SALT LAKE CITY – Turnovers and red zone failures helped bring the Colorado Buffaloes’ 2013 season to a frustrating end here Saturday. Utah capitalized just enough to ease past CU 24-17 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, sending the Buffs back across the Rockies disappointed but not disillusioned after one season under Mike MacIntyre.
“Our kids fought extremely hard,” said MacIntyre, whose first CU team finished 4-8 overall and 1-8 in the Pac-12 Conference. “I believe in our last two Pac-12 games we’ve outplayed the opponent decidedly in the second half and just came up short. Today was a good example of that. I’ve got to do a better job of getting it started in the first half. We had a couple of plays here and there we could have made and didn’t.”
The Utes (2-7) finished a game ahead of the Buffs in the Pac-12 South Division. CU wrapped up its eighth consecutive losing season while Utah snapped a five-game losing streak but suffered a second straight losing campaign (5-7) for the first time since 1989-90.
Utah took advantage of two first-half fumbles by CU freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau to roll to a 21-0 halftime lead, then ended the game by intercepting Liufau and snuffing a final Buffs threat after they had closed to 24-17 with 2:30 to play.
In addition to limiting the Utes to three second-half points, the Buffs defense allowed them only 158 of their 388 total yards in the final two quarters – including just 46 in the fourth quarter. But as it couldn’t last weekend against Southern California, CU couldn’t overcome a calamitous first half.
Still, while not pleased with the loss, MacIntyre saw reasons for hope in 2014. “I have a lot of hope in our fight, our effort, our intensity and focus we’ve had," he said. "Our seniors were phenomenal . . . . When the seniors buy in, the other guys follow. They did buy in and did a lot of things (and) were very active and I really appreciate what they have done.
“I do feel like we’re taking steps in the right direction, I really, really do. This could have been one to help on the scoreboard also but it wasn’t. We’ll regroup and keep moving on from here.”
An emotional Liufau, who committed two late first-half turnovers in the 47-29 loss to USC, said he didn’t see the Utah tacklers who pressured him and caused Saturday’s two first-half fumbles. “It sucks because those plays hurt the team,” he said. “I’d like to say I could do more about those but there’s nothing more I could really do.”
The loss brought him to tears at his postgame news conference, but they were “for my teammates,” he said. “I haven’t been here that long, but the guys mean a lot to me. The fact that we’re done, it hurts. Obviously losing hurts, but there’s nothing to come back to next week. The seniors are gone; it hurt because they’ve made a really big impact on my life. We’re just going to miss them.”
CU squandered a first-and-goal at the Utah 5-yard line in the first half, then settled for a field goal in the second half after having first-and-goal at the Utah 3. The Buffs ran four plays on the first red zone opportunity, then passed twice and ran once preceding Will Oliver’s 28-yard field goal.
“To be a good red zone team you have to be able to run the ball in most of the time, to be high efficiency in the red zone,” MacIntyre said. “It’s something we have to work on and I have to get us better at.”
Liuifau, who was sacked three times in the first half and hounded most of the afternoon, fumbled on CU’s second play Saturday to set up Utah’s first score. Caught and stripped by defensive end Tenny Polepoi, Liufau’s fumble was scooped up by linebacker LT Tuipulotu at the CU 34-yard line.
Eight plays later, the Buffs paid for their first error, with quarterback Adam Schulz (19-of-33, 233 yards, one TD) hitting tight end Jake Murphy with a 16-yard touchdown pass. Andy Phillips’ PAT gave Utah a 7-0 lead with the game not 4 minutes old. The Utes converted a fourth-and-one at the Buffs’ 15 to keep the drive intact.
CU might have tied the score on its next series, but a Liufau pass skipped off of Paul Richardson’s fingertips after he had outrun Utah’s coverage in front of the Buffs bench. Richardson (four catches, 54 yards) will meet with MacIntyre on Monday to discuss Richardson’s future.
No decision on whether Richardson should stay for his senior season or declare his eligibility for the NFL Draft will come from that meeting, and Richardson said there is no timetable to make that decision. But he acknowledged the possibility of Saturday being his final time to wear a CU jersey, and he called the experience “very emotional . . . even before this game and playing at Folsom (last week). The reality of it is you don’t know. I value coach (Troy) Walters’ opinion, I value coach MacIntyre’s opinion. I know we’re going to have a healthy discussion about it and they’re not going to steer me in the wrong direction. I know whatever decision we come together and make is going to be the right one for me.”
To close out the first quarter, the teams traded fumbles – with Utah capitalizing and CU watching a coach’s challenge go bad. The Buffs figured they had avoided falling behind by two touchdowns when nickel back Chidobe Awuzie stripped Dres Anderson after a reception and defensive end Jimmie Gilbert recovered at the CU 20-yard line.
