SALT LAKE CITY - Black Friday?
How about Black and Gold Friday?
The Colorado Buffaloes snapped their horrendous 24-game out-of-state losing streak here Friday afternoon, dominating the first half then holding on to defeat Utah 17-14 in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Buffs had to survive a pair of missed Utes field goals in the final quarter - the last with 3 seconds to play - to end a frustrating season on an upbeat note. The win was CU's first on the road since 2007 at Texas Tech. Included in the 24-game streak is an Independence Bowl loss that season to Alabama.
"That's a program win . . . I'm happy for those kids, they played their tails off," an ecstatic first-year CU Coach Jon Embree said.
The Buffs finished their first Pac-12 Conference season with a 3-10 overall record, 2-7 in the league. Utah, which still had a chance to play in the Pac-12 championship game had it won Friday, finished at 7-5, 4-5.
Friday's game was billed as "The Rumble In The Rockies" - an attempt to foster a rivalry between the Pac-12's newest members. If nothing else, it was a decent first step in that direction given what was at stake for the Utes and how poorly the Buffs had played at this season's first six road stops.
Asked afterward if it felt like a rivalry, Embree said, "It feels like a win. (The road losing streak) is finally over . . . It'll take time, but we keep having games like this it'll become a rivalry. I'm sure Kyle (Whittingham, Utah coach) feels the same way."
Embree called Rice-Eccles Stadium "a great environment; they were on us pretty good behind our bench. It felt a little bit like they don't like us. But they're great fans, great hospitality. Like I said, a heck of a deal to come in here and win."
The Buffs did it with a superb defensive effort and an offense that took control early, then responded immediately when the Utes were threatening to seize second-half momentum. CU held Utah to one first down in the first half and the Utes lost the Pac-12's No. 2 rusher, John White IV (125.2 yards a game), to an ankle injury in the third quarter. He left with 28 yards on 10 carries.
But CU also lost its leading rusher, Rodney "Speedy" Stewart to a second-half ankle injury after he also had carried 10 times for 35 yards.
Cue the backups . . . White's sub, Tauni Vakapuna, took over and carried 14 times for 77 yards and a touchdown, while Stewart was replaced by Tony Jones, who rushed 12 times for 72 yards and had a TD called back due to a penalty.
But CU did most of its offensive damage with Tyler Hansen's right arm. The senior quarterback completed 22-of-36 passes for 264 yards and a score, with senior Toney Clemons producing his third 100-yard receiving game (102 yards on four catches) in the past four. Hansen's 26 completions were to 10 receivers. He was intercepted once, that coming in the second half.
"Tyler was great," Embree said. "I told him to relax and go have fun. He's more than capable. He had the one miscommunication on the interception; other than that he played great."
CU got safety Anthony Perkins and corner Parker Orms back from injuries, and "Perk" quickly stepped forward. He was credited with 10 tackles, tying Travis Sandersfeld for CU's team high. The Buffs sacked Utes quarterback Jon Hays four times and registered seven tackles for losses.
Embree said the defense "played with a tempo and intensity that we haven't had consistently . . . we had guys running to the football. Those are the things I look for early - are guys running to the ball? Are we hitting when we get there? Or are we just kind of jogging, waiting for someone else to make a play? You could see early on there was an attitude and a tempo about the defense that, you know what, they're going to play."
Embree also wanted Hansen and his offense to start quickly, particularly Hansen in the passing game. Hansen complied, and suddenly the Buffs were in a first half in an out-of-state venue and operating quite well. They held a 10-0 halftime lead, marking the first time since playing at Iowa State in 2007 they had held an opponent scoreless on the road for a half.
CU scored on Friday's opening possession, driving 80 yards in 12 plays, getting the touchdown on a 1-yard dive by Hansen. When Will Oliver kicked the PAT for a 7-0 lead, the Buffs were in front for the first time on the road since last season's meltdown at Kansas that eventually spelled the end of the Dan Hawkins era.
Oliver's 23-yard field goal with 7:09 left before halftime pushed CU ahead 10-0 - uncharted territory for the Buffs in someone else's state. The kick was Oliver's 11th this season, breaking Tom Field's freshman record of 10 set in 1979.
CU's defense forced Utah into three-and-outs on its first two possessions and didn't allow a first down in the first quarter. The Buffs blunted the Utes' only first-half threat after Griff McNabb returned a Darragh O'Neill punt 29 yards to the CU 27-yard line at the end of the period.
But the Utes advanced only as far as the 25, and on fourth-and-eight, Coleman Peterson's 42-yard field goal attempt drifted wide left. CU's defense kept Utah shackled for the rest of the half, permitting just one first down, which drew a derisive cheer from the home crowd when the Utes accomplished that.
The Buffs dominated the first half statistics, with 13 first downs to the Utes' 1 and 254 yards in total offense to the home team's 39. CU was most effective through the air, gaining 198 of its total yardage on 16 Hansen completions.
