BOULDER - Was it Senior Day or "Speedy Day?" On a November afternoon reserved for honoring Colorado's 16 seniors, junior running back Rodney "Speedy" Stewart upstaged the upperclassman.
None of the older guys minded.
"Speedy" did what he does best (run) and did what does least (pass) to push CU past Kansas State 44-36 in the Buffaloes' final Big 12 Conference game at Folsom Field.
The victory improved the Buffs to 5-6 overall (2-5 Big 12) and 2-0 under interim head coach Brian Cabral, setting up a day-after Thanksgiving showdown with Nebraska in Lincoln. If the Buffs can upset the No. 9 Cornhuskers in Memorial Stadium - always a monstrous if - they'll be bowl eligible for only the second time in five seasons.
"We're right where we hoped to be going into Nebraska," said Cabral, adding that by the time they leave for Lincoln on Thanksgiving Day, his players will be well-schooled on what "Big Red Week" has meant to the CU program. "The pride and tradition of this program is big, and they're starting to understand how big it is . . . . Every little piece of information I've given to our team about the pride and tradition, they're eating it up."
Offensively, the Buffs got the surge they needed against the Wildcats (6-5, 3-5) from Stewart, a compact 5-foot-6, 180-pounder who rushed for a career-high 195 yards and two touchdowns. He also completed his first passing attempt in a game since his Pop Warner days in Westerville, Ohio - a 23-yard scoring toss to Toney Clemons.
Stewart, who ran nearly the entire length of the field pumping his fist after throwing the TD pass, said that meant more to him than his career-best rushing total: "I might in the future have another big (rushing) game. But to throw a touchdown pass . . . that might never happen again."
He's now carried 70 times in CU's last two games (36 last week against Iowa State, 34 against KSU), but said his legs were still fresh for the Huskers: "Yeah . . . give me 40 (carries) if you can."
That might not be implausible, considering what Cabral now wants out of the offense. The Buffs have run for 369 yards in their past two games, including 251 against the Wildcats. Cabral said the offense is "dedicated to running the ball more," but that's been a decision made by the offensive staff.
"I'm not a stinking offensive coordinator," he said. "We'll run it when we need to run it . . . we have to be smart as coaches (and) give ourselves a chance to win games."
Defensively, CU was porous at times - and Cabral knows those holes won't go unnoticed by Nebraska. "We struggled at times," he said. "We struggled with the play-action pass . . . we could have done better, we could have done much better against the throwing quarterback (Carson Coffman), but when we needed it they got the job done."
Indeed, the Buffs held Daniel Thomas, the Big 12's No. 2 rusher (116.8) to 58 yards on 14 carries. They also registered six QB sacks, sending their total in the past two games to 15.
In addition to Stewart's offensive productivity, the Buffs got 202 passing yards (14-of-25) and three TD passes from senior quarterback Cody Hawkins. Receiver-turned-tailback Will Jefferson also showed up big for the Buffs, gaining 73 yards on five carries - including a pair of runs from the "Wild Buff" formation after taking a direct center snap.
Senior receiver Scotty McKnight caught two of Hawkins' scoring passes, finishing with four receptions for 74 yards and setting a school record for career TD receptions (22). The record, said McKnight, is a nice legacy, but it would pale alongside a final win in Lincoln and bowl eligibility.
"They're playing at a very high level right now," he said of the Huskers. "To go in and beat Nebraska would be unbelievable. But we have a little momentum now . . . let's see what happens."
The Buffs spotted the Wildcats a 14-3 first-quarter lead, not the kind of Senior Day start they had envisioned. They fell behind 7-0 after Ty Zimmerman returned Zach Grossnickickle's 34-yard punt 41 yards to the CU 1-yard line. On the next snap, quarterback Collin Klein, of Loveland, punched over for the touchdown.
CU answered with a drive to the K-State 31, where Aric Goodman hit a 48-yarder to cut the Wildcats' advantage to 7-3.
But K-State and Klein responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive, capped by the Loveland product's second 1-yard scoring sneak. It was 14-3 with 3:47 left in the first quarter, and if the Buffs didn't sense the game might be slipping away they weren't paying attention.
"I was asking our guys, 'OK, are we ready yet?'" Cabral said. "There's wasn't any extra jump for us in the first two minutes."
But that changed quickly, with Stewart gaining 21 rushing yards in a 55-yard scoring drive - the last yard on a his launch into the end zone. The drive's big play, however, was Jefferson's 31-yard run from the "Wild Buff" formation.
Goodman's PAT attempt was blocked, and CU trailed 14-9 - but not for long.
When Thomas fumbled on the Wildcats' second possession of the second quarter, CU corner Jimmy Smith scooped it up and ran 22 yards to the KSU 24.
Two plays later, Stewart took a pitch right, looked as if he was headed for the perimeter, but slowed and launched his TD pass to Clemons. Stewart's first career pass attempt and Goodman's extra point kick gave the Buffs their first lead of the afternoon, 16-14.
