BOULDER - The Colorado Buffaloes ended a disappointing 2009 football season on Friday in much the same manner as they muddled through it - mostly competitive, but too often error-prone and self-destructive.
Final result: a 28-20 loss against archrival Nebraska that left the winning coach in a bittersweet mood - emphasis on the bitter.
"I'm disappointed in our effort and how we played," Bo Pelini said. "I'm happy we won the football game (but) I don't like the way our football team played in any phase of the game . . . I thought we took a step back today."
Nonetheless, Nebraska, improving to 9-3 overall and 6-2 in the Big 12 Conference, has earned another step forward in Pelini's second season. As outright Big 12 North Division champion, the Cornhuskers play No. 3 Texas, the South Division champ, on Dec. 5 in Dallas for the conference title.
Truth be told, the Huskers didn't need a stellar afternoon to send CU to 3-9, 2-6 in the final game of coach Dan Hawkins' fourth season (16-33 overall) and win for the seventh time in their past nine trips to Boulder.
Hawkins, who this week was awarded a fifth season by university administration to right CU's ship, called 2009 "one of those seasons where if you could take away 10 plays, we might be a bowl team."
Two of those non-refundable 10 occurred against the Cornhuskers, who ran back a punt and an interception for two first-half touchdowns then put the game away with a clock-devouring 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter to go ahead by two touchdowns (28-14).
CU made the final margin, if not the season, more respectable by scoring on the last play of the game - a 56-yard pass from Tyler Hansen to Scotty McKnight. The PAT was not attempted.
After he said "a sad goodbye" to 17 CU seniors and junior snapper Austin Bisnow, who graduates in May and will not return next fall, Hawkins told a press conference that improvements in 2010 hinge on the Buffs being able to "cinch it up a little bit.
"In my way of thinking, and I think that is the same with the Chancellor (Phil DiStefano) and AD (Mike Bohn), this place was burned to the ground (when he took over for Gary Barnett in 2006).
"So your efforts to heal and build are broad-based . . . I think those are the things that we focused on; I think we have to hang in there together. For those who are disappointed, just call Mike Bohn and say, 'What can I do to help?'
"And then, jump in and help. Whether it's a team or a university, when everyone rows in the same direction, good things usually happen."
The Buffs go into the off-season needing many, many good things to happen - in recruiting, the weight room, the coaches' cubicles . . . the list is long.
"Clearly, we didn't win as many games as we would like," Hawkins said. "(But) I was not disappointed in their effort or their attitude. But clearly, you want to win more games."
Four of CU's 2009 losses were by eight or fewer points, with two other road losses (at West Virginia, at No. 2 Texas) coming after the Buffs stayed competitive into the fourth quarter. They followed that "keep it close, leave disappointed" script Friday.
Given the strength of Nebraska's defense, CU hoped to get points from its defense or special teams. And given the relative mediocrity of the Huskers offense, the Buffs defense figured they could at least break even in that matchup.
The first half didn't work out that way; in fact, it went in the opposite direction, with Nebraska's special teams and defense accounting for two first-half scores.
CU moved the ball well enough on a Nebraska defense (403 total yards; 269 passing, 134 rushing) that was No. 8 nationally in yards allowed (281.2 yards a game) and No. 3 in points allowed (10.3). The Buffs' total yards were a season-high yield by the Huskers.
Hawkins said offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau and O-line coach Denver Johnson "did a good job with our run game. Obviously, 'Speedy' (Rodney Stewart) made some really good runs (21 carries, 110 yards)."
The Buffs also did a commendable job against Huskers All-America defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The running game numbers speak for themselves and Hansen was sacked only once.
CU left guard Mike Iltis said although Suh usually was double-teamed, the Buffs still were able to get to the Huskers linebackers.
"I think we did a good job with that," Iltis said. "(Suh) is definitely a great player, but we came out with the attitude of 'don't let people tell you he's superhuman.'"
The Buffs spent most of the first quarter with their collective backsides nearly rubbing their own goal line. CU's four opening possessions began at its 17-, 2-, 7- and 9-yard lines, and to compound that dismal field position, the Buffs went three-and-out on those four series.
The third of Matt DiLallo's four first-quarter punts was taken 59 yards for a touchdown on a middle return by Nebraska junior Niles Paul. It was his longest return of the season and his score.
Alex Henry's PAT put the Cornhuskers ahead 7-0 with 3:34 left in the first quarter. That score held until the first play of the second quarter, when Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee and freshman tight end Ben Cotton teamed for a 24-yard touchdown pass.
The Buffs were behind by two touchdowns before they recorded their initial first down of the game, that coming on the series after Cotton's TD catch.
