Revving up its running game in the second half, Colorado State cruised past Colorado 31-17 in Friday night’s Rocky Mountain Showdown at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The Buffaloes, cradling a 17-14 lead entering the fourth quarter, were outscored 17-0 in the final 15 minutes as the Rams avenged a 41-27 loss in last season’s meeting.
CU still leads the series 62-22-2, but CSU has won two of the last three games in Denver. The Rams defeated the Buffs 22-17 in 2012.
Gaining only 81 ground yards in Friday night’s first half, the Rams finished the game with 266 yards rushing. Running backs Dee Hart, a graduate transfer from Alabama who is only a junior, and Treyous Jarrells, a junior college transfer, accounted for all but 6 yards of CSU’s total.
The 5-9, 190-pound Hart scampered for 139 yards and two touchdowns, while Jarrells, a 5-7, 185-pounder, rushed for 121 and one score. It was the first time since 1996 that a pair of CSU running backs surpassed 100 yards in a game. But the school had a pair of 100-yard rushers in 2002 when quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt topped 100 yards.
Most of CSU’s running success came without talented left tackle Ty Sambrailo, who suffered a knee injury in the first quarter and missed the rest of the game. Rams coach Jim McElwain praised Sambrailo’s replacement, Nick Callender: “We didn’t miss a beat.”
After congratulating CSU on “playing a heck of a football game,” CU coach Mike MacIntyre said his defense was victimized by “a bunch of missed tackles . . . we’ve been working on that extremely hard.” He also called his defense “really young. We’ll keep playing hard and we’ll keep fighting. That’s all you can do. It’s one game.”
Overshadowed by CSU’s leg work was a superb 100-yard receiving night by CU’s Nelson Spruce, who caught seven of Sefo Liufau’s passes for 104 yards and two TDs – the last a 12-yard one-handed highlight reel grab in the third quarter.
After that, CU’s highlights were scarce.
Liufau blamed the Buffs’ inconsistency on “a play here or there . . . we had good drives, it was just a matter of finishing them and we didn’t do that tonight. We can’t blame the defense or special teams – you put all that on the offense. That goes on me . . .”
The Buffs led 10-7 at halftime, but they couldn’t have been happy with their point total. In no way did it reflect their first-half domination. CU outgained CSU 223-119 in total offense, including 163-38 in passing, and ran 39 plays to CSU’s 27.
Liufau only threw two incompletions in the first quarter and finished the half 15-of-21 for 163 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, CSU’s Garrett Grayson was 5-of-12 for 38 yards in the first half.
But with the Buffs unable to slow the Rams’ run game, QB numbers meant little in the final two quarters. Liufau finished the night 24-of-39 for 241 yards and two TDs, while Grayson – mostly content to hand off to Hart and Jarrells – checked out with 13 completions in 23 attempts for 134 yards and one TD. CSU accumulated 400 yards in total offense to CU’s 375.
Liufau said the Rams’ defense was pumped up by the run game’s success: “They had a slower start but their running game got going and obviously that’s going to spark your whole team . . . I think we were picking them apart (in the first half) but we just couldn’t finish drives.”
The night started promisingly for the Buffs. They scored on their second offensive series, getting a 54-yard Liufau-to-Spruce TD pass and the PAT from Will Oliver to go up 7-0 with 10:31 left in the first quarter. On its final possession of the first quarter that spilled into the second, CU used 10 plays to march to the CSU 2-yard line and was rewarded with a first-and-goal there.
But a curious thing happened on the way to the end zone: The Rams said not this time – and that might have been all that was needed to reenergize them.
On first down, 230-pound running back Christian Powell got a yard to the 1, but on second down he was slammed for no gain by middle linebacker Max Morgan and weak linebacker Aaron Davis.
On third-and-one, CU inserted redshirt freshman Phillip Lindsay for Powell. Lindsay took the handoff from Liufau, went airborne and landed in the clutches of a cluster of Rams at the line of scrimmage.
“I do whatever the coach (offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren) calls,” Liufau said. “He’s the one up in the box and he knows what he’s doing . . . I trusted the offensive line and the backs to punch it in and we didn’t this time.”
“If we want to win these types of games we got to be able to put those points on the board and score touchdowns,” added Spruce.
Instead, Oliver was brought on to kick a 23 yard field goal, which he made to send the Buffs ahead 10-0. So far, so good for CU.
