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The Buffaloes' traditional opener against rival Colorado State sets the tone for the season in Boulder, but there was greater anticipation than usual attached to last Saturday's game. In the wake of off-season investigations by a state grand jury and the university into allegations of rape by football players and recruiting practices that included sex and alcohol for high school players visiting the campus, team supporters were desperate for a positive start to the 2004 season. "If we do well against Colorado State, we'll do well this season," predicted John Mehaffy, a 1968 alumnus whose view was typical of those who gathered at the Boulder Buffs Club luncheon on the Wednesday before the game.
"Beat the Rams," said George Karakehian, an athletic department booster for more than three decades, "and the sky's the limit."
In winning 27-24, Colorado barely got off to the good start its fans were hoping for, but the Buffaloes showed a school-record crowd of 54,954 that they've emerged from the tumult with plenty of resolve. One by one Colorado players galvanized the team with big plays in the final quarter, as the Rams tied the score at 17 with 11:42 to play and came within a yard of a winning touchdown in the final minute. First, sophomore Mason Crosby kicked a career-best 55-yard field goal with 6:43 left to put the Buffaloes back on top, 20-17. Then junior linebacker Brian Iwuh returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown and a 10point lead. Colorado State subsequently scored on a leaping touchdown catch by wideout Johnny Walker and, on the final possession, drove to the one-yard line. But on the game's last play, Buffaloes junior safety J.J. Billingsley tackled tailback Tristan Walker for a two-yard loss to seal the victory.
"Last year, when we went 5-7 and there was a lot of negative talk [among players], we would have lost this game," Colorado senior defensive tackle Matt McChesney said. "But there's no quit in this team."
That attitude arose from the fallout of last winter's scandals, during which the players became objects of derision around campus even though none of them was charged with a crime, and six players transferred (though none explicitly said the move was because of the scandal or the mood on campus). This year's seniors organized low-key outings, such as trips to the movies, to strengthen the bond among teammates. "The spotlight was on us," says senior running back Bobby Purify, who responded to Saturday's pressure with 189 yards on 26 carries. "A group of us spoke to the team about the importance of avoiding trouble, even for the littlest thing, and that accountability carried over into winter workouts."
On Feb. 18 coach Gary Barnett was suspended by university president Elizabeth Hoffman after he had clumsily criticized the athletic ability of former placekicker Katie Hnida, who'd told SI that she had been raped by a Colorado teammate in 2000. "[ Barnett's suspension] really could have dragged everyone down, but it further forced the players to pay attention to what they could control--and that was running and throwing and tackling," says assistant head coach Brian Cabral, who was put in charge of the team in Barnett's absence.
The staff installed a 4-3 defense to cut down on the big plays opponents made against the 4-2-5 the Buffaloes had been using. And inspired by the return of Purify from a high ankle sprain that forced him to take a medical redshirt in 2003, the coaches created new running plays to beef up a ground game that ranked 113th in the nation last year.
As for Barnett, despite an apparent lack of control over his program, he is a proven motivator, and his reinstatement in May infused the team with an optimism that belied its questionable depth at wide receiver and in the secondary. During the Big 12's media day in Kansas City in July, Barnett had the Colorado contingent pay a visit to Arrowhead Stadium, site of this year's conference championship game. In Dallas three years earlier he'd made a similar stop at Texas Stadium, where Colorado later returned to win that year's Big 12 title. "Point is, our goal hasn't changed," says senior defensive tackle Brandon Dabdoub. "We want to win the Big 12 and get a national championship."
But Colorado faces numerous challenges--among them, refining its passing attack, toughening its pass defense and managing a schedule that includes nine 2003 bowl participants--and will be hard-pressed to make it back to Kansas City on Dec. 4. Then there's a more important matter: revamping the recruiting process to make it both competitive and beyond reproach.
On Saturday the Buffaloes took the first step in restoring respectability to their program. Fans dressed in gold swarmed onto the field after the goal line stand to show their appreciation. "There was a lot of emotion and passion in this game," said Barnett afterward. "That makes you get better." -- Kelley King