SAN ANTONIO – The first 12 weeks of the season were nothing short of magical for the Buffaloes, who enjoyed the greatest turnaround in conference history. But after Colorado clinched the Pac-12 South title, a reality check was delivered.
While vastly improved, Mike MacIntyre's program was not quite ready for elite status.
The Buffaloes were humbled by Washington in the Pac-12 Championship game and again by Oklahoma State in Thursday's Alamo Bowl, by a combined score of 79-18. A storybook ending just wasn't in the cards for quarterback Sefo Liufau and the rest of Colorado's seniors.
“The game sucked. It's kind of obvious. I don't know what you guys want me to say,” Liufau said after accounting for just 193 yards of offense against the Cowboys. “It falls back on me, not being able to get the ball going, not being able to get the drives finished. Just a tough one overall.”
It was the highest ranked match-up in Alamo Bowl history, and many publications had tabbed it as one of the best games of the bowl season. But with Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon both banged up, the once dominant Colorado secondary was a shell of its former self.
“'Chido' had turf toe, which was freaky because he was doing nothing really,” Buffs head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “He had the same turf toe in high school that had him stay out nine months. So he stayed off it and tried to play. Played okay, but wasn't quite himself.
“Ahkello got fallen on top of in practice accidentally. It was a weird deal, hurt his shoulder a little bit. He wasn't able to lift his arm above his head until yesterday. He wanted to try to play so he toughed it out but they hadn't practiced in over a week-and-a-half.”
The Buffs allowed an average of just 182.5 yards passing through 13 games before Cowboys gunslinger Mason Rudolph carved up Colorado's secondary for 314 yards and three touchdowns through the air. Oklahoma State standout James Washington had 171 receiving yards before getting injured in the third quarter.
“[Washington] made some great catches even when we were in good position and [Rudolph] made some good back shoulder throws,” MacIntyre said. “They're excellent players.”
So while Colorado is no longer a laughing stock, and the long bowl drought has ended, the Buffaloes still have plenty of room for improvement.
"Everything is kind of new for a lot of us. We got our feet wet in the Pac-12 Championship game and the Alamo Bowl, now it's about going back to the drawing board," junior tailback Phillip Lindsay said. "Now we know how to get there, and it's about finishing.
“We were inexperienced. Oklahoma State had been to numerous bowl games for many years. They keep going. Now it's time for us to get on that track and start going to many more bowl games. It's going to become second nature for us.”
Liufau's collegiate swan song
Grit and toughness helped Liufau set 98 school records during his four years in Boulder, but a high ankle sprain can cripple any warrior. He missed all or parts of six contests during his senior campaign.
Liufau initially injured his right ankle in week three against Michigan. He was again sidelined early in the Pac-12 title game and he was knocked out for a stretch of the Alamo Bowl.
“I don't know how much the guy weighed but when he landed on it, it was not comfortable,” Liufau said when asked about his injury Thursday night. “Coming out of halftime, I didn't say anything. Coach just said they're going to go with [Steven] Montez. That happens, you just accept it and move on.”
Montez struggled, though, and Liufau was re-inserted in the game. He scored the Buffaloes' only points of the game on a six-yard touchdown run with 5:28 left in the game.
“I saw a bummed up quarterback on an ankle that couldn't throw as accurate as he would like,” MacIntyre said when asked about his team's offensive inefficiencies in the last two games. “We tried to go with Steven. He wasn't as accurate as we would like. He wasn't where he usually is. I don't know why.”
For a moment in the post-game press conference, Liufau was able to look past the disappointment of his performance on Thursday to see the bigger picture.
“We did something special,” Liufau said. “We didn't finish with an exclamation point, the wheels on the bus kind of fell off, but I wouldn't trade this season or these teammates for anything. We were able to get Colorado back into people's minds.
“We were able to get 10 wins and set a foundation for Phillip and Steven, who have good potential and promise. I'll be watching in years to come because I think they've got something good going. It's just a start, in my opinion.”
*** The Buffaloes had a “RS19” decal on their helmets, honoring former CU great Rashaan Salaam, who committed suicide on December 5.
*** The announced attendance for the Alamo Bowl was 59,815. Colorado sold its allotment of tickets, marking the most tickets a Pac-12 school has sold for an Alamo Bowl.
*** Lindsay became the first running back in school history to have two 100-yard receiving games. He had 166 yards of offense on 20 touches Thursday.
*** Senior Sean Irwin made his first reception of the year in the first quarter. It was just the fourth catch by a CU tight end on the season. Irwin was presented with the bowl's Sportsmanship Trophy postgame.
*** After creating a turnover in 25 consecutive games, the Buffaloes did not have a takeaway in either the Pac-12 title game or the Alamo Bowl.