BOULDER - Just as Georgia appeared ready to parlay a One Dawg Night - that would be A.J. Green's superlative 2010 debut - into a last-minute win, Colorado linebackers B.J. Beatty and Jon Major stepped forward and changed the script.
Beatty's strip of quarterback Aaron Murray and Major's recovery allowed the suddenly confident and steadily improving Buffaloes to leave Folsom Field with a 29-27 victory and head into their final Big 12 Conference season with a respectable 3-1 non-conference record. CU opens league play next Saturday at Missouri (5 p.m. MDT, FSN).
"We can see improvement . . . there's such a big difference between that Cal game (a 52-7 blowout) and now," Major said shortly after a jubilant CU locker room had cleared out. "We just need to keep on that trend, keep on improving a week at a time. I think we've shown we'll be competitive in the Big 12."
Set to begin competition in the Pac-10 Conference next fall, CU now has won consecutive games for the first time since opening the 2008 season 3-0. Before last weekend's open date, the Buffs rallied in the second half to defeat Hawaii, 31-13.
"That's big for us," said quarterback Tyler Hansen, who more and more is becoming an offensive force. "It gives us a lot of confidence. Georgia's 1-4 now, but that's a good football team. Every game they've lost has been close; they could be 5-0 right now and they're from a great conference (SEC). This was a good win."
It was a good start - the Buffs led at one point 14-3 - but a near heart-stopping finish. With 1:55 to play, after kicker Aric Goodman had just missed a 52-yard field goal attempt, CU clung to a two-point lead and watched UGA try to position itself for the win at the Buffs' 27-yard line.
"That's as basic of a play as we've got," said UGA coach Mark Richt, whose team lost its fourth straight game and dropped to 1-4. "You say, 'What's our number one running play?' - and that was it. They got penetration, obviously, but you've still got to be able to secure the ball for a four- or five-yard loss. You've got to hold onto it, but we didn't."
"I don't know where the guy (Beatty) came from," Murray said. "I handed the ball off (to tailback Caleb King) and it just came out. That's pretty much how it happened."
It was night of big plays made late, but Richt's team featured the night's big, early playmaker. Green, playing in his first game after a four-game NCAA suspension, didn't touch the ball for the first time until the second quarter.
But that was for a 40-yard gain on a flanker reverse. His second touch produced an acrobatic one-handed catch of a Murray pass over CU corner Jalil Brown for a 3-yard touchdown that pulled UGA to within four points (14-10).
Clearly, the Dawgs were uplifted by Green's return - and there was more Green on the way.
After forcing a CU punt, Murray and Green connected again, with Green again victimizing Brown, this time for a 39-yard score. Blair Walsh, who opened the Dawgs' scoring with a 33-yard field goal, kicked his second PAT and UGA took its first lead, 17-14.
Brown, who finished with a team-best eight tackles and an interception, said Green was "definitely" the best receiver he's faced: "He's big (6-4, 212) and he's got speed, too."
But Major noted that Brown and the secondary rebounded nicely: "He's a great player, but it speaks to our corners, how they fought back and they made plays. Jalil had that interception (in the first half) after he had that big pass thrown on him. It's a testament to the kind of guys we have; they'll never quit."
The Dawgs and an estimated 7,500 of their fans were ecstatic to see Green return, chanting "A.J. Green, A.J. Green" after his two TD catches.
Meanwhile, if the Buffs were hoping the second half of Green first game back wouldn't be any more damaging, they were wrong - temporarily. On UGA's first second-half possession, he and Murray connected for a 50-yard pass play to put the Dawgs in scoring position.
But after that long pitch-and-catch, Green virtually disappeared from the UGA offense. His 50-yard reception was his last of the night; victimized by cramps, he wasn't a factor for the rest of the game.
Finishing with seven receptions (six in the first half) for 119 yards and the two TDs, Green said he felt Boulder's altitude "a lot, this being my first game back. It was hard for me to keep my breath, but I fought through it."
The Buffs fought through travails of their own, rallying from a 24-14 deficit with a pair of third-quarter touchdowns and a two-point conversion pass from Cody Hawkins to tight end Ryan Deehan that might have given them as much momentum as anything else they attempted.