But that CU possession ended badly, with Hansen (21-of-44, 269 yards, three TDs, three interceptions) throwing the first of two picks of the opening half. This one went to cornerback Dejon Gomes, but the Buffs defense held fast and forced Henery into a wide right miss on a 50-yard field goal attempt.
Hansen and the Buffs regrouped, driving 67 yards in seven plays and scoring on a 2-yard Hansen-Jake Behrens pass to pull to 14-7. Behrens, a senior fullback, is from Omaha, Neb.
CU's defense forced Nebraska into its first three-and-out of the first half, Hansen was intercepted again - this time by free safety Matt O'Hanlon, who ran it in from 20 for a touchdown and a 21-7 Huskers halftime lead.
The Buffs wound up running nine more plays (34-25) than the Huskers in the opening half and outgained them 148-89 in total offense. But the special teams breakdown and Hansen's interception gave Nebraska its halftime cushion.
The Cornhuskers took the second half kickoff and lost their quarterback three plays later. On what appeared to be a busted play - Lee going left, his backfield mates going right - he was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and went down favoring his left knee or ankle.
Replacing Lee was Cody Green, and after the freshman failed to move his offense, Hansen passed 6 yards to McKnight for a touchdown that capped a 12-play, 59-yard drive.
Aric Goodman's extra point pulled the Buffs once again to within a touchdown (21-14) halfway through the third quarter.
Lee (9-of-14, 73 yards, one TD) returned on Nebraska's next series, but was ineffective, giving CU possession at its own 17. Hansen marched his offense to the Huskers 18, with a 58-yard pass to Markques Simas - the Buffs' longest play of the season from scrimmage - keying the drive.
But it ended badly after Hansen was penalized 17 yards on an dubious intentional grounding call on third-and-three. Goodman's 52-yard field goal attempt on fourth down drifted wide left, and the third quarter ended with Nebraska holding its touchdown advantage.
The Buffs made a break themselves on the first play of the last quarter, with defensive tackle Eugene Goree recovering a fumble by Huskers I-back Roy Helu, Jr., at the Nebraska 49.
Stewart ran 28 yards to the Huskers 21, then gained an additional yard on the next play. The drive ended there; on fourth down, Goodman was wide left on a 47-yard field goal attempt and CU was left gasping.
"I feel bad for the guy (Goodman)," Hawkins said. "He works hard, tries hard . . . but we've got to figure out a way to make more of these things."
Goodman, a junior, made 10 of his 18 on field goal attempts this season and 31 of his 32 extra point tries. After his 47-yard miss, Nebraska took over on its own 20 with 13:35 remaining and drove 80 yards in 13 plays, with freshman Rex Burkhead the workhorse (9 carries, 55 yards) and the scorer on a 7-yard run.
And just as critical as the 80-yard TD drive was the time it required - 6:52.
"That is their game plan," CU senior linebacker Marcus Burton said. "They keep running and running until the defense wears. Then, they start to hit gaps. Guys start getting out of their assignments. They did a good job with that."
Said Hawkins: "I think our defense played well most of the game. But I think it's tough when you don't answer on offense; you lose a little momentum there. They got their horns out and rolled on us a little bit."
Trailing 28-14, the Buffs took over at their 24-yard line with 6:34 remaining. Hansen drove his team to the 16, but CU self-destructed for the final time at that point, drawing delay of game and false start penalties on consecutive downs and leaving a fourth-and-20 at the 26 with 4:18 to play.
Hansen's fourth-down pass was intercepted by cornerback Prince Amukamara and returned to the Nebraska 47-yard line. The Huskers had 4:00 to kill for the win. They used most of that before returning the ball to the Buffs at their own 20 with 1:30 remaining.
It wasn't nearly enough time for CU to salvage the afternoon - or the season.
"You always want to win more games," Hawkins said. "We beat a few ranked teams (in his tenure; only Kansas this season), we battled some teams and those guys are showing it . . . we just have to turn the corner. That's the key."
Once again, Buffs fans are left waiting.
BUFF BITS: There was no extra point attempt after CU's final-play touchdown because officials said it would not have affected the outcome of the game . . . . Friday's attendance was 52,817 - the second-largest of the season at Folsom Field. The opener against Colorado State drew 53,168 . . . . CU's Stewart posted his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the season . . . . Senior cornerback Cha'pelle Brown was the winner of this season's Buffalo Heart Award, presented annually for the past 11 seasons to a Buffs player by fans who sit behind the CU bench . . . . McKnight finished the season by catching a pass in 36 consecutive games, a school record he can build on in his senior year . . . . CU defensive tackle Curtis Cunningham went out with a strained knee in the second quarter and did not return . . . . CU used Iltis at guard and Keenan Stevens at center for the entire game. Iltis, a sophomore, began playing guard three games ago and made his first start at the position Friday.