By Adam Thompson
Denver Post Sports Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2001 - BOULDER - Justin Bannan, one of Colorado's four captains, shocked himself out of a NyQuil-induced sleep Friday morning with a cold shower.
Despite a strained hamstring, the senior defensive tackle would not alter his game-day preparation at the team's hotel. He had a few cups of coffee downstairs at the Omni Interlocken in Broomfield, headed to chapel, ate breakfast and couldn't help but overhear ESPN analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit talk about Nebraska playing Oklahoma in next week's Big 12 championship.
Shawn Watson, the Buffaloes' offensive coordinator, had a fitful night. He kept popping up and down, posing "ifs" and "whens" in his mind. But the stress of Thursday night dissipated when he arrived downstairs.
"When I saw them this morning," he said later, after his offense had done something none other had, "and got around the coaches and got around the players, it was a great ease, a great comfort."
CU athletic director Dick Tharp was up before sunrise to walk his dogs. He ferried his oldest son to The Hill, his middle son to football practice and his youngest to brunch with university president Elizabeth Hoffman. Entertaining powerful donors, administrators and bowl representatives, Tharp had business almost as crucial to the football team as the game itself. Would he be able to steer his team into a specific bowl game by the end of the day?
"No, because by the end of the day, we'll be going to Dallas. Nebraska will be 11-1," he said.
That confidence would have been hard to find outside the CU family at the day's start. By its end, all of college football would believe. The Buffaloes resoundingly erased a 10-game winless streak to Nebraska, not to mention an ocean's worth of angst, in thundering past Nebraska 62-36. CU will play for the Big 12 championship Saturday in Irving, Texas, against the Texas Longhorns.
The Buffaloes re-established their national credentials on a day marked by the anticipation of opening kickoff, the tense moments of a Nebraska rally and the unbridled jubilation as fans tore down the south goalposts.
Senior tailback Cortlen Johnson, one of the most respected members of the team, set the tone for the day when he stood before the offense at the hotel to remind the players of the promises they had made to each other.
"I stood in the back of the room and listened to Cortlen talk, and there was a purpose there," Watson recalled. "It was overwhelming."
Meanwhile, the defense heard from Tom McMahon, the co-defensive coordinator who would miss his second consecutive game with a bacterial infection. He told them that with so little strength, he felt like a distraction and would watch from home.
"We just want him to get his rest and get better," Bannan said. "We're really worried about him. He's probably one of the toughest, most courageous guys I've known in my life."
The team traveled by bus to the Dal Ward Center and was greeted by New York firefighters. The members of Engine Co. 1 and Ladder Co. 24 had been invited by head coach Gary Barnett to stand on CU's sideline to watch the game.
About 10 a.m., Barnett shut himself in his office to think about what he would tell his players during their final meeting in the locker room. Two doors over, Watson also was cloistered, going over his script of 15 plays and making final preparations.
He expected Nebraska to present several one-on-one battles. Instead of stacking the defensive line with eight or nine players, the Cornhuskers try to beat opponents with seven. There is often one free defender left to face the tailback.
"The back's going to have to make one guy miss," Watson said earlier in the week. He also predicted single coverage on tight end Daniel Graham, a strategy that had burned every other defense that tried it this season. But Nebraska stays within its system, Watson said.
On the field, a wounded Bannan warmed up. His strained hamstring had minimized his practice time in the two weeks leading up to the game. Bannan could not relieve the pain despite warming the muscle and performing extra stretches.
On Wednesday, Barnett started telling people his captain might only be available for 10 plays Friday. That caught Bannan's attention.
"I took that comment and turned it around," he said. "I think he was doing it to call me out or something. There was no way I was only going to play 10 plays."
Less than two hours before kickoff, Tharp hurried from Hoffman's house to the grass parking lot just east of Folsom Field to join tailgate parties with supporters. From there, he met CU recruits and then, after an introduction from women's basketball coach Ceal Barry, schmoozed for five minutes in front of a room full of employees from StorageTek, the athletic department's sponsor for the game.
He got laughs by asking how a company founded in Boulder could allow in a whole table of people clad in red and told the crowd to treat the visitors nicely after their team lost. Generally, he said, he improvises his speeches, though during the course of the day he did recycle a line about the oddity of having attended Omaha's West Side High School.
After shaking a few more hands and checking the score of the Texas-Texas A&M game on the big screen in the corner of the dining room, Tharp took some back staircases through the bowels of Dal Ward and onto the field. While on the sidelines, he bounced from the firefighters, who presented him with an FDNY hat that he wore throughout the game, to ESPN reporter Steve Cyphers to Hoffman to Eric Cornell, CU's recently named Nobel prize winner.
These discussions became barely audible as the Buffaloes rumbled off the field for their final talk in the locker room. That's where Barnett wrote the word "Goalposts" on a board.
"They're going to come down, and don't get hurt," he said. He pointed to injured quarterback Craig Ochs and told him to be especially careful. Ochs suffered a concussion earlier in the season. Before sending them back on the field, Barnett told his players to get ready for the celebration of their lives.
