LINCOLN, Neb. - Colorado and Nebraska said their goodbyes Friday in typically red and rowdy Memorial Stadium. The Cornhuskers' not-so-lovely parting gift to the Buffaloes: A 45-17 whipping that sends CU into the Pac-12 Conference with dark memories overshadowing the good in its most recent trips to Lincoln.
In a somber CU locker room afterwards, interim head coach Brian Cabral told his players, "I'm so proud, blessed and honored to have led you guys these last three weeks. They made plays . . . they outplayed us - it's that simple.
"But I don't want you to hang your heads. We accomplished great things in these last three weeks; we had a three-game season and we were 2-1."
But the 2010 record that counts for CU is 5-7 - and it leaves the Buffs a win shy of bowl eligibility and now facing an off-season in which Cabral and the staff he inherited from dismissed coach Dan Hawkins will learn their fates.
"We trust the (administration) to do the best thing for us," said junior guard Ryan Miller, who left returning for his senior season in question in a postgame interview. "But Cabral has been phenomenal these last three weeks . . . the respect we have for him is unmatched."
Cabral said three weeks ago he would like to be considered for the permanent position, and he reiterated that desire Friday. "But," he added, "it's something I don't have any control over . . . I've had a wonderful ride. For a Buff to be in this position . . . I've had the best seat in the house for the past three weeks."
CU's staff and players will attend the Senior Awards Banquet on Sunday. The coaching staff will remain together at least for the rest of the fall semester to help players academically and will be paid through January.
Cabral contended whoever is hired as Hawkins' successor will find a CU program that is "close" to a turnaround. "I thought we should have had a better record going in (Friday), but we didn't," he said. "But we've got some dudes coming back."
It remained unclear if freshman receiver Paul Richardson will be among them. After an afternoon that saw him set a CU freshman receiving mark, Richardson talked up the Buffs program, told of his affection for his teammates and said CU's future looked bright. But he declined to give a definitive answer about his status.
Friday's win earned No. 16 Nebraska (10-2, 6-2) the Big 12 North Division title in its final Big 12 season and sends the Huskers into next week's conference championship game in Arlington, Texas.
With the two longtime competitors entering new conferences in 2011 - Nebraska is headed for the Big Ten - the CU-Nebraska series ends with the Huskers holding a 49-18-2 advantage. Big 12 play was just as lopsided, with Nebraska boasting an 11-4 lead.
In 15 seasons of Big 12 membership, the Buffs went 48-32 in the first 10 and 12-28 in the last five, including 2-6 this fall. CU won the North Division four times and the conference once, but those accomplishments almost seem lost in a downturn that brought 18 consecutive losses in game played outside the state of Colorado. The Buffs haven't won on the road since 2007.
Cabral had hoped that Big Red Week would give the Buffs an assist in putting an end to their road woes. In a team meeting on Tuesday, he told the seniors that winning in Lincoln not only would break the long losing streak, but could be strong part of their legacy. He had "Road Warrior" T-shirts printed and presented them to the Buffs on Thanksgiving Day before they left for Lincoln.
Nothing worked; CU's travel travails will be passed on to its next coach.
Friday's defeat wasn't without at least three upbeat individual notes for the Buffs. Senior quarterback Cody Hawkins added passing yardage and completions leader to the handful of school career passing records he set. Scotty McKnight extended his school record by catching at least one pass in 48 consecutive regular-season games, and Richardson eclipsed McKnight's freshman receiving mark. (Records can be found in the Game Notes attached to this story.)
But on their farewell day to the Big 12 and Lincoln, the Buffs weren't focused on individual marks. Extending the season was on their minds, along with perhaps helping Cabral make a stronger case to having the interim tag removed.
"It was our last game and so much was at stake," McKnight said. "There was so much that could have been accomplished . . . it's just tough."
"It's rough, that's for sure," added senior linebacker B.J. Beatty. "But we battled, stuck it out and never quit. We never curled up when our backs were against the wall."
For the Buffs, Friday's key was the running game - maintaining their success on the ground while squelching the Huskers. CU could do neither, managing only 99 yards rushing while allowing Nebraska 265. The Huskers defense also converted three Buffs turnovers - a pair of Hawkins interceptions, a McKnight fumble - into 21 of their 45 points.