KSU coach Bill Snyder called Stewart "a very fine player," adding he wasn't surprised by Stewart's productivity. "I'm not saying you wouldn't expect him to play well, but I certainly don't like the idea we gave up as many yards as we did to him or anybody else."
For the rest of the second quarter, the CU defense appeared to have Klein and the KSU zone-read option figured out. The Wildcats changed quarterbacks - Carson Coffman replaced Klein for the last series of the half - but they would stay at 14 points.
The Buffs, however, weren't done.
Starting at their own 39 with 2:30 left before intermission, Hawkins needed five plays to cover those 61 yards. The scoring play was significant for McKnight; his 37-yard TD reception gave him 21 for his career, moving him ahead of Rae Carruth and Derek McCoy as the school's all-time leader. The catch also extended his streak of consecutive regular-season games with at least one reception to 47.
After Goodman was wide left on a 54-yard field on the first half's final play, the Buffs took their 23-14 lead to the locker room and made preparations for the second half.
Again, CU saw K-State's offense directed by Coffman, considered the better passer of the two Wildcats QBs. The Buffs defense didn't care, sacking him for 16 yards in losses on KSU's first second-half series and bringing back C. Hawkins, McKnight & Crew for an encore.
And once again, Hawkins and McKnight teamed for a TD - this one a 13-yarder. Goodman's PAT pushed the Buffs up 30-14, but the Wildcats weren't ready to roll over. Protected better in this series, Coffman marched his offense 69 yards in eight plays and scored on a 6-yard keeper. KSU went for two and was successful, with Thomas taking a hand off, stopping short of the line of scrimmage and tossing a jump pass to tight end Andre McDonald.
K-State trailed 30-22, but was CU sweating?
Not with "Speedy" at the ready. He and the Buffs answered with an 80-yard drive, Stewart bouncing into the Wildcats secondary and running 51 yards for his second TD of the day and ninth of the season. Following Goodman's PAT, CU shot ahead 37-22 - and the third quarter ended that way.
A pair of overruled calls - one favoring CU, the other KSU - put the Wildcats on the Buffs' 9-yard line to open the fourth quarter. K-State appeared to have scored on Coffman's option pitch right to Thomas, but a holding call nullified the TD. It didn't matter; three plays later Coffman hit receiver Aubrey Quarles with a 16-yard scoring pass, again pulling the Wildcats to within eight points (37-29) with 13:18 to play.
Again, the Buffs responded. Jefferson lined up again in the "Wild Buff" set, taking a direct center snap and running 45 yards to the KSU 15. A pass interference call in the end zone against the Wildcats gave the Buffs a first down at the 2, and three plays later Hawkins and freshman Paul Richardson hooked up for a 3-yard score to restore CU's 15-point lead (44-29) with 9:08 remaining.
K-State's turn . . . Coffman hit receiver Chris Harper in front of CU defensive back Jonathan Hawkins for a 23-yard TD, completing an 84-yard drive and pulling KSU back to an eight-point deficit (44-36) and making this the highest-scoring game in the CU-KSU series.
The Buffs had 6:38 to kill to snuff the Wildcats. CU drove as far as the KSU 49 before punting on fourth-and-4 with 3:09 to play. Grossnickle hit his best punt of the day, backing KSU to its 5-yard line.
Coffman and his offense trotted onto the field with 3:01 remaining. He took the Wildcats as far as their own 38, where on fourth-and-6, defensive end Josh Hartigan recorded his third sack of the afternoon to seal the win.
Said Hartigan: "If your offense puts up 44 points, you have to win . . . the loss at Kansas (52-45, with CU giving up 35 fourth-quarter points) ripped the soul out of us. We came in that Sunday and vowed it would never happen again . . . I'm a very sore loser."
Hartigan and his buds made good on their vow. When they left the field, there was 1:01 remaining before their fifth victory and a last date with the Cornhuskers.
"We've got another game, another shot," Cabral said. "We've got some momentum now; I was praying we would have it going into the last game."
Winning in Lincoln would snap CU's 16-game regular-season road losing streak. But Cabral said this is a week when the venue doesn't matter: "There are no road woes when you get ready for Nebraska."
BUFF BITS: Saturday's attendance was 41,147 . . . . Cody Hawkins' Senior Day attendees included his entire family, including deposed CU coach Dan Hawkins . . . . Several Buffs seniors made a special effort to seek out and hug Dan Hawkins . . . . Cody Hawkins received the 12th annual Buffalo Heart Award, presented by the "fans behind the bench." Hawkins believed McKnight should have won it, but said, "It's nice to know you have the respect of the fans." . . . . CU's 16 seniors all wore purple leis given to them by senior linebacker B.J. Beatty, of Kaaawa, Hawai'i . . . . For the first time this season, the Buffs' jerseys featured the players' names on the back . . . . Friday's game will be CU's and Nebraska's final regular-season Big 12 games. The Buffs are headed for the Pac-12 Conference in 2011, the Cornhuskers bound for the Big Ten.