This season, the 8-2 Buff's stand on the precipice of conference legitimacy. They have locked up the best two-season turnaround in the nation and enter the game ranked 14th in the writers' poll while remaining in BCS contention. Beat Nebraska, win the Big 12 North and get a crack at the CU's first conference title.
Drop the game and pack up as a runner up for the Holiday Bowl. For the Huskers, it's the same scenario: beat CU and return to the Big 12 title game. Lose, and it's team retreats to Sea World.
But in the recent past, it this game hasn't always held much meaning for both teams. Last season, Colorado was playing the spoiler against Nebraska and considered it their bowl game. The season before, the Buffs scored 24 unanswered fourth-quarter points only to lose 33-30 in overtime. In 1998, CU led 14-13 in the third quarter before succumbing 16-14. In all, an average three points decided the last five games. But in those five games, Nebraska trailed only once after the third quarter averaging a 12.8 point lead in those games. As sure as there are snowballs at Folsom Field, there are going to be fourth quarter comebacks. Head coach Frank Solich said he expects much the same for Friday's game in Boulder especially considering the significance this game holds for both teams.
"It seems to me that every time we've played them, they've been ready to play and have played hard and well …We expect that will continue to happen," he said Tuesday during the Huskers' weekly press conference.
"Is there a little bit more for both teams to play for at this point in the season? That might be right going into this game, but I think both teams would've matched up and played really hard regardless of what was at stake."
But if Solich is the tight-lipped diplomat, rush end Chris Kelsay was somewhat more candid. The 6'-5", 270 junior from Auburn, Nebr., said the Huskers had been progressing steadily all season in practice, with aggression and physical play reportedly peaking in recent sessions. When asked if he was concerned about the tenacity of the Buffs' recent finishes in the series, Kelsay said it's something the Huskers need not worry about.
"I think we will be fine whether it's a fourth quarter game, whether it's three-quarter game, what have you," Kelsay said. "Nebraska is a team that responds well in any situation and I think you are going to see that this Saturday.
Like Nebraska, Colorado has found the most room running the ball this. Using four backs — Cortlen Johnson, sophomores Bobby Purify and Chris Brown senior and freshman Marcus Houston — the Buffs are third in the conference and 16th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 213.9 yards-per-game. All except Houston — a highly-coveted prep recruit in 1999 and a former teammate of Husker Cory Ross — have rushed for over 140 yards once and have two 100-yard rushers in as many games this season. Even sophomore quarterback Craig Ochs rushed for 70 yards — against Kansas State.
But if the Buffs fancy themselves a brutal power team, it must be purely by accident. Barnett has repeatedly stated he wanted balance offensively and has allowed Ochs and senior backup Bobby Pesavento enough play-action passing to average 215 yards per game, fourth in the Big 12. Even though senior linebacker Jamie Burrow called the Buffs' offense "basketball on grass," it shouldn't pose any particular problems for the Huskers' Big 12-leading defense Kelsay said. "It comes back to assignment football, whether we execute our defense," he said. "If we do that, they are going to have a hard time moving the ball. I honestly think that."
Even though the defense is improved, the unit ranks 28th in total defense and 59th in passing defense nationally. On special teams, the Buffs' Roman Hollowell has supplanted K-State's Aaron Lockett as the kick-it-away-from guy ranking first nationally in punt returns. Even Pesavento, a drop-back pocket passer, has completed 65 percent of his passes since filling in for the more mobile Ochs.
Kelsay, for one, said he was impressed with Ochs and Pesavento. But forced to chose, and it wouldn't matter he said. It was about the Huskers' defense, not about the quarterback of the week.
"We've seen all kinds of quarterbacks and I have been asked this question before," Kelsay said when asked about Pesavento. "It seems like every game we come into we got a quarterback everyone wants to know about. We approach every game the same way, whoever they throw in front of us, we are going to be prepared for."