LAWRENCE, Kan. - After three frustrating seasons, the Colorado Buffaloes finally believed their 15-game regular-season road losing streak had been buried. After all, only eight seconds into the fourth quarter here Saturday, they led by 28 points.
But big leads and prosperity are strangers to this CU team. By the end of a record-setting afternoon that had slipped away - make that yanked away - the Buffs' hideous road streak had reached 16.
The trauma of this one will linger. CU laid an egg for the ages.
Kansas scored 35 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, overtook CU 52-45 and stamped the program with this ugly exclamation point: In 121 years of football, CU had never blown a 28-point lead. Records also fell on the KU side, but jubilantly: Until Saturday, the Jayhawks had never scored 35 points in a quarter and had never overcome a 28-point deficit.
Something else to consider while the numbness wears off: KU had averaged 10 points in this season's first four Big 12 Conference games.
"You've just got to finish, just got to learn how to finish," beleaguered CU coach Dan Hawkins said. "You've got to know what it's like to be in the lead (and) you've got to be able to stop 'em."
His team couldn't, and while CU Athletic Director Mike Bohn did not address Hawkins' future, he called the Buffs' collapse "extremely disappointing on many levels. Obviously, these developments do not meet our expectations. That's not to disparage Kansas' accomplishments in any way."
Speaking after CU's chartered jet landed at Denver International Airport, Bohn added, "While we share many of the same frustrations and serious disappointments as our fans, I have confidence in this group of seniors to represent this team and the university with both pride and a competitive spirit for the rest of the season.
"I am cognizant and most appreciative of our fan support of the players all season. Their loyal following will be integral to our immediate and long-term success."
Needing to win their three remaining games to reach six wins and become bowl eligible for only the second time in Dan Hawkins' five-year tenure, the Buffs play back-to-back home games (Nov. 13 vs. Iowa State, Nov. 20 vs. Kansas State) before closing the season on Nov. 26 at Nebraska.
Saturday's loss kept CU winless (0-5) in its final Big 12 season. The Buffs and Jayhawks are both 3-6 overall while KU won its first league game (1-4) under first-year coach Turner Gill.
After taking a 35-10 lead with a solid first half, CU wilted. KU entered the game with a lock on last place in almost all of the league's pertinent statistical categories. But when Gill reflected on a game the Buffs obviously believed was over after two quarters, past stats didn't matter.
"At halftime we talked about being relentless - that was our word of the week," Gill said. "We've got to continue playing the game of football."
Hawkins said he tried to deliver the same message, but several of his players weren't sure it took. Tailback Rodney "Speedy" Stewart, whose career-best rushing game (175 yards, three touchdowns) now will be remembered for a dark and different reason, said some of his teammates seemed cavalier at intermission.
Senior receiver Scotty McKnight agreed: "I think some of those guys just thought the game was over or something - not everyone, but there had to be something else going wrong because the difference between the first half and the second half was night and day," he said. "We were playing good, basically just operating in the first half and doing that well . . . unfortunately, we haven't been in positions where we've been up by a lot."
In building its 25-point halftime cushion, CU got a pair of running touchdowns from Stewart (7, 1 yards) and a pair of receiving TDs from freshman Paul Richardson (62, 4 yards). The other score came courtesy of redshirt freshman tight end DaVaughn Thornton, whose 4-yard TD catch was also his first career reception.
The Buffs' first three drives covered 80, 80 and 71 yards, and on their first scoring march they converted once on third down and twice on fourth. The Jayhawks answered that first TD with a 23-yard Jacob Branstetter field goal, but by the time they scored again on a 19-yard Mecham-to-D.J. Beshears pass, CU was up 28-3, taking advantage of nickel back Travis Sandersfeld's second interception of the season and 16-yard return.
After that touchdown - and aided by 30 yards in penalties - the Buffs sped 62 yards in 41 seconds and scored on the Cody Hawkins-to-Thornton pass.
Stewart's 117 first-half rushing yards gave him four 100-yard games this season and 12 for his career. Among Richardson's five first-half receptions (81 yards) were the pair of TD catches that boosted his seasonal total to four - a school seasonal freshman record. He also set single game school records for catches (11) and yards (141) by a freshman and tied his mark for touchdowns in a game (2).
