PULLMAN, Wash. - It might not have been 1994's Miracle in Michigan, but for the 2012 Colorado Buffaloes, it couldn't have been bigger.
On a hazy, smoky Saturday in the Palouse, desperate and determined CU rallied from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit with three touchdowns in the final 7:06 to stun Washington State 35-34 for the Buffs' first win this season.
With 9 seconds remaining, CU quarterback Jordan Webb scampered 4 yards on a designed draw to tie the score at 34-34. Will Oliver's extra point broke the tie and undoubtedly every WSU heart in Martin Stadium's homecoming crowd.
"It's hard to say I had a lot of confidence it was going to happen, but it's how it works," Webb said of his team's comeback. "When you play football long enough you realize anything can happen. On that last drive, I think everybody knew we were going to score the whole time. That was the attitude, definitely."
Webb, who also scored on a QB sneak earlier and tossed a pair of touchdown passes, said his game-tying TD "was actually a pass/run . . . you read the box and see what they're doing. It was just there to run the ball."
He saw it before the snap, called it and the Buffs were within Oliver's PAT of one of their biggest wins.
"Awesome, just awesome," Oliver said. "It was funny . . . your whole life you're seeing yourself kicking game winners and then it just happens. I wasn't nervous at all; same old, same old."
But it was much more than that. CU coach Jon Embree said he "has never been prouder of any Buffs team, and I was part of the win at Michigan (a last-second Hail Mary from Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook) and a lot of other big ones. But this one, this one is special."
The dramatic win pushed CU to 1-0 in Pac-12 Conference play and 1-3 overall after a shockingly bad non-conference season. WSU dropped to 2-2 and 0-1. CU plays UCLA next Saturday at Folsom Field (4 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
Offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eric Bieniemy worked from the sidelines for the first time this season and only the second time in two years. In the coaches' booth relaying plays through Bieniemy was passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer. Whatever works, said the ecstatic Buffs.
There was a significant change on the field, too. Due to center Gus Handler's lingering ankle injury, the starting offensive line was shuffled. As expected if Handler couldn't play, Daniel Munyer opened at center, but on the right side Jack Harris moved inside to guard and Stephane Nembot made his first career start at right tackle. He shared time with Ryan Dannewitz.
The Buffs had to overcome the passing of Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday, who threw for 401 yards (32-of-60) and four TDs. He was intercepted twice and sacked three times.
Webb completed 29-of-42 for 345 yards and a pair of scores. He was picked off once and sacked six times.
CU had a 100-yard rusher - Tony Jones with four carries for 105 yards and a score - and a 100-yard receiver - Nelson Spruce with eight catches for 103 yards and a TD.
The Buffs rushed for a season-best 186 yards, with freshman Christian Powell adding 66 yards to Jones' total. CU's 531 yards in total offense also was a season high. WSU totaled 451.
The Buffs trailed 21-7 at halftime, but compared to last week's score at intermission in Fresno - 55-7 - that was progress.
Both teams scored on their first possessions, Wazzu requiring only 1:37 to go 75 yards in six plays for its first touchdown. Halliday, whose passing accounted for 73 (four of five completions) of the march's total yards, hit Gabe Marks for a 32-yard score. Andrew Furney's PAT sent the Cougars ahead 7-0 with 13:18 left in the first quarter.
But CU answered immediately, also going 75 yards and scoring on a 16-yard Webb-to-Spruce pass. Oliver's extra point tied the score at 7-7.
Then the Buffs got the game's first turnover. After end Will Pericak sacked Halliday for a 15-yard loss on second down, defensive back Jered Bell's first career interception and return gave CU possession at its own 40-yard line.
But the Buffs moved only as far as the Cougars' 13-yard line, where Oliver's 30-yard field attempt drifted wide left. CU's chance to capture the lead was wasted, and WSU quickly capitalized with a six-play, 80-yard drive capped by Halliday's 23-yard pass to Marquess Wilson two plays into the second quarter.
