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Daring comeback crushed again

By Adam Thompson
Denver Post Sports Writer

Nov. 25, 2000 - LINCOLN, Neb. - Colorado's 34-32 loss to No. 9 Nebraska on Friday elevated the Buffaloes' troubles against the Cornhuskers beyond a mere nine-game series losing streak and into the realm of torture.

This game of six lead changes - four in the fourth quarter - echoed and magnified the worst elements of the Buffs' 33-30 loss in overtime to Nebraska in 1999. All they needed then was a 34-yard field goal to win. If it's possible, this one looked even more possible, only to result in a correspondingly more painful ending.

Craig Ochs, a 19-year-old true freshman who by the end of this game seemed unaware of the burden on his shoulders, lofted a 15-yard pass to John Minardi with cornerback Erwin Swiney close by to pull CU within one. With his kicking game struggling, Colorado coach Gary Barnett called for a two-point conversion, and his team answered when Ochs shot a missile toward wide receiver Javon Green, who made a juggling, spectacular catch in the end zone to put the Buffs up 32-31. The Memorial Stadium crowd of 77,672 fell silent.

Barnett then ordered kicker Mark Mariscal, who missed two field goals and had two more blocked in five attempts, to squib his kickoff down the middle of the field. His kick was too short, right to Dahrran Diedrick at the 29 yard line, and his return gave the Huskers the ball at their 41 with 44 seconds left. Then quarterback Eric Crouch drove his team to the Colorado 12, where Josh Brown completed what has become a ritual heartbreak for the Buffs against Nebraska by nailing a 29-yard field goal as time expired.

"It seems we did everything we humanly could, and again we came up short," said CU offensive tackle Victor Rogers, whose line helped pound out 197 rushing yards against a team that had allowed an average of 105.2. "It feels like we're cursed against these guys, and this has been going on before I came here."

On the winning side of the ledger, where he usually finds himself, Nebraska coach Frank Solich said: "We've always had the kind of players who never quit. They never quit in this game. When you're in the situation we were in, nine out of 10 people are going to say you can't do it, but if we say we can, you have a chance. That's what our players said."

Nebraska (9-2) left this game with outside hopes of a Bowl Championship Series berth intact, while Colorado's campaign came to a merciful end at 3-8. As in their 17-14 loss to Washington, another top 10 team, the Buffs showed they can hang with any team. But in this snake-bitten season they defeated only three: Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Missouri.

"What's it going to take to get over the hump?" Barnett asked rhetorically. "You've got to win them. Tell me what it is today that kept us from winning the game, and that's what you have to do. You've got to make a play there in the last 47 seconds, or you've got to kick it farther down the field or you've got to make a tackle here or there. That is what it takes. You just don't ever know over the course of a game which play is going to make a difference. You've just got to make enough of them and more than the other guy."

The Buffs now find a 15-point gulf between themselves and Nebraska over the past five seasons, with a resulting five losses. Beyond the kicking woes, Friday's defeat was astonishingly similar to the previous one.

Consider that in both games, Nebraska exploded early, making the game look like a potential blowout. Linebacker Carlos Polk returned an Ochs interception 39 yards just 49 seconds into the game to help the Huskers to a 7-0 lead. As in last year's game, Nebraska fumbles kept CU alive, with three fumbles turning into 10 Buffs points. And in both contests, the underdog Buffs dominated in time of possession (34 minutes, 20 seconds to 25:40) and gained more yardage (451-435).

And then, there was the stunned, distant look in the eyes of CU coaches and players after both games.

"It's getting worse and worse, hurts more and more," CU linebacker Jashon Sykes said. "Just coming all so close, just a couple of plays away. Not even a couple, a play. It hurts so bad."

With his 125 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns and crucial late completions, Crouch got the better of Ochs. But after a jittery first quarter in which he completed one pass for 2 yards, Ochs hinted again that he could turn into one of the best quarterbacks his school has produced. He completed 21 of his last 30 passes for 235 yards, and with three years to play already stands 16th alltime among CU passers with 1,778 yards.

Like Ochs, Minardi, who caught the winning touchdown and five other passes for 85 yards, will be back next season. Cortlen Johnson, who rushed for a season-best 155 yards and three touchdowns, will be back, as will all but one member of the offensive line. The Buffs' defense also could return as many as eight starters.

In other words, Barnett and his team have reason for optimism next year. That can't change how they feel today, and perhaps no one can express the anguish a Colorado player feels when he loses to Nebraska the way tight ends coach Jon Embree can. He lettered at CU from 1983, when the Huskers beat his team 69-19, through 1986, when the Buffs turned the series into a rivalry with a 20-10 victory. He has also spent nine of the past 10 years coaching his alma mater, leaving each of those years still thirsting for what he first tasted in 1986.

"You get at a loss for words," Embree said. "There isn't nothing you can say to anybody. There's nothing the players want to hear. What people don't understand is it ain't about being close. It's about beating them. Whether it's one point or a hundred, it's a loss."

Copyright 2000 The Denver Post. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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Nebraska 34
Colorado 32

Game Summary

The annual redefinition of heartbreak continues for the Buffaloes. After taking the lead with a two-point conversion with 47 seconds to go, CU watched Nebraska drive 47 yards, with Josh Brown's 29-yard field goal as time ran out sealing the Buffs' fate.

Turning point
A botched squib kick by Mark Mariscal went directly into the hands of Dahrran Diedrick, giving the Cornhuskers the ball on their 41 yard line to start their final drive. A better kick by Mariscal or directions to kick the ball deeper could have made a difference.

Friday's heroes
Huskers quarterback Eric Crouch rushed for 125 yards and three touchdowns, then shifted into a passer, completing 4 of 5 passes to engineer the gamewinning drive. Nebraska running back Dan Alexander added 98 rushing yards. For CU, Cortlen Johnson was nothing short of heroic in rushing for 155 yards on a bad toe. John Minardi caught CU's final touchdown and Javon Green caught the goahead conversion. Michael Lewis led the defense with 11 tackles, two for a loss.

Numbers game
62 - The combined number of points the Buffaloes have scored in their past two games against Nebraska, both losses.

Injuries
CU - LB Andy Peeke (finger) will have surgery today; FB David Andrews (shoulder), LB Lindsay Conley (ankle) and DE Rudy Hage (shoulder) will have surgery Tuesday; OLs Gabe Oderberg, Ryan Gray and Karl Allis (all shoulder) will have surgery Thursday; TB Cortlen Johnson (ankle) will schedule surgery after his final exams.

This week's question
How will the loss of those extra bowl practices affect the development of this young team?

- Adam Thompson

---

LOW FIVE
Colorado has lost its past five games against Nebraska by a total of 15 points, and it seems the Buffs have made each game a bigger heartbreak than the previous one. Here's a look at the CU-NU games from 1996 to the present.

Year, Score

1996 - NU 17, CU 12 ... Koy Detmer's last regular-season game was one of his worst: 12-38-2, no TDs.

1997 - NU 27, CU 24 ... John Hessler had one last chance but couldn't pull it out.

1998 - NU 16, CU 14 ... Nebraska: "Take it." CU: "No, thanks." Terrible game.

1999 - NU 33, CU 30 (OT) ... "Wide right" hurts as much in Boulder as at Florida State.

2000 - NU 34, CU 32 ... Special teams execute Buffs instead of other way around.

- Mike Judson