LINCOLN, Neb. - Since the McCartney Era at Colorado, Big Red Week has never slipped up on anyone at CU. This year, however, it was nearly an ambush, almost on Brian Cabral before he knew it.
But Cabral had a plan, a sound one, to deal with the Buffaloes' final trip to Lincoln, Neb.
On Nov. 7, Cabral was named interim head coach, succeeding Dan Hawkins. Cabral's first task was selling his players and assistant coaches on wiping out the recent past and embarking on a three-game season, with the first two games building toward the finale at Nebraska.
In 1996, when the CU-Nebraska was moved to the day after Thanksgiving, an open Saturday preceded the Buffaloes-Cornhuskers game. That usually offered 10 days of preparation/healing time.
Not so this season; after a physically punishing win against Kansas State on Nov. 20, the Buffs were due in Lincoln on Nov. 26. Cabral had five days - three full practices - to prepare his team. But Nebraska faced the same schedule, and the Huskers were faced with rebounding from a 9-6 loss at Texas A&M that put clinching the Big 12 North Division championship on hold for a week.
With that and several other factors fueling the Huskers, Cabral knew what CU would encounter on what likely would be its final visit to Memorial Stadium. Friday was a full-meal deal for the Big Red faithful: the final Big 12 regular-season game in Memorial Stadium, Senior Day, and a halftime jersey retirement ceremony for Ndamukong Suh offered as dessert.
"We figured they'd be ready for us," Cabral said hours after the No. 16 Huskers' 45-17 win. "But we had plenty of motivation, too. Nebraska is a good team . . . good players across the board. But I really thought we'd play better."
Several things led him to believe that: The Buffs had played hard and executed well in two previous home wins against Iowa State (34-14) and K-State (44-36). They had played what Cabral later would refer to as "common sense football," balancing their offense and employing a strong running game while stifling ISU's and KSU's ground games. Moreover, the Buffs had thoroughly embraced Cabral, his never-too-far-below-the-surface emotion and the swift change he brought within the Dal Ward Athletics Center.
At a noon team meeting on Monday - the kickoff for Big Red Week - Cabral gathered the Buffs in the auditorium and began the short session just as he'd done for the previous two weeks:
"Hats off, both feet on the floor, everything out of your hands . . . I want your full attention."
He got it, then proceeded to tell the Buffs what he expected from them when they took the field on Friday: "We're going into Lincoln and assault them, do you hear me? Assault them. Attack them."
Practices that afternoon and on the following two days were intense and spirited, but minus heavy contact. The Buffs locked into the "assault/attack" theme, but not on each other. Cabral told his team, "We're at the point in the season where we don't need that . . . we'll save the contact for Friday. Be ready."
The Buffs hadn't won a game outside the state of Colorado in 31/2 years - a dubious streak not ignored by Cabral although he was doing his best to publically downplay it and hoping the magnitude of Nebraska week would refocus the Buffs. Reminded of the streak at his Monday press conference, he said, "There are no road woes during Big Red Week."
Yet privately, he was trying to figure a way to push the Buffs into a road-win mode. On Thanksgiving Day, before they boarded buses that would take them to DIA for their chartered flight to Lincoln, he introduced them to a "Road Warrior" theme he believed would help break the 17-game road losing streak (12 in the Big 12).
Pacing on the stage at the front of the Dal Ward auditorium, Cabral told the Buffs that "in the heart of a Road Warrior are intensity, commitment and love for one another . . ."
He also showed them a short highlight tape of past CU-Nebraska games, but added, "I'm tired of watching highlights; it's time to create our own."
Yet the crux of Cabral's Thanksgiving address to his team was this: "Look me in the eye - and let me know you're going to Lincoln to win." With that, he summoned CU's position coaches to the front of the auditorium, then had each of them bring their players forward.
After each player had looked his coach in the eye and shook his hand, he received a "Road Warrior" T-shirt.
Less than 24 hours later, the Buffs were assembled in a ballroom in their team hotel on the outskirts of Omaha. Although he would have liked more than four days of preparation time, Cabral felt good about the game plan and his team's focus.
Before the Buffs boarded three buses that would take them to Lincoln, he told them, "This is a great day to be a Buff. Every former Buff, every CU alum, is watching you today . . . the forecast for today is sunny, sunny, sunny - visibility unlimited for the Colorado Buffaloes - UNLIMITED."
With players on one knee in a semi-circle around him, Cabral told them, "You can do this because you're linked . . . you're linked," interlocking his right pinkie finger with his left index finger and holding his hands over his head and he walked before them.
Then he told them to board the buses - offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau and his unit on Bus No. 1, defensive coordinator Ron Collins and his group on Bus No. 2.
"I'm on Bus No. 3 . . . I've got your backs," Cabral said. "I've always got your backs."
It wasn't enough.
The Buffs' final Big 12 game didn't go as Cabral had hoped or planned. His defense forced Nebraska to punt only twice in each half. Stellar CU cornerbacks Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith each gave up a touchdown pass in single coverage. CU's offense was nowhere near as efficient as it had been in the two previous games. Senior quarterback Cody Hawkins, who had thrown only two interceptions in the previous five games, was intercepted twice by the Huskers and missed on several other throws. Senior Scotty McKnight fumbled after a reception for only the second time in his career. The Huskers converted that into a TD, as they did with both of Hawkins' interceptions.
The road losing streak hit 17, sending CU out of the Big 12 with 13 consecutive conference road losses.
On the bus ride Friday night from DIA to Dal Ward, Cabral contemplated the future - not so much his as the program's. Yes, the thought of how a 28-point loss might affect his chances at being promoted entered his mind. He wants the job.
"But I can't control any of that now . . . it's not up to me," he said. "My focus three weeks ago was just as it is now - on these players and these assistant coaches."
Cabral will address the team on Sunday at its Senior Awards Banquet, then gather with returning players on Monday for a "finish the semester strong" meeting.
Recruiting begins in earnest next week, and Kiesau and running backs coach Darian Hagan will be off campus trying to at least keep CU's name recognizable while the coaching search continues. Cabral will stay in his office and "pound the phones," not leaving campus because as interim coach if he goes into a home it constitutes the lone visit a CU head coach can have.
"I don't want to take that away from whoever gets the job," he said.
Cabral still believes this recruiting cycle can be salvaged, provided the coaching search is expedient. Recruiting, he contends, "will take off once a new coach is named. We need a face to be attached to the program. Once that happens, it'll be a whirlwind. I think we can make up for any lost ground."
Having lost plenty of that and more, CU's challenges are many as it inches toward a new conference. But Cabral, having spent 22 seasons on the staff, believes the opportunities are boundless, the task appealing: "This is a great place . . . it can be a great job."