Furney's PAT eased the Coogs ahead 14-7, and less than 2 minutes later it was 21-7. After WSU corner Damante Horton recovered a fumbled reception by CU's Tyler McCulloch at the Buffs' 39, Halliday hit Isiah Myers eight plays later. With Furney's extra point at the 11:48 mark, WSU had its 21 first-half points and CU had another half to try and recover.
Getting out the first half down by only 14 was an accomplishment for CU, but the Buffs went to their locker room believing they should have been closer. One drive ended with a fourth-and-12 Webb-for-McCulloch incompletion at the Cougars' 28, and the next was finished by a Webb sack-and-fumble at the CU 47 with 56 seconds left in the half.
But the Buffs forced a three-and-out and dodged what might have been a fatal bullet.
Halliday finished the half 19-of-30 for 224 yards and three TDs, with the one pick. Webb was 16-of-21 for 177 yards and a score. Backup Connor Wood did not play; Nick Hirschman was in for one fourth-quarter play, handing off to Jones for his long TD run after Webb came out due to "getting his breath knocked out," Hirschman said later.
Despite getting a second set of downs courtesy of a roughing the punter call, CU couldn't move past midfield after receiving the second-half kickoff. But the Buffs defense quickly atoned.
After a Halliday completion to tailback Carl Winston, CU linebackers Paul Vigo and Jon Major dislodged the ball and safety Terrel Smith returned the fumble 11 yards to the WSU half-yard line. Initially, Smith was ruled to have scored, but the play was reviewed and the call reversed.
Didn't matter. Webb sneaked in behind Munyer and left guard Alex Lewis on the first play, and with Oliver's PAT, the Buffs were back in it at 21-14. And after surviving a WSU march to the CU 30 and a missed 54-yard field goal attempt by Furney, the Buffs appeared to recapture momentum.
It lasted all of one play. Webb's pass on the sideline for Gerald Thomas was picked off by corner Daniel Simmons. Six plays later, Halliday and Wilson teamed for 49-yard score on a receiver screen and after Furney's extra point kick the Buffs again trailed by 14 points (28-14) with 5:27 left in the third quarter.
The quarter ended that way, but CU did little to help itself in that remaining time. On the Buffs' final possession of the quarter, Webb was flagged 15 yards for a personal foul after a short third-down gain, putting Darragh O'Neill near his goal line to punt.
His shortest kick of the season - 17 yards - gave WSU possession at the CU 30, but the Cougars managed only a 45-yard Furney field goal on the second play of the final quarter. Still, it put the Buffs further behind (31-14) with time to recover slipping away from them.
Midway through the quarter, a WSU drive was halted by a Major interception at the CU 8-yard line. But the Buffs had only 8:07 remaining to make up their 17-point deficit - and they made the most of it.
With 7:06 to play, they crept to within 10 (31-21) on a 70-yard pass from Webb to tight end Nick Kasa and Oliver's PAT. It was CU's longest pass play to a tight end during the regular season in school history.
Less than 3 minutes later, CU pulled to 31-28 on Jones' 84-yard run around right end and the extra point kick by Oliver. The clock showed 4:23 remaining - but the Buffs' dreams for a miracle finish took a hit on Teondray Caldwell's 56-yard kickoff return to the CU 23.
All the Cougars could reap from it was a 42-yard Furney field goal, making it 34-28 and leaving the Buffs 3:11 to work their miracle. Starting at their own 30, they moved to the WSU 6-yard line, where a timeout was called with 43 seconds left after a pair of Powell runs
With 20 seconds left, the ball at the Cougars' 2-yard line, Powell was thrown for a 2-yard loss on third down. Another timeout - the Buffs' last - was called with 12 seconds to play.
On fourth down, Webb ran his QB draw for the 4-yard TD - and with 9 seconds left, the Buffs' miracle was nearly complete. WSU had one play left, but Major batted down Halliday's pass and the jubilant Buffs celebrated like they deserved it.