The longest was a 52-yarder to sophomore DaVaughn Thornton, who had made only four catches for 15 yards in the first 12 games. But that possession ended futilely for the Buffs. After Clemons caught a short Hansen pass and advanced inside the Utes' 5-yard line, Clemons fumbled the ball through the end zone for a touchback.
It didn't really matter; right tackle Ryan Dannewicz was whistled for a personal foul (hands to the face) penalty, which Utah declined to gain possession of the ball.
The Utes didn't earn their first first down until 2:53 remained before halftime, and that possession ended with a punt three plays later. But Utah's most effective first-half weapon was punter Sean Sellwood, who averaged 52.8 yards on four punts - all of which carried inside the Buffs' 20-yard line.
Utah likely got a stern talking-to at halftime. The Utes took the second-half kickoff and drove 68 yards to pull to 10-7. But three plays into the 11-play march, Utah lost White to an ankle injury. Vakapuna had carried only 17 times for 27 yards in the Utes' previous 11 games, compared to White's 280 for 1,377.
But Vakapuna stepped up, breaking a pair of CU tackles for a 3-yard touchdown run. After Peterson's PAT, the Buffs' lead was 10-7 - and CU desperately needed an answer.
Hansen and Clemons provided it, teaming for a pair of passes good for 50 yards in an 82-yard drive. The second completion was for 34 yards to the Utah 1-yard line, and on the next play Hansen hit fullback Evan Harrington for the score and Harrington's first career TD.
Oliver booted the Buffs up 17-7 . . . and it was the Utes' turn. They took advantage of a short CU kickoff and responded with a 58-yard drive to pull to 17-14 on a Hays-to-Shawn Asiata 6-yard pass and Peterson's PAT.
Utah attempted an on-sides kick, but CU's Derrick Webb recovered. Taking over at midfield, the Buffs appeared ready to capitalize on a short field. But after a holding call on Thornton nullified a 17-yard scoring run by Jones and Hansen suffered a 10-yard sack on the next play, things appeared to be going downhill for the Buffs.
"Without that holding call (and the scratched Jones TD), I thought we could have put it away there and then," Embree said. "Then I knew it was just going to be who threw the last punch. Our guys rose up to the occasion and found a way to make a play."
But before plays were made by the Buffs, the Utes made one. Hansen was intercepted by Reggie Topps, giving Utah possession at its own 34. The Utes moved as far as the Buffs' 5-yard line, where Hays was sacked on third-and-goal. Peterson came on for a 26-yard field goal try, but sent this one wide right with 8:55 remaining and left CU clinging to its 17-14 lead.
The Buffs could kill only 3:01 of that time and punted to the Utes, who attempted a cross-field lateral but didn't benefit by the trickery. They assumed possession at their own 19-yard line with 5:39 to play and ran two plays before Ray Polk jarred the ball from Vakapuna and defensive tackle Curtis Cunningham caught it in the air, giving the Buffs possession at the Utah 43 with 4:38 to play.
Once again, CU needed to work the clock. A false start created a critical third-and-13 at the Utah 47, but Jones couldn't handle a Hansen screen pass and the Buffs punted. It wasn't a good one; O'Neill's 18-yard punt gave the Utes possession at their 29 with 3:19 left.
Utah went to third-and-10 before Hays and Luke Matthews hooked up for a 13-yard completion and a first down. But the big play was an incompletion on which Orms was flagged for an unnecessary roughness call on receiver DaVonte Christopherson, giving Utah a first down at the CU 22 with 1:04 to play.
"Those things are bang-bang and you can't really tell what's happening," Embree said of Orms' hit. "I understand we're trying to protect players . . . I'm just glad we were able to overcome that situation and still win the game."
Again, the CU defense rose up. Hays, who completed 18 of his 25 passes for 185 yards and a TD, was pressured and fumbled on first down, then was sacked by linebacker Jon Major on second down for a 5-yard loss. An off-side penalty on end Josh Hartigan nullified a Sandersfeld interception, but CU overcame that, too.
Said Embree: "I went over and told the defense it was OK, we've got to keep tackling and keep playing hard and eventually something good will happen for us."
Two plays later, with the Utes out of time outs and the clock bleeding, Peterson's 48-yard field goal try once again fluttered wide right. Two seconds were restored, but it didn't matter.
After Hansen took a knee, CU's road win streak was at one.
"It's hard to win on the road," Embree said. "To come in here and they're playing for the Pac-12 South and it's Senior Day for them . . . for us to come in and win under those conditions is just great. I want to play again. I like competing.
"I told the guys thank you . . . I've told them all I loved them at different times when they've gotten the wrath of coach Embree. But it's just because I love them and I expect more out of them than they expect out of themselves. I just wanted to see if they could reach their potential."
They did, but it required an entire season and a trip to a hostile venue. When it was over, Embree clutched the game ball throughout his press conference. He had told Hansen to hang onto it after the final snap, which Hansen was glad to do after quarterback his first road win.
"The reason the losing streak went so long was because there was a feeling of 'here we go again' when things starting going wrong on the road," Hansen said. "We didn't have that (Friday); we weren't going to let it happen. No way we were losing this one."