DENVER – The Colorado Buffaloes rumbled into the Mike MacIntyre era Sunday afternoon with a gutsy 41-27 victory against rival Colorado State in the Rocky Mountain Showdown.
MacIntyre became only the third CU coach since 1931 to win his debut, and he did it behind a host of big-play Buffaloes – quarterback Connor Wood, receiver Paul Richardson, kicker Will Oliver and cornerback Greg Henderson, who had a momentum-turning fourth-quarter fumble return.
“First of all, I’m just excited for our seniors to start the season off like this with a great rivalry game,” said MacIntyre, who came to CU after a three-season rebuilding job at San Jose State. “I thought the crowd was phenomenal. I’m not sure about the size of it, but the loudness of it . . . It was a back-and-forth game, what a great game.
"That’s what I told our guys when we messed up another kickoff coverage. I went down there and said, ‘Wow, this is a great game, guys. They just made a great play and now it’s time for us to go make a great play. Enjoy the moment.’ And they just kept fighting and playing through it. I was really, really impressed with what they did and their resilience. It was the first time I’ve been on the field with them and they definitely could have let their heads down. But they fought tremendously.”
For the Buffs, coming off a 1-11 season and a coaching change, it was not a garden-variety opener. “It was very important for us . . . a big game for the state of Colorado,” senior linebacker Derrick Webb said. “We understand what it means to our program and Buff fans all over the nation. It was a must for us.”
In his first game in CU’s pistol offense, Wood completed 33-of-46 passes for 400 yards and three touchdowns. Two of the TD passes – 82 and 75 yards – went to Richardson, playing in his first game after sitting out last season with a knee injury. Oliver kicked field goals of 22, 41, 44 and 52 yards – the last tying a career-long kick.
And with the CU defense needing a big play in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Henderson delivered a monstrous one. With the Buffs cradling a 26-24 lead early in the fourth quarter, he scooped up a CSU fumble and raced 53 yards to score.
The Rams never recovered.
The Buffs couldn’t have had a more effective start – scoring on their second play from scrimmage – and led 20-10 at the half. They got on the scoreboard via the 82-yard Wood-Richardson pass, and “P-Rich” couldn’t have been any more by himself behind the Rams secondary unless he had been quarantined.
Wood finished the half 20-of-27 for 217 yards and two touchdowns – all career highs for the junior from Houston.
Richardson’s reception was the 10th longest overall in school history and the second-longest in an opener. After his PAT following the Wood-Richardson connection pushed CU ahead 7-0, Oliver kicked a 22-yard field goal in the final minute of the first quarter and the Buffs were up 10-0 and had reason to feel good about their start.
CSU’s first points came courtesy of a 39-yard Jared Roberts field goal three plays into the second quarter, cutting CU’s advantage to 10-3 with 14:17 left before intermission.
It took nearly 11 minutes for either team to score again, but in the final 3:56 of the half CU got 10 points and CSU seven. Wood drove the Buffs 63 yards in seven plays, hitting slot receiver D.D. Goodson in the back left corner of the end zone with an 18-yard pass for the touchdown.
Oliver’s PAT sent CU up 17-3, but CSU answered immediately with a seven-play, 74-yard march capped by Kapri Bibbs’ first career TD – a 7-yard run around left end. Roberts’ extra point brought the Rams to within 17-10 and the Buffs had 1:13 remaining to respond.
And they used every tick of it.
Starting at his own 25, Wood used six plays to cover 51 – four passes for 34 yards – and position Oliver for a 41-yard field goal on the first half’s final play. The Buffs trotted to their locker room holding a 10-point lead (20-10) but probably not feeling overly comfortable with it.
And they shouldn’t have.
CU accepted the second-half kickoff but after three downs was forced to give the ball back to CSU. Darragh O’Neill’s punt traveled 46 yards, but sophomore Joe Hansley’s return covered 74 – and after Roberts extra point the Rams suddenly were down only by three points (20-17).
With momentum swinging to CSU, CU needed an answer – and the Buffs drove as far as the Rams’ 24-yard line before a holding call snuffed the march. O’Neill punted again to Hansley, but this time he signaled for a fair catch at his 9-yard line.
The Buffs forced a punt and marched to the Rams 18-yard line, where a third-down Wood-to-Goodson pass to the one was nullified by an offensive pass interference call on CU junior Tyler McCulloch. The Buffs couldn’t convert a third-and-19, but on fourth down Oliver connected on a 44-yard field and CU increased its lead to 23-17.
It didn’t last, and the Buffs had to deal with another momentum swing.
CSU got another long return – this one 84 yards by junior Thomas Coffman on Oliver’s kickoff – and set up at the CU 16-yard line. It took three plays to score, with Bibbs running 2 yards for the TD to tie the score at 23-23 and Roberts’ PAT giving the Rams their first lead of the afternoon, 24-23, with 2:51 left in the third quarter.
The quarter ended with CSU up by a point and CU trying to reclaim its early momentum. Luckily, the Buffs had Oliver, with Henderson on deck. When CU’s ensuing drive stalled at the CSU 35-yard line, Oliver tied a career-long kick with a 52-yarder, giving the Buffs a 26-24 lead with 13:07 remaining.
If CSU was stunned, something bigger was coming.
Grayson moved the Rams to mid-field and on second down hit Bibbs across the middle for a short gain – but he couldn’t escape Chidera Uzo-Diribe’s strip. The football bounded free, Henderson grabbed it and raced 53 yards down the left sideline for the score CU so desperately needed.
“It’s a new year, we have a new coach,” Henderson said. “We worked so hard in the spring and summer and fall camp, we weren’t going to let all that go to waste and lose this game. We came out and fought hard, fought to the end.”
Oliver kicked the extra point and the Buffs went up 33-24 with 11:12 to play. But in this game, a nine-point lead hardly constituted a comfort zone, and with 3:47 to play the Rams pulled to 33-27 on a 30-yard Roberts field goal.
CU’s mission was clear: Keep possession for the final 3:47 or the best part of it. And when Roberts’ kickoff cleared the end zone, Wood and the Buffs took over at their own 25-yard line. The only thing better than killing all 3:47 would be another score.
On the first play Wood and Richardson delivered again – this time connecting for a 75-yard score. For good measure, Wood hit Goodson for the two-point conversion and the Buffs had their largest lead of the game – 41-27.
The Rams had 3:36 to make those 14 points up, but Webb and the Buffs “D” made sure it wasn’t happening.
“It’s just one game,” MacIntyre said. “It was great, but we have to keep doing it.”
The Buffs play Central Arkansas on Saturday at Folsom Field (6 p.m.) in their home opener.
NOTABLE: CU now leads the series by a robust 62-21-2 margin and has won nine of the 14 games played since 2000, including five of the last seven . . . . Sunday’s number of tickets distributed was 59,601. The breakdown: 32,779 sold by CU; 23,393 by CSU; and 3,430 distributed by the Broncos ticket office. No actual attendance was announced . . . . The Buffs were in white jerseys, gold pants and gold helmets, with the gold pants being worn for the first time since Nov. 1, 2008 at Texas A&M . . . . CU freshman receiver Jeff Thomas and sophomore defensive lineman Samson Kafovalu served a one-game suspension Sunday . . . . Senior safety Terrel Smith has elected to have shoulder surgery and will miss the 2013 season. He has a redshirt season available and plans to return for 2014.