After Hansen scored on a 2-yard dive, the Buffs lined up in a formation they call "Shoestring." Deehan is the center - but an eligible receiver - and most of his teammates, including Goodman, are split to the left of the formation.
Hawkins can call off the two-point attempt and bring Goodman into a placekicking formation, depending on how the defense reacts to the odd alignment. But the Buffs stayed in "Shoestring" and Hawkins hit Deehan for what would be two very important points.
"It's part of getting your guys an edge," CU coach Dan Hawkins said of the call. "It's just another way of getting your guys to get on the attack . . . . You have to get out of the box and get your attack mode going."
The Buffs went on the offensive early with tailbacks Brian Lockridge (16 carries, 36 yards, 1 TD) and Rodney "Speedy" Stewart (19-149, 1 TD). Lockridge started, then was briefly sidelined by an ankle injury. Stewart then came on strong, catching three passes for 31 yards in addition to his rushing total, and going 65 yard on an option run that set up Hansen's TD. He scored on his 11-yard run on CU's next possession.
That drive appeared to have ended with a 38-yard Goodman field goal, but he was roughed on the play and the Dawgs were penalized 10 yards to the 11. Stewart scored on the next play and Goodman's PAT pushed CU back in front 29-24 with 4:39 left in the third quarter, and that score held until Blair Walsh kicked a 20-yard field goal to draw UGA to within two (29-27) with 12:30 to play.
CU responded by running almost 9 minutes off the clock, with its drive stalling at the UGA 35-yard line where on fourth-and-18, Goodman missed his 52-yard field goal attempt. With 3:37 remaining, the Dawgs took over on their 35-yard line and pushed as far as the CU 27 before the Buffs' timely strip and recovery snuffed them.
CU's first two scoring drives covered 80 and 78 yards. The Buffs out-rushed UGA 235-188, although the Dawgs held a 221-158 advantage in passing and 409-393 edge in total offense.
In addition to completing 13-of-20 passes for 158 yards and one TD, Hansen ran 10 times for 51 yards and a score. Richt called the CU junior "a big problem . . . . I can't think of how many times thaqt he was the difference in them moving the chains in a third-down situation. His ability to run, break tackles and keep plays alive (helped them). And later on in the game, he did a lot of great things."
While three of the Buffs' TDs came from conventional sources - Hansen, Stewart and Lockridge - their first score came courtesy of guard-turned-fullback Matt Bahr, who caught Hansen's 4-yard lob and stepped into the end zone.
"My first touchdown . . . the first of my life," Bahr said afterwards. "I lined up on the left side as a tight end and blocked just a little to hide myself . . . then I ran out to the flat and was wide open."
Hansen found him and CU had the fast start it wanted. A couple of hours later, Beatty and Major would provide the ending the Buffs needed.
"I knew I had the opportunity to come off the edge and maybe disrupt the handoff," Beatty said. "I was thinking, 'If I could get off the ball fast enough, I can get to that exchange and force it out.' That's all that ran through my head."
Turns out, it was the thought of the night.
BUFF BITS: Saturday night's attendance was 52,855 . . . . CU senior receiver Scotty McKnight's 13-yard catch in the second quarter extended his streak of consecutive games with a reception to 41 counting postseason play . . . . The Buffs were penalized a season-low three times for 21 yards . None of the penalties were on the offense . . . . Stewart's 65-yard run in the third quarter on an option pitch was the longest of his CU career . . . . CU has recorded at least one quarterback sack in 24 consecutive games . . . . The only previous CU-UGA meeting was in 2006 in Athens. The Bulldogs rallied in the fourth quarter to win 14-13 . . . . UGA is only the second SEC team to visit Folsom Field. The first - Louisiana State - smacked CU 44-0 in 1979 . . . . Bulldogs coach Mark Richt owned a 39-4 record against non-conference opponents entering Saturday night's game . . . . The Buffs, coming off their 31-13 win against Hawaii two weekends ago, had won consecutive games on only two occasions over the past four years - a three-game winning streak (Miami-Ohio, Oklahoma, at Baylor) that took them to the mid-way point of the 2007 season and another three-game winning streak (Colorado State, Eastern Washington, West Virginia) to open 2008.