That wasn't the only goalpost talk. While at Hoffman's house, Tharp had told former CU linebacker Dan McMillen: "We've got a whole plan. It takes 4.8 seconds to drop the goalposts."
A little drama
Quickly after kickoff, that plan looked like it would come into effect. After the Huskers' three-and-out first series, the Buffaloes needed 1 minute and seven seconds to score on the nation's second-ranked scoring defense. On the fourth play of the series, Bobby Purify ripped through the line on a delayed handoff and ran 39 yards for a touchdown.
The one-on-one battles Watson had predicted quickly turned into routs. The Buffs rushed the ball 52 times, all on slight variations of just four plays.
By the end of the first quarter, the Buffaloes had a 28-3 lead, which prompted Hoffman, visiting Tharp's box, to exclaim, "This is so fabulous!"
Tharp turned from his seat and replied, "Remember when I said everybody would be bored at halftime and would have to leave?"
A few doors down, in Hoffman's box, Gov. Bill Owens was in the same state of disbelief as the other 53,789 people in the stadium.
"Now I wish I'd made a bet with the governor of Nebraska," he said.
There was more work for Tharp, who pressed flesh with Kevin Weiberg after his wife, Melinda Tharp, gave the Big 12 commissioner a hug. During halftime, he also chatted with Pete and Marilyn Coors and representatives from the Holiday Bowl.
He remained cool, if not stunned, by the 42-23 score, but as he sneaked downstairs for a bathroom break, he turned to Matt Russell, CU's Butkus Award-winner in 1996, and said, "The truth is, it's nerve-wracking."
The guests in Tharp's box - family members and friends of the department - stayed tense as the Cornhuskers pulled to within 12 points.
The Buffs had lost the previous five meetings to Nebraska by a combined 15 points, but to lose this one, after holding a 35-3 lead, would have made that anguish feel like nothing. CU was giving away yardage like it was second-hand clothing - 376 yards in the second and third quarters combined.
Asked what might have happened if his team lost again, Bannan replied: "Oh, God. There might've been a mass suicide."
But when Chris Brown scored his fourth touchdown to make the score 49-20, Tharp lifted his cap, put his hands over his head and exhaled.
Nothing for granted
On the field, the Buffaloes were trying to stay composed. Even as the lead grew to 32 points with 9:41 left, Bannan would assume nothing with a Nebraska team that had broken his heart in each of the previous four years playing on the other side.
"There have been so many times when we've said, "We've got it! We've got it!' and something crazy happens," he said.
Watson recalled the emotions starting to creep in with seven minutes left and his team up 62-36, which would turn out to be the final.
"I excused it real quick, because with seven minutes left, I'm not taking anything for granted, because they're a great football team," he said.
Their concern was understandable, but ultimately unnecessary. CU never relinquished the ball in those final seven minutes. Bannan, who had only missed a handful of plays, finally knew he had it when Brown gained 16 yards on third and 4 from the Buffalo 37-yard line. Tharp headed downstairs with five minutes left to join the team.
Bill McCartney stayed in his seat until the end. The only coach to win a championship at CU, and the man who demanded the Buffalo Nation consider the Cornhuskers its rival, perched in a small box at the top of Folsom Field, ignoring the late November evening despite the open window. A handful of family members and Bob Simmons, his former assistant and now, at least officially, a neutral Big 12 official, joined him.
As the final seconds ticked down, McCartney said: "I think this will rank with any victory Colorado has ever had, because Nebraska was the No. 1 team in the nation (in the BCS standings), 11-0 and had everything to play for. Nebraska had more incentive than Colorado did in this game. But I think it's a game that people will remember for a long time. Hopefully, there'll be more like them."
Tharp swam through thousands of jubilant students and the occasional player past the south goalposts, which failed the 4.8-second test. Despite the pushing and overcrowding, a potentially dangerous situation turned out to be harmless.
One by one, players squeezed into the basement entrance of Dal Ward. McCartney found Barnett, also his former assistant, screamed, "Barney!' and gave him a bear hug.
As Tharp went to his office to celebrate with friends and players met the media - CU issued a school-record 607 press credentials for the game - and dressed, the coaches prepared for a recruiting dinner at a local restaurant. In Boulder, Nebraska week is one of the Buffs' two largest recruiting weekends of the year.
"The restaurant was popping," Watson said. "It was a pretty exciting atmosphere."
As for whether a game like this can win CU any prospects, he added: "We'll have to wait and see what happens. Certainly that environment . . . was an awesome environment."
Some assistants went home to their families. Others were seen in nightspots around Boulder's Pearl Street. A large contingent of players, including Bannan, also became the guests of honor around town.
After that standard work day, the Buffaloes had a few days to celebrate before worrying about their Big 12 championship opponents, the No. 5 Longhorns, who defeated CU 41-7 in October.
Barnett was asked before he left Dal Ward on Friday night about his team's schedule.
His program fundamentally elevated, the coach smiled and quietly replied: "Just like a normal week. Just like a normal week."