BOULDER – It took seven tries before the Colorado Buffaloes could present coach Mike MacIntyre with his first Pac-12 Conference win, but the Buffs accomplished it – plus a lot more – Saturday afternoon at cold and windswept Folsom Field.
CU slapped California 41-24, ending the Buffs’ 14-game Pac-12 losing streak (six this season, eight last) and keeping their postseason hopes flickering for at least another weekend.
Maybe just as important, said MacIntyre, “I think it validates, to the players, their hard work is paying off . . . this validates staying the course, you keep working, keep working, you keep planting the seeds; you keep watering the seeds and eventually they start to sprout. No way we are there yet, by any stretch, but this is a good step in the right direction.”
Improving to 4-6 overall and 1-6 in the Pac-12, CU needs two more wins to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. Two games remain – next Saturday on Senior Day vs. Southern California at Folsom Field (kickoff time to be set Monday) and Saturday, Nov. 30 at Utah.
As October neared an end, MacIntyre said he wanted his team to make November a month that mattered in CU football. “Some people thought I was crazy when I said that a while back,” he said. “I thought we could win some games here, and I still do, I still think we can win some more; they’re going to be real tough, against real good football teams.
“But, now there is a little bit more to play for. Senior Day is awesome for the seniors, but now the seniors actually have a little bit more to play for, and so do the players out there. So, when they come back Sunday, I guarantee they will be a little bit more tuned up and a little bit sharper. I wish they were always that way, but they’ll be a little bit better on their Ps and Qs. They’ll be watching a little bit extra film, and they’ll be excited about what’s going on.”
The Buffs’ 485 yards in total offense against the Bears marked their most productive game since getting 509 in the season-opening win against Colorado State. The bulk of CU’s total Saturday was produced by freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau, who enjoyed his most productive passing day since becoming CU’s starter six games ago. He completed 23 of 36 passes for a career-high 364 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception.
MacIntyre said Liufau “played really, really well. He got hit on the arm on the one interception, but came back and made some really good plays. I think maybe ya’ll are starting a little bit of what I see (in Liufau). Hopefully he’ll just keep improving, and I know he will. There is no way he’ll get big-headed.”
Liufau, said junior receiver Paul Richardson, “showed what he is capable of. Each and every week he is getting better . . . Sefo is growing up; he gives us hope.”
Liufau’s explanation of his best night to date was simple: “I think I got into a really good rhythm. I felt like the offense overall was just clicking. Obviously, there was one or two times where our drives sputtered out, but I think overall the offense tonight was really good.”
The fleet Richardson did his part, as did Nelson Spruce. Over half of Liufau’s completions went to “P-Rich” (11 catches, 140 yards) and Spruce (8 catches, career-high 140 yards). Richardson’s 11 catches tied the school single-game record, and his 140 yards put him at 1,201 – a single-season school mark.
Richardson called setting the record “good for the university. I’ve said it before: they bring guys in each year hoping that they can do better than the guys in the past. We have to rewrite history in order to get this program back to being successful.”
Liufau’s three TD tosses were to tailbacks Michael Adkins II (63 yards) and Tony Jones (11) and tight end Kyle Slavin (10). CU tailback Christian Powell ran for a 2-yard score and Spruce returned an on-sides kick attempt 46 yards for CU’s final TD with just over 6 minutes left in the game.
“I was extremely surprised,” Spruce said. “I caught it, and normally you would fall on it. But I kind of froze up and then I saw the sideline and just took off . . . it was a lot fun out there today. With the wind blowing and having all the heaters on the sidelines, it was kind of a different game. We were able to get that win to stay bowl eligible. We talked about how we were going to win these last three games . . . this was a great win for us.”
If CU could celebrate the end of its long conference losing streak, Cal saw its streak extended. The Bears, who now have allowed 40-plus points in eight games this season, have lost 13 consecutive Pac-12 games and 15 straight to FBS competition. They dropped to 1-10 overall and 0-8 in the conference.
