 35 yards to paydirt.
On the very next Colorado possession Liufau threw a telegraphed pass towards the sideline and was picked off again by Rapp. The ensuing Husky field goal put Washington up 10 and placed further pressure on the struggling CU offense and its quarterback to produce.
The Buffs were unable to do so on the following two possessions, as the Huskies dominated the line of scrimmage and continually forced CU into difficult 3rd and long situations. Washington’s front seven pinned their ears back and found themselves in the Colorado backfield often, taking advantage of the Buffalo signal-caller’s apparent lack of mobility.
“Sefo was well and ready to go, he had twisted it (his ankle), they taped it up and he was ready to go,” said MacIntyre. “He’s lead us to all of them so that’s what we decided to do. The trainers said he was ready to go. We definitely would have hoped he would have played better, like he would have hoped he’d have played better”
The final blow came after Washington was again given a short field to work with. With Jimmie Gilbert draped over his back, Husky quarterback Jake Browning was somehow able to sling a pass to the sideline towards John Ross.
Chidobe Awuzie, playing behind Ross, had his arms outstretched waiting for what he believed to be a sure interception but Ross skied up and with one hand brought down the sailing pass. Awuzie ended up out of position and Ross would score easily from 19 yards out.
That score gave Washington a 31-7 lead with less than a quarter and a half remaining and all but shredded any of Colorado’s remaining hopes. There would be no storybook ending.
“We’re going to bounce back. We’ve always been a team that was able to overcome adversity and it’s just another one of those times,” said Liufau. “It just cuts a little deeper this time.”
For as disappointing as the night in Santa Clara was, Colorado and its fans have a lot to relish over the upcoming weeks. On Sunday they’ll learn their bowl destination and final opponent, and while it might not be where they wanted to go and who they’d hoped to face, the fact that they’re in a situation to feel that way at all is indicative of what they achieved this season.
“What these young men have done for the University of Colorado is amazing,” said MacIntyre. “Tonight was tough, there is no doubt about it. But it can’t put a damper on the whole season and we’ll bounce back and go play in a bowl game which is going to be fun for our guys to play in and send these seniors out the right way.”
After all that the Colorado program has been through over the past decade, just arriving at a night like tonight was momentous. As MacIntyre has been fond of saying this year, if there’s no conflict there’s no story.
Tonight provided plenty of conflict and now this team, and its seniors specifically, have one last chapter to write in their story. That fact in and of itself is worthy of celebration.