But four plays later, Liufau – appearing to MacIntyre to be in the act of throwing – was relieved of the ball by defensive end Hunter Dimick. Once again, Tuipulotu was in the right spot and recovered. An angry MacIntyre challenged the call, lost and flung his hands in disgust as Utah took possession at the CU 6.
A play later, tailback Kelvin York covered the distance with ease. Phillips’ extra point sent the Utes up 14-0 with 10 seconds left in the first quarter, with another shot of quick misery awaiting the Buffs.
After forcing a CU three-and-out, Schulz used two passes – one of 16 yards to Sean Fitzgerald, the next to Anderson for 49 – to move Utah to the CU 15. The Buffs’ defense made those final 15 reasonably difficult, but five plays later York pushed in from the 1 and the Utes – following Phillips’ PAT – had padded their advantage to 21-0 with 11:16 left until halftime.
Freshman linebacker Addison Gillam got his first career interception, picking off Schulz and returning the ball 11 yards to the Utes 5. But the Buffs’ best/only first-half threat began and ended there. Three running plays advanced them to the 2, and on fourth-and-goal from there, Tony Jones was pinned for a 3-yard loss.
CU went to the locker room staring at a 21-0 deficit and harboring two big “if only’s” – if only “P-Rich” could have pulled in Liufau’s first-quarter pass and if only Liufau and his offense could have converted on first-and-goal from the 5.
“Our execution . . . it wasn’t there,” Liufau said. “It was blocking here, my passes there.”
The Buffs had another half to rally, but it wouldn’t happen unless Liufau was protected better and his offense discovered a spark somewhere. Liufau completed six of 17 first-half passes for 55 yards, with three sacks, and finished 23-of-46 for 241 yards with two TDs and the late interception.
The Buffs created a chance to make amends quickly in the second half, with Jones recovering an on-sides kick at the Utes 48. That opportunity fizzled; after three plays all CU had to show for its special teams feat was a 1-yard gain by Michael Adkins II, a dropped pass by tight end Kyle Slavin and a Liufau incompletion.
CU finally pieced together a scoring drive on its second third-quarter possession, going 78 yards in seven plays and scoring on Liufau’s 34-yard pass to tight end Scott Fernandez (4 catches, 61 yards, 1 TD). After Oliver’s extra point, the Buffs trailed 21-7 with 9:15 left in the period, leaving ample time to rally with a stop or two.
They got a stop, but wackiness was about to take hold. CU believed it had recovered a muffed punt at the Utah 40, but that play was reviewed and Utah retained possession. Utah promptly drove to the CU 5, where Schulz hit Murphy for what Utes fans thought was a score. But CU safety Marques Mosley -- playing after senior Parker Orms suffered a first-half shoulder sprain -- jarred the ball loose. Corner Jeff Hall retrieved it and nearly reached mid-field with his return.
A 15-yard facemask penalty on the tackle set up the Buffs at the Utes 43, and seven plays later CU had first-and-goal at the Utah 3. But once again, the Buffs’ red zone offense fizzled and Oliver's field goal brought CU to within 21-10 with just over 12 minutes to play.
The Buffs thought they had captured a Schulz fumble at the CU 32, but the call on the field was overturned by replay. The eight-play drive continued, ending in a 46-yard field goal by Phillips that restored the Utes’ two TD lead (24-10).
“I have to have some more luck . . . somebody’s got to get me some dice or something,” MacIntyre said. “We had two (calls) overturned that were huge plays.”
AFter CU punter Darragh O’Neill pinned Utah at its own 1-yard line, the Utes punted and Liufau engineered a scoring drive that started at the Buffs 48. On fourth-and-10 from the Utah 14, Liufau hit Spruce for a TD. Oliver’s PAT pulled CU to 24-17, but his on-sides kick attempt went out of bounds and Utah took over at the Buffs 44 with 2:29 left.
CU's defense did its part, stopping the Utes, using timeouts judiciously and forcing another Utah punt. Liufau & Co took over at their own 10 with 2:01 to play. There was a chance . . . until Liufau was intercepted by linebacker Trevor Reilly at the 36. With no timeouts left, the Buffs’ eighth and final loss of 2013 was in the books.
“We work on 2-minutes all the time and we didn’t execute,” MacIntyre said. “That’s a great learning lesson for our young freshman quarterback and he’ll bounce back from it. Next year we’ll have one of those early in the season and I’ll guarantee you he takes us down and scores.”
Until then, Liufau and the returning Buffs have a mountain of work in front of them, which MacIntyre said begins on Monday. Liufau said he needs to “get better at everything . . . I’m teary-eyed now (but) you won’t see that a lot. You guys probably won’t find me this off-season. I’ll be somewhere working out, preparing because I don’t like this feeling. No one in that locker room likes this feeling.”