The Buffs closed out the first half by scoring twice in just under 2 minutes to take a 24-10 lead at intermission. That pair of swift scores came on an 11-yard pass from Liufau to Jones and a 2-yard run by Powell, who finished with 60 yards on 18 carries. Adkins ran nine times for 39 yards and Jones’ eight attempts netted 22 yards.
Powell’s TD came after Cal fumbled the kickoff following Jones’ score. With the wind swirling through Folsom, Will Oliver kept his kickoff low – a line drive that bounded off the chest of Cal up man Lucas King and was gathered in by CU’s Isaac Archuletta at the Bears 49-yard line.
Eight plays later – not including a costly roughing the passer call on Cal that salvaged CU’s drive on third-and-12 – Powell ran left and untouched into the end zone, giving the Buffs their two-touchdown halftime lead.
CU never trailed, going up 3-0 on Oliver’s 27-yard first-quarter field goal (he had missed from 40 on the Buffs’ opening drive), then increasing the margin to 10-0 on a 10-yard Liufau pass to Slavin. It was Slavin’s second career TD.
Cal pulled to 10-3 on a 42-yard Vincenzo D’Amato field goal with 8:25 left before halftime. Less than 2 minutes later, the Bears tied the score at 10-10 on a 55-yard sprint by Khalfani Muhammad. The Buffs answered with their two quick scores and had their first halftime lead in Pac-12 play this season.
Bears QB Jared Goff, a true freshman, completed only 11 of 21 first-half passing attempts for 79 yards and finished with 23-of-45 for 173 yards – his second-lowest total of the season. MacIntyre said CU’s secondary had learned from getting “toasted,” and also said the Buffs “had a great pass rush. He was under duress and that helps the secondary tremendously.”
Cal pulled a special teams switch with Goff in the first half, using him to pooch punt for the first time in his career. He punted three times for a 40.3 average, with one punt downed inside the 20 and a pair of touchbacks. On fourth down of their first second-half possession, the Bears went back to regular punter Cole Leininger.
CU and Liufau dodged a bullet early in third quarter when Liufau suffered his sixth interception of the season. With his arm hit in mid-release, his fluttering pass was picked off by Cal linebacker Jalen Jefferson at the CU 38-yard line. But the Buffs allowed the Bears only three yards on four downs and escaped any damage from the turnover.
Cal coach Sonny Dykes pulled Goff on the Bears’ fourth series of the third quarter, replacing him with redshirt freshman Zach Kline. Nothing changed; the Bears went three-and-out, giving the Buffs possession at their 23 after a Leininger punt.
Liufau promptly drove CU to the Cal 7-yard line, where the drive stalled and Oliver kicked his second field goal of the game – a 24-yarder that pushed the Buffs up 27-10, with that score holding for the rest of the third quarter.
In the first 3 minutes of the final quarter, CU all but put the ‘W’ away on the 63-yard catch-and-run from Liufau to Adkins. He scrambled out of at least four tackles, sprinting and weaving in front of the Buffs bench on his way to the end zone.
Oliver’s PAT made it 34-10 with 12:22 remaining, and Cal’s challenge went from daunting to nearly impossible. Dykes went back to Goff at QB on the next series, and Goff drove the Bears 52 yards in 10 plays, with running back Brendan Bigelow scoring on a 1-yard run. That pulled Cal to 34-17, but the on-sides kick attempt backfired when Spruce fielded the ball cleanly and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown.
After Oliver kicked CU ahead 41-17, Cal got its final TD on a 26-yard Bigelow run, making the score 41-24 with 1:21 left. And this time, the Bears executed the on-sides kick, but Goff was intercepted in the end zone by corner Kenneth Crawley.
The Buffs had less than half a minute remaining before they could finally sing their fight song following a 2013 Pac-12 game. They did so in front of the student section, then went to the opposite side of Folsom Field and encored before the CU band.
“I was so happy for them,” MacIntyre said. “Our coaching staff has worked tirelessly and really hard to keep those young men together and focused. And then, I would like to thank our fans. I thought it was an exciting atmosphere. That’s a stepping block for us going into the future.”