CU kicked out of bowl party
Huskers sink Buffs with late FG, interception for TD
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Fifty-seven yards separated the Colorado football team from Tempe, Ariz., Friday evening and Nebraska place-kicker Alex Henery covered it with one mighty swing of his right leg.
Deep in the fourth quarter with his team stalled on fourth-down-and-25, trailing by one and out of options, Henery trotted to near midfield at Memorial Stadium for a last-ditch shot at victory. If you need to read the next few sentences, you just don't know what kind of season it's been for the Buffs.
The senior from Omaha made the kick, set a new school record for longest field goal and helped swipe an Insight Bowl berth right out from under CU. The Buffs ultimately lost 40-31 after defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh returned an interception 30 yards for a score in the final minute.
"All I remember is hitting the ball," said Henery, who said he had missed all of his attempts from that distance in pregame warmups. "I don't remember much after that."
The loss rocked the Buffs, especially a small group of seniors who came so close to reaching the postseason they could almost taste before it was taken away.
"Proud of 'em," coach Dan Hawkins said afterward when asked what he told his team. "I was really proud of them. I don't think I've ever beenmore proud of one our teams. Our guys battled and scrapped. They gave it everything they had. There was not an inch left."
Perhaps the most disappointing part about the loss was that it came in what might have been the team's best overall game. The Buffs had scored more than 17 points in a Big 12 Conference game just once this season, but finished with 31. The defense made it difficult for a potent Huskers attack to get into the end zone forcing a field goal or turnover on four of six Nebraska trips inside the 20 yard line.
And CU's beleaguered special teams even played themselves to a near draw. They fumbled a kickoff and consistently gave Nebraska good field position on its returns, but Josh Smith had a fine day in the return game (193 yards) and Jimmy Smith turned the Huskers' fake field goal attempt into seven points for the Buffs.
"We knew they were going to try to do some type of fake to get some easy points," Smith said of his 58-yard fumble return just before halftime. "We knew it was coming. They called it out and I sniffed it out and we scored off of it."
It was the second time in three games Nebraska had tried the same fake field goal play and film study had the Buffs prepared for it. The Huskers had been successful with the fake in fourth-down-and-eight, gaining nine yards in ugly fashion against Kansas.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said had the Huskers lost the game, it would have been his fault for calling the fake, the result of which gave momentum back to the Buffs and evened the score.
The game-winning kick also bailed out quarterback Joe Ganz, whose costly fumble on a play-action fake on third-and-goal in the third quarter surely would have been remembered in a Nebraska loss.
Ganz finished the day completing 19 of 26 passes for 229 yards and the two scores. Tailback Roy Helu Jr. was the biggest problem for the Buffs. He touched the ball 30 times and gained a total of 215 yards.
Hawkins and his Buffs headed back to campus 5-7 this season with a long nine months of work to look forward to before their next opportunity to prove themselves.
It's now three years and counting for CU fans waiting for the Buffs' first winning season under Hawkins. Colorado's coach has guided the Buffs to a 13-24 record, including a 1-2 mark against the reviled Huskers. CU finished 2-6 in Big 12 play for second time in the past three years.
"I think clearly we're on the right path and guys are doing the right things and they've got a great future ahead of them," Hawkins said. "I thought we finished. We got a little more aggressive last week against Okie State and we got more aggressive this week and more confident.
"So I think the guys have a little more belief going into the offseason. When we get all healed up and grow up, we're going to be fine."
Had they won Friday, the Buffs likely would have been headed to the New Year's Eve Insight Bowl in Arizona.
Jerry Anderson, a member of the Board of Directors for the Independence Bowl, said his bowl preferred Kansas over Colorado because the Buffs just played in Shreveport, La., last season. Anderson said the Insight Bowl would have been the most likely destination for the Buffs.
The first half might have been the most entertaining 30 minutes of football all season with each team putting up 24 points and Colorado doing so with a slew of big plays including five of the 12 longest plays of the season.
The Buffs offense struggled all season, but it looked like a refined and polished unit on its first two possessions. The Buffs scored a pair of touchdowns in the first 4 minutes on two drives of two plays.
Quarterback Cody Hawkins found tight end Riar Geer down the seam on a 68-yard pitch and catch to begin the scoring on the second play from scrimmage. Hawkins connected with wide receiver Josh Smith on a 44-yard pass on the first play of the Buffs' second drive, and Demetrius Sumler scored on a 36-yard run on the next play.
The Buffs led 14-0 and a stunned crowd of 85,319 hemmed and hawed in frustration.
Nebraska rebounded quickly with 17 consecutive points. Ganz, who deemed Friday's contest "a redemption game" for his poor performance in Boulder last season, connected on two touchdown passes near the end of the first quarter. He hit Nate Swift over the shoulder on a two-yard play and found tight end Mike McNeill for a 53 yard score. McNeill badly beat linebacker Shaun Mohler on the play.