Later in the quarter, CU marched as far as the CSU 24-yard line before the drive stalled. Oliver attempted a 42-yard field goal that drifted wide left – and the Rams might have sensed it was their time to make a move.
They did, embarking on a penalty-aided 76-yard drive that was capped by Hart’s inspired 8-yard scoring run. Jared Robert’s extra point pulled the Rams to within 10-7 with 2:39 left in the first half. Buffs corner Ken Crawley was flagged twice for 30 yards during CSU’s march.
With momentum seeming to make a late first-half shift toward the guys from Fort Collins, CSU had to be pleased about receiving the second half kickoff. The Rams were; they drove to the Buffs’ 34 before defensive end Derek McCartney sacked Grayson and caused a fumble that was gathered in by tackle Josh Tupou.
That shift of momentum CSU was enjoying evaporated into the Mile High air – but only temporarily.
Liufau drove the Buffs 62 yards in nine plays, capping the march with his second scoring pass to Spruce, whose catch was of the “oh, wow” variety. Shielding a defender with his right arm and hand, Spruce went low in the back of the end zone, extended his left hand and gathered in Liufau’s pass.
“Oh, wow,” indeed.
Oliver’s extra point gave CU a 10-point lead (17-7), but CSU and its running game weren’t nearly ready to roll over. It took the Rams 3:20 and seven plays to once again make it a three-point game. Jarrells, who gained 20 of the drive’s 56 yards, scored from the 3-yard line. Roberts’ extra point brought CSU to 17-14 with 6:18 left in the third quarter.
The Buffs couldn’t answer with a scoring drive, but punter Darragh O’Neill did pin the Rams at their 8-yard line – the fourth time of the night O’Neill put a punt inside the 20.
However, CSU quickly escaped, again working the legs of Jarrells and Hart to move past midfield and take position at the CU 30-yard line as the third quarter ended. The Buffs led 17-14, but the Rams were closing in on 200 yards rushing (194) and looking stronger as final quarter approached.
But it was Grayson’s arm that gave CSU its first lead. On the 12th play of a 92-yard drive, Grayson lofted a 16-yard pass that 6-2 Rashard Higgins caught over CU corner Greg Henderson. With Roberts’ PAT, the Rams pushed ahead 21-17 with 13:10 left.
And CSU wasn’t satisfied with 21 points. After forcing a CU punt, Grayson marched the balanced Rams 60 yards in seven plays, with 32 yards gained on runs and 28 passing. After Hart skirted right end for a 3-yard TD, Roberts’ PAT staked CSU to a 28-17 advantage.
With 9:28 remaining the night was slipping away from the Buffs. They were forced to punt again, and on the Rams’ ensuing possession Grayson converted a third-and-10 with an 11-yard completion to Jordon Vaden. With the clock now working against CU, CSU was cruising once more.
The Buffs finally halted the Rams at the CU 35, but on fourth-and-four, Roberts booted a 52-yard field goal. CSU’s lead ballooned to 31-17, and CU had only 2:28 to make up the difference.
Too many points, too little time.
The Buffs advanced to the Rams’ 27-yard line, where a Liufau incompletion put a period on CU’s night. CSU took possession with 9 seconds remaining and Grayson took a knee and let time – and the Buffs – expire.
“I mean, it hurts,” Spruce said. “We were just talking about it in there (locker room) it’s one game, it’s a huge game for the state of Colorado and it’s one we aren’t going to forget. But you know we can’t let it determine our season. So we got to come back to work next week.”
CU travels to Massachusetts to play UMass next Saturday (1 p.m., MST).
The Buffs unveiled a new game-day tradition on Friday night, planting an iron buffalo head fixed atop an iron stake on their sideline. Written under the head is “UNCOMMON” – the team’s 2014 mantra. The stake and head were designed and made by former CU quarterback Darian Hagan, who initially finished the project during the Jon Embree era. However, instead of “UNCOMMON” being below the head, Hagan said the inscription was “BELIEVE.” Hagan’s project will accompany the Buffs on the road this season . . . . Friday night’s attendance was 63,363. The Rocky Mountain Showdown drew 59,601 in 2013 . . . . Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper participated in Friday night’s coin toss . . . . Oliver kicked off for CU but that job likely will be shared as the season progresses. By November, special teams coach Toby Neinas doesn’t want his No. 1 placekicker suffering from a fatigued right leg.