The Buffs had run for 251 yards last week against Kansas State, with Rodney "Speedy" Stewart gaining a career-high 195. The Nebraska "Blackshirt" defense held him to 88 on 20 carries, and Stewart was impressed. "Nebraska is pretty fast . . . their linebackers run like DBs," he said. "It was hard to get outside . . . they had a good scheme."
Added Miller: "They're the 'Blackshirts' for a reason . . . they're fast, quick and they make plays. I wouldn't say we're a different team on the road, but we execute at home and for whatever reason we don't do it on the road."
Defensively, the Buffs might have believed they were catching a break with the absence of quarterback Taylor Martinez, who was sidelined with ankle and turf toe issues. But if stand-in Cody Green wasn't the option marvel that Martinez is, he did complete 10-of-13 passes for 80 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Green also ran for a score.
I-backs Rex Burkhead and Roy Helu, Jr. shouldered the running load, combining for 178 rushing yards. Burkhead carried 19 times for 101 yards (98 in the first half) and also passed twice for 30 yards and two TDs.
The Huskers fed the Buffs an early, steady diet of Burkhead and took a 17-3 lead at intermission. A 5-foot-11, 210-pound sophomore from Plano, Texas, Burkhead ran 18 times for 98 yards and a touchdown before intermission and completed his only first-half pass attempt for a 26-yard TD.
Nebraska used Burkhead creatively, sometimes putting him in a traditional I-back role and sometimes letting him take a direct center snap in a "Wildcat" formation. In those instances, he sometimes had zone-read option responsibilities and either handed off or ran the ball himself.
But whatever he did, he did well.
In the Cornhuskers' first scoring drive he ran for 28 yards and helped Alex Henery for a 42-yard field goal that gave Nebraska a 3-0 lead with 5:13 left in the first quarter.
A series later he capped a 72-yard Huskers drive with a 2-yard scoring plunge. Henery's PAT pushed Nebraska ahead 10-0, but CU answered with a 75-yard drive for Aric Goodman's 22-yard field goal.
The Buffs produced their two biggest offensive plays of the first half on the march - a lateral Stewart, who threw back to Cody Hawkins, who passed downfield for 25 yards to tight end Luke Walters, and a 24-yard run by Stewart.
But CU also lost junior center Mike Iltis to a knee injury on the march. He was replaced by senior Keenan Stevens.
The Buffs kept the Huskers in check on their next possession but couldn't duplicate their success of the previous series, going three-and-out and giving Nebraska the ball at midfield with 3:42 remaining before intermission.
Burkhead and his offense took advantage, capitalizing on CU being offsides on third-and-eight at the Buffs 34. Burkhead ran 3 yards on the next play to keep the drive intact, then threw a 26-yard scoring pass on an I-back option to receiver Brandon Kinnie, who got behind Jalil Brown for Nebraska's most damaging TD.
"That one was big . . . it gave them momentum going into the half and really hurt us," Cabral conceded. "But I thought if we could drive it back down to start the second half and score, we'd be OK."
Henery's extra point kick sent the Huskers to the locker room cradling a 17-3 advantage, and more Big Red points were on the way. The idea of a fast second-half start for the Buffs fizzled.
On the third play of the second half, Cody Hawkins was intercepted by safety DeJon Gomes at the CU 43-yard line. Green hit Kinnie, who had gotten behind corner Jimmy Smith in the end zone, with a 16-yard strike. Add Henery's PAT and it was Nebraska 24, CU 3.
Repeat that series . . . A batted Hawkins pass on second down was picked off by nickel back Eric Hagg and returned to the CU 4, where on first down Burkhead took a direct snap, started right, reversed his field and lobbed a 4-yard scoring pass to tight end Kyler Reed.
Henery kicked the Huskers in front 31-3 - and with 10:53 left in the third quarter, the Buffs' final fling in Lincoln had been flung.
A little over 2 minutes later, CU cut the deficit to 31-10 on a 50-yard Cody Hawkins-to-Richardson pass, giving Richardson the school's freshman record for receiving yardage.
Cody Hawkins threw his second TD pass of the game - a 29-yarder to Will Jefferson - but that score was bookended by Nebraska TDs (a 1-yard Green-to-Reed pass, a 1-yard Green run) that gave the Huskers a 45-17 lead with 12:55 remaining in the game.
The Cornhuskers had all the points they needed. The Buffs had all they could scrape together in their last time in Lincoln.