Forgive the Colorado buffaloes if they seem unsure of how to behave just now. They have never walked this path before. Being undefeated and all but assured of playing for the national championship on Jan. 1 is new to Colorado. So when an overly exuberant player punched through a dressing-room ceiling tile after Colorado's 27-21 victory over Nebraska last Saturday, his teammates figured, hey, this must be what great teams do after clutch wins. In a matter of minutes, ceiling tiles littered the floor.
Though the Buffaloes' celebration had an impromptu feel to it, others had come to Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., better prepared. Immediately after the game, hawkers outside the stadium shouted "Extra! Extra!" as they sold special-edition copies of The Denver Post. BUFFS BEAT NEBRASKA IN GAME OF THE CENTURY trumpeted the Post's headline. The matchup was hardly that, but the winner would probably face Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for the national title on New Year's Day. Both Colorado and Nebraska came to the game undefeated. And though the Corn-huskers" schedule appeared to have been arranged by a pastry chef rather than an athletic director, Nebraska promised to be Colorado's toughest foe of the season.
How did the Buffaloes win? Well, it wasn't with pass defense. Colorado's defensive backs took a competent, if uninspiring, Nebraska quarterback, Gerry Gdowski, and nearly turned him into a hero. Gdowski threw for 211 yards and three touchdowns, was not intercepted and seemed able to convert third downs at will. Nor did the Buffs win with pass offense. By sending safety Tyrone Byrd flying up to stuff the option, the Huskers appeared to have made themselves vulnerable to the pass. The problem was, almost every time Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan tried to set up and throw, some carnivorous defensive lineman climbed through his face mask. The Buffs' offensive line, which had been strong all season, was humbled by Nebraska. Pass protection was nonexistent.
Fortunately for the Buffaloes, Hagan didn't need much help. With some timely assistance from tailback J.J. Flannigan, who ached for redemption after a costly fumble against Nebraska last season, and Jeff Campbell, an ex-hockey player and walk-on from nearby Vail, who set up two touchdowns with electric punt returns, Hagan mustered enough offense to carry the day.
Afterward, Campbell identified the primary reason for the Buffs' 9-0 season. "We have a focus," he said, inclining his head toward the other side of the dressing room. There, a locker had been encased in plate glass and transformed into a shrine of sorts. Inside it was the uniform of the Buffaloes' late quarterback, Sal Aunese, who died of stomach cancer on Sept. 23, at the age of 21. In a letter to his teammates, Aunese wrote, "Hold me dear to your heart, as you know I do all of you. Strive only for victory each time we play...I love you all. "Go gettem' and bring home the Orange Bowl. Love, Sal."
A cruel twist in Colorado's schedule made that an extra tall order. The Buffs' two toughest opponents, Oklahoma and Nebraska, would come back-to-back, seven days apart. Thus, when corner-back Dave McCloughan batted away Gdowski's final desperation heave Saturday, the Buffs' 9-0 record was not nearly as significant as their season-within-a-season 2-0 mark.
Five years ago, Colorado had finished 1-10, with a 42-17 loss to Oklahoma. On Oct. 26, two days before this season's game with the Sooners. Colorado coach Bill McCartney concluded practice by handing out T-shirts bearing a simple inscription in bold red letters: THINGS HAVE CHANGED.
Thus clad in inspirational attire, the Buffaloes boarded buses to begin the trip to Norman. How had things changed? For starters, the Buffaloes were favored by six points, a concept many veteran Colorado fans simply could not grasp. Yes, Colorado had a better record than the 5-2 Sooners, and Oklahoma's wishbone would not be a mystery to Colorado's front seven, one of the nation's best. And, as usual, Oklahoma's passing game would be more a source of amusement than yardage. Yet there was one immutable fact: The Buffaloes had not won in Norman since 1965. "No team has dominated Colorado, down through the years, like they have," said McCartney, whose personal 0-7 record against the Sooners qualified him as an expert.
McCartney then explained the T-shirt slogan: "What I'm trying to emphasize to the guys is that, if we go down there and lose, then Oklahoma people will say, 'Look, even in their best year, Colorado still can't beat Oklahoma.' "
As he spoke, a tall, striking young woman got out of a nearby car and came over to him. "Tim's asleep," Kristyn McCartney said to her father. "Now's a good time for you to say goodbye to him." With that, the coach walked to the car and gurgled various endearments to his seven-month-old grandson, the child of Kristyn and Aunese.