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BOULDER - Dan Hawkins can now peer into 2010, given the go-ahead to gaze on Thursday by Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn, who announced that the university believes Hawkins needs at least a fifth season to right CU's football program.

But Friday morning will find Hawkins focused on the here-and-now of Nebraska, CU's opponent at Folsom Field (1:30 p.m., ABC).

"We all know what this game means for us, Colorado and Colorado football ," Hawkins said. "It's one of the exciting parts of being at Colorado, being able to play in these kinds of games."

In truth, it's all that remains of a disappointing three-win season. Hawkins and his Buffaloes are three weeks and two losses below the brink of bowl eligibility, having quietly slipped among this season's also-rans after their 17-10 loss at Iowa State on Nov. 14.

But Bohn believes better days are ahead and that Hawkins, whose contract runs through the 2012 season, can lead the Buffs to them. At a mid-morning team meeting, Bohn told the players that Hawkins has the "unequivocal support" of CU's administration.

"I want to end the speculation (about Hawkins' future)," Bohn said. "From Day 1 we've been supportive of Dan . . . Dan's our coach and he's your coach."

Chancellor Phil DiStefano also briefly addressed the players, telling them he was proud of their competitive spirit: "You're not quitters . . . Dan, Mike, none of us are quitters. And that means a heck of a lot to me. I'm proud of you and your coach."

At 3-8 overall, the Buffs are left to view Friday's game as the end of their regular season and their postseason - and that's what some of them are doing.

"I think it's kind of a bowl game to us," sophomore offensive lineman Ryan Miller said. "Plus, we want to send the seniors off on a good note . . . these guys have given so much, it would be great to give something back to them."

As much as that, though, Miller said, "Fans have been waiting for us to show what we can do, and this is a rivalry game, it's on national TV. We think we're right there; we think we can pull this thing together and finish."

The Buffs have been attempting that since early September, when they lapsed into a lose-two-win-one pattern that has carried them to this point and sharply increased the criticism on Hawkins, who carries a 16-32 record into the final game of his fourth season.

Unable to shut out the furor on the outside, Hawkins' players say their only recourse is to play to win against a Cornhuskers team that lost consecutive Big 12 Conference games, then righted itself with four straight wins and arrived in Boulder as the Big 12 North champion.

"It's a business; we can't do nothing about that," cornerback Cha'pelle Brown said. "All we can do is go out there and play. That's it.

"When you're 21, 22, 23 years old, the older guys understand . . . the only way we can help (Hawkins) is go out and try to get some wins."

But for Brown and 16 fellow seniors, "some" is down to one, and beating Nebraska rarely is easy for CU. This season, the Cornhuskers feature one of the nation's top defenses: they are No. 3 in scoring defense (10.3 points a game), No. 8 in total defense (281.3 yards a game) and No. 14 in rushing defense (99.0 yards a game) and No. 17 in pass defense (182.3 yards a game).

Nebraska surrendered its most points of the season in a 31-10 loss to Texas Tech six games ago, but hasn't allowed more than 17 since and is on a four-game winning streak.

By the numbers, then, the young and inconsistent Buffs offense appears overmatched. But it has shown a pulse recently, particularly in the passing game. In the three most recent games, CU has averaged 256 air yards with five touchdown passes.

However, protection has been a problem for the Buffs, who are No. 117 (out of 120 teams) in the FBS in sacks allowed (3.91 a game). And the problem could be amplified Friday if Nebraska tackles Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick, who have 15.5 sacks between them and the team's co-leaders in tackles (65 each), aren't blocked.

The Cornhuskers have run hot and cold offensively, ranking 10th in the Big 12 Conference in total offense (345.5 yards a game) and eighth in scoring offense (25.4 points). But they do have a capable I-back in Roy Helu, Jr. (96.1 yards a game) and quarterback Zac Lee is averaging 185.8 passing yards a game (12 touchdowns, 7 interceptions).

Nebraska's biggest concern, though, might be making Friday's game meaningful. The Huskers already have clinched their first outright North title under second-year coach Bo Pelini and will meet South Division champ Texas on Dec. 5 for the conference championship.

Pelini has spent much of the week assuring that his team won't overlook a three-win opponent on its way to Dallas.

"I always say that the toughest thing as a coach is keeping your guys on track in a day-to-day manner," he said. "Make sure they're focused on the task at hand . . . we have to get better this week in preparation for the next step."

Pelini expects the Buffs "to play their best football game of the year, so you have to meet that challenge head on."

CU's players have focused on finishing strong against their rival and heading into what must be a productive off-season on an upbeat note instead of prolonging the outside negativity of the past two months.

"I think unless you're kind of entrenched in it and see what goes on behind the scenes, then you don't really know exactly what goes on," receiver Scotty McKnight said. "I mean, everyone has the right to their own opinion. I see why it's been disappointing, and as a player it's even more disappointing for someone who invests so much time to come out winning three games to this point.

"That's tough on me, this team . . . it's a tough thing to deal with."

If the Buffs can win Friday, McKnight said, "Maybe some people will back off (of Hawkins) a little bit. But everyone's different; some people probably have made up their minds about what they want to have happen. That's not a lot of stuff we can control.

"I had a long talk with my dad about all of this and he said, 'Hey, control what you can control. Don't start thinking about the outside stuff because it'll only affect the way you play.'"

As erratic as they've often been through 11 games, the Buffs don't need anything else to affect Game 12. Maybe receiving an answer on their coach's future will help settle them.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU