Rogers chewed out his teammates at half-time of Colorado's Oct. 27 game against Oklahoma State, admonishing them for their failure to "play for one another" in falling behind 16-7. The Buffaloes rallied for a 22-19 victory, displaying a resilience they'd lacked in Barnett's first two seasons. Instilling such mental toughness was Barnett's goal on the eve of two-a-days in August, when he showed his squad a scene from the 1993 film The Fugitive. In it the U.S. marshal played by Tommy Lee Jones pursues the fleeing Dr. Richard Kimble, played by Harrison Ford, through a huge drainpipe. When Ford movingly protests his innocence, Jones replies, "I don't care!"
Barnett wanted that single-mindedness from his players, regardless of the obstacles that might come between them and their goal: a Big 12 championship. The first speed bump arrived earlier than expected. Trailing Fresno State 24-22 late in the game on Aug. 26, the Buffaloes were denied a chance for a game-winning field goal attempt when sophomore quarterback Craig Ochs threw into double coverage and was intercepted.
While Barnett was pilloried by the Colorado media after the loss, the seniors kept the team focused, and the Buffaloes won nine of their next 10 games. No player has been more valuable, since the loss to Texas, than Pesavento, the backup quarterback who took over for the injured Ochs (strained ankle tendon) against Oklahoma State. Pesavento has completed 57 of 83 passes for 869 yards and six touchdowns, with two interceptions. He was in a zone of his own in the first half against Nebraska, completing eight of his first 11 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown, and generally making the Blackshirts look like the Dodge City Conquistadors of the Kansas Jayhawk Conference—the second of three leagues in which Pesavento has labored as a collegian. (He arrived in Boulder via Fort Scott [ Kans.] Community College, where he spent the 1999 season after transferring from Miami of Ohio.)
The system Pesavento runs at Colorado is a variation of the West Coast offense—short and intermediate passes based on precise timing—tied to a power running game. The Cornhuskers, God bless them, have been running the same 4-3 defense for the last decade or so. With two weeks to prepare for it, Watson says he could "lock in on some things." Adds Lucier, "Our formations were taking their safeties out of the box. Once Chris [ Brown] and Bobby [Purify] got past the linebackers, they were running scot-free."
Nebraska adjusted late in the second quarter—walking a linebacker up to the line of scrimmage and using him as a fifth lineman—and Pesavento answered by going to the air. He hit Daniel Graham, his superb senior tight end, for a 19-yard gain on a third-and-nine. On the next play Brown went 36 yards for his second touchdown. He was just getting started.
After starring at Naperville (Ill.) North High, Brown followed his brother Levelle to Northwestern. Levelle had been a fullback for Barnett from 1995 through '98. Shortly after Chris committed to the Wildcats, however, Barnett accepted the Colorado job; he was replaced at Northwestern by Randy Walker, who was adamant that Chris switch to wide receiver. It was a rocky time for Chris, who thought seriously about quitting football. Instead he enrolled at Fort Scott, where he racked up 1,284 yards in 10 games despite sharing playing time. "More than anything, he got his confidence back," says Levelle, now a research analyst for a health care consulting firm in Oakbrook, Ill. "He'd begun to doubt himself a little at Northwestern."
Last fall Brown arrived at Colorado, began breaking off head-turning runs in scrimmages and climbed from fifth to first on the depth chart. "Chris can beat you up, run around you or make you miss," says running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, the Buffaloes' alltime leading rusher. "The more carries he gets, the stronger he gets."
After rushing for more than 100 yards three times in Colorado's first five games, Brown saw his carries dry up: 14 against Texas A&M, eight against Texas, three against Oklahoma State, one against Missouri and no touches against Iowa State. "It's not like he was in the doghouse," Bieniemy says. "We had some pretty fast opponents who we thought called for quicker, more elusive guys [rather than a power back like Brown]. Of course, looking back, we wonder, What if?"
Brown would rather have his coaches pondering that question than wondering, as others have, What if he were a receiver?
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