Cody Hawkins was 20-of-24 for 214 yards and three TDs in the opening half, and the Buffs outgained the Jayhawks 316-147 in total offense. It appeared a rout was underway; unfortunately the Buffs believed it.
Getting a 38-yard field goal by Aric Goodman, CU led 38-17 after three quarters. But when the Buffs stretched their advantage to 45-17 on Stewart's third TD run on the fourth quarter's first play, the Jayhawks' surge began.
Richardson couldn't believe it: "They came back and scored five or six touchdowns . . . I mean, that's just not human," he said.
A 66-yard drive capped by James Sims' 13-yard run pulled KU to 45-24. A successful Jayhawks on-sides kick followed - although CU players believed Cameron Ham recovered the ball rather than KU's Bradley McDougald.
Other than saying he believed his team was prepared for the kick, Dan Hawkins wouldn't comment on the call, which was reviewed and upheld.
"It didn't look like (Ham) had it, he had it; I was right there," Cody Hawkins said. "I don't know how you reach over somebody's back and take the football away from somebody who has it, but obviously you have to play with the referees. There's a couple of calls they helped us out on, too. There was a roughing-the-passer call that I should have won an Oscar on, and a couple of pass interference calls down the field that played in our favor. You can't blame it on the referees; we never should have been in that situation."
Gill called the on-sides kick recovery the game's turning point: "We were 21 points behind at that time and once we got that, it gave us the momentum and I really, really thought we'd have a great chance to win if we got the opportunity."
It was there and the Buffs were willing to allow it. The Jayhawks quickly scored again as quarterback Quinn Mecham and Jonathan Wilson teamed for a 38-yard touchdown pass.
Make it 45-31. Dan Hawkins gathered his team on the sidelines and "just told them to relax . . . we're still the team that's up by 14. Forget about the momentum and all that. We're still in control here."
Maybe, but not for long. On CU's next series, a receiver reverse backfired when Toney Clemons fumbled and KU cornerback Tyler Patmon recovered and ran 28 yards for a TD.
Make it 45-38 with 7:12 remaining and more grief on the way. CU's next offensive series produced Cody Hawkins' second interception (he finished 29-of-42, 322, 3 TDs, 2 INT). And less than a minute after KU's last TD, Mecham and his offense were back on the field, seeking a game-tying score.
They got it on another run by Sims (20 carries, 123 yards, 4 TDs) and pulled even (45-45). The dazed Buffs went three-and-out. Their historic roll over was almost complete.
"You think you have it in the bag and all of a sudden the bag rips open and everything starts going against you . . . this is probably the worst I've ever felt after a game," Cody Hawkins said. "We put our defense into some tough spots when we turned the ball over down there . . . the back-to-back turnovers hurt us.
"Those guys were playing like they were the best team in the country and we were allowing them to do that."
With a win in its sights, KU got possession at its 37-yard line with 2:49 remaining. Five plays later, Sims weaved 28 yards through the middle of CU's defense for his fourth TD and the Jayhawks' first lead of the afternoon (52-45).
Given 46 seconds to regroup and respond, Cody Hawkins drove CU from its 26-yard line to the KU 7. Eight seconds remained. A first-down pass to Richardson in the end zone was ruled incomplete, although Richardson and several of his teammates disputed the call.
Asked if the catch was a TD, Richardson said, "Yeah, definitely. I really don't know what went wrong. I'm going to watch film on it, because it's eating me alive right now. I'm still shocked."
Said McKnight: "I'm still trying to figure out why it wasn't a touchdown. I don't understand it . . . but I had a pretty good view; I think he caught it."
That play took 6 seconds. With 2 seconds left, Hawkins' final pass - once again for Richardson - was incomplete. The Buffs had accomplished the improbable, blowing a 28-point lead and sinking to the bottom of the Big 12 North Division.
"Maybe guys got complacent," McKnight said. "But I don't understand that with three wins coming into it. There's no way we should have lost that football game. I hate losing, but if a team's better than us I'll give hats off to that team. But right now . . . we're a way better football team. We basically just shut down."