Buffs' rally comes up short
By Tom Kensler
Denver Post Sports Writer
Nov. 29 - BOULDER - Colorado's "moral victory'' Friday won't go in the books as anything but a 27-24 loss to second-ranked Nebraska. It won't send the Buffaloes to Hawaii for a bowl game. It didn't keep CU from finishing with a losing record (5-6) for the first time since 1984. Colorado won't get to practice in December this year.
But in the fourth quarter, Colorado's players learned more about themselves and the game of football than any coach could teach. While the Buffs' defense was holding Nebraska scoreless at one end, CU senior John Hessler began to look like pro-caliber quarterback everyone has expected. He fired touchdown passes of 32 yards to Marcus Stiggers and 18 yards to Robert Toler in the final 3:16 and made Nebraska (11-0) sweat.
Colorado players finally showed some fiery emotion.
Until then, it was almost as if they had forgotten how much fun college football can be.
"My question is, where was the emotion the rest of the year?'' CU junior defensive end Nick Ziegler said. "Next year, people are going to get called out if they're not showing emotion. We showed today what can happen when we play like that. I can't blame the coaches. The coaches shouldn't be the ones who tell us to be emotional.''
Down the stretch Friday, the 52,738 in Folsom Field, about 25 percent of which were Nebraska fans, saw a Colorado team that finally looked like it could play with the nation's best. Hessler, the former Brighton High School all-stater, threw for 168 of his career-best 362 yards in the last five minutes of his last game as a Buffalo.
The 362 yards is the most any CU player has thrown for against Nebraska, a series which spans 56 games.
"We put a lot of heart in today's game,'' Hessler said. "No one would give up.''
Nebraska, a 21-point favorite, appeared to have the game tucked away and on the verge of a blowout when a 46-yard field goal by Kris Brown gave the Huskers a 27-10 lead with 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter. In the third quarter, the Big Red machine outscored Colorado 17-7, kept the ball for 11:05 of the 15 minutes, gained 234 yards in total offense and recorded nine first downs.
"It was at the point,'' said Nebraska's All-America guard Aaron Taylor said, holding his thumb and index finger close together, "that (Colorado) was ready to lay down and we were ready to take over the game. But we couldn't get it done. And they never laid down.''
With CU trailing 27-10, the spark came with 4:59 remaining when CU free safety Ryan Sutter stripped the ball from Nebraska I-back Ahman Green and strong safety Ryan Black recovered the fumble at the Colorado 23 yard line. That stopped what could have been a clinching Huskers drive and woke up the Buffs bench and their fans.
Hessler, who had struggled for much of the second half and was replaced by Jeremy Weisinger for the previous series while an injured thumb was examined, immediately started hitting every receiver in sight. He found Stiggers on the dead run in the end zone with what may have been Hessler's best pass of the season. Then Toler outfought a couple of Nebraska defenders in the end zone for a Hessler spiral that resulted in an 18-yard touchdown.
"I feel fortunate to win this game,'' Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said. "(Colorado) came at us late with everything they have.''
Another CU onside kick failed, but the Buffs got one last chance when Nebraska was forced to punt with 52 seconds remaining. Needing a field goal to send the game into overtime, Hessler almost connected with Stiggers on a fly pattern on third down, but the ball was touched just enough by Nebraska cornerback Ralph Brown to cause it to bounce off Stiggers' fingertips. On fourth down, Hessler completed a pass to Phil Savoy but it came up 2 yards short of a first down.
On the second play of the series, an apparent 14-yard completion to Savoy was disallowed when Savoy was called for offensive pass interference.
"There was bumping going on the whole game,'' CU senior wideout Chris Anderson said. "You can't call that in the last 35 seconds. The refs have got to let the players decide the game.''
Savoy, a senior, said he didn't know whether the contact should have warranted a flag. "But I do know that I love these guys,'' he said. "They never quit.''