The Colorado Buffaloes might not have been expecting a shootout, but the Massachusetts Minutemen forced the unexpected here Saturday – and CU dodged an ugly bullet.
Rallying from an 11-point deficit early in the second half, the Buffs finally steeled themselves for a strong finish and put away the Minutemen 41-38 in nearly vacant Gillette Stadium. CU’s first victory of 2014 was witnessed by 10,227 – a fractional attendance figure in the New England Patriots’ cavernous 68,756-seat home.
The few, the proud and the undoubtedly surprised took in an afternoon of unanticipated drama in steamy, sticky New England weather. UMass, an 18-point underdog, pushed CU hard in a game that featured six lead changes.
But the Buffs picked up on a week-long theme of “finishing” instead of allowing their early efforts to wither, as they’d done in their 31-17 opening loss to Colorado State.
“We’d been talking all week about finishing and effort (and) doing your job, just doing your job,” coach Mike MacIntyre said. “When it comes that time and everything starts going hectic – just do your job . . . . It’s about the heart, the fight and the attitude and them relying on each other.”
On this afternoon, it was about that and more. After taking a 41-31 advantage, CU had to withstand a UMass score in the final 3 minutes that pulled the Minutemen to 41-38. The Buffs took over with 2:55 left and, after UMass went through its timeouts, CU got one crucial first down then played beat the clock.
The Buffs did, denying the Minutemen a final possession.
“We showed a lot of heart and that’s good to see because we’re going to get some battles this year,” said CU’s sophomore quarterback, Sefo Liufau.
“We can’t get down if we’re losing,” added sophomore safety Chidobe Awuzie. “There’s always going to be ups and downs in a game. When the chances come we’ve got to seize the opportunity.”
CU RECEIVED A SECOND consecutive stellar performance from junior receiver Nelson Spruce, who caught a career-best 10 of Liufau’s passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, including a career-long 70-yarder that helped CU cement its win. Spruce made seven receptions for 104 yards and a pair of TDs – one a 54-yarder – in the opener.
Two games into 2014, Spruce is becoming the passing game’s playmaker, maybe not with the blurring speed and glitz of Paul Richardson but very effectively nonetheless.
“He’s really good,” MacIntyre said of Spruce. “I’ve said that all along. He’s just good.”
“Anytime you can make big plays it’s good,” Spruce said. “It’s something I’d been working on all off-season so it feels good to go out and execute like that.”
CU also got exemplary work in its kicking game. Senior Will Oliver kicked a pair of field goals (35, 47 yards) and all five of his extra points. He’s now been perfect on 67 consecutive PATs, breaking Ken Culbertson’s school record of 66.
And senior Darragh O’Neill averaged 48.8 yards on five punts, including two that backed up UMass inside its 20-yard line. O’Neill’s longest punt – a 62-yarder that benefitted from a healthy roll – was downed at the UMass 4, helping CU flip the field and leading to Oliver’s second field goal.
Liufau finished his afternoon completing 26 of 42 pass attempts for 318 yards and three TDs. Spruce wasn’t Liufau’s sole successful target; true freshman Shay Fields caught nine balls for 93 yards and one TD and redshirt freshman Bryce Bobo caught five for 54.
Given the 338 rushing yards and three scores the Minutemen allowed in their 30-7 opening loss to Boston College, the Buffs might have thought their ground game was the prescription for their first victory of the season. And CU had its running highlights: Junior Christian Powell rushed 19 times for 81 yards and a score, the best individual numbers in the Buffs’ 156-yard ground show. Senior Tony Jones added 47 yards on seven carries and redshirt freshman Phillip Lindsay 41 yards on his seven rushes. CU gained 115 of its rushing yards in the second half.
The Buffs might not have anticipated a back-and-forth first-half, but that’s what they got. After five lead changes, UMass led 21-20 at halftime – and those 21 points were the most the Minutemen had scored against a “Power 5” conference member since moving up to FBS status four seasons ago.
Scoring 10 quick points to open the second half, UMass went ahead 31-20 – but the Buffs had come too far (1,770 miles) to fold. “We talked about not being able to get it all back at one time – stick to the game plan and get it a play at a time,” Spruce said. “I think last season when we’d get down we’d try to get it back in one play. We stuck to our game plan.”
CU probably figured UMass graduate quarterback Blake Frohnapfel (20-of-38, 267 yards, 3 TDs) would improve in his second start. But the Buffs were stunned by the appearance of UMass tight end Jean Sifrin. The 6-7, 250-pounder didn’t play in last week’s opener, but became eligible two days after (Monday) and went through the NCAA-mandated five-day period before he could see game action.
Said MacIntyre: “He’s a big dude . . . about the third time, we realized every time he’s in they’re going to throw him the ball.”
WHEN THE MINUTEMENT WENT through Friday’s walk through at Gillette Stadium, the only player in full uniform was Sifrin, a transfer from El Camino Junior College. CU was unaware of his availability, but that ended soon enough.
Sifrin finished the first half with three catches for 33 yards and two touchdowns – the first covering 12 yards and the last a 14-yard leaping one-handed stab that, with Blake Lucas’ PAT, gave UMass its 21-20 halftime lead.
Yet MacIntyre said he and the Buffs went to their locker room at the break still buoyant about the outcome: “I know that I’m not a soothsayer, but at halftime they weren’t rattled. They were pumped up, jumping around and excited. I thought they had fought that kind of being overwhelmed and said, ‘It’s over.’ I just knew we were going to find a way to win it.”
On the game’s first possession, CU took a 3-0 lead on Oliver’s 35-yard field goal. It took two series before UMass answered with a 12-play, 85-yard drive capped by Frohnapfel’s 14-yard scoring pass to Rodney Mills.
Lucas put the Minutemen ahead 7-3 with his extra point and the lead’s seesawing began. On the final play of a 63-yard, seven-play CU march, Liufau hit Fields with a short pass in the left flat – and Fields did the rest.
After he tight-roped the sideline for a 19-yard TD, Oliver kicked the Buffs up 10-7 only a minute into the second quarter. Not quite 6 minutes later, Oliver kicked his second field goal – this one covered 37 yards – and CU went ahead 13-7.
But the Minutemen were undaunted. Frohnapfel took them 70 yards in six plays, completing all three of his passes for 34 yards during the drive and running 17 yards on a fake. A facemask penalty on CU corner Ken Crawley cost the Buffs another 15 yards, and a play later Sifrin hauled in his first TD catch. After Lucas’ PAT, UMass had its first lead of the afternoon, 14-13.
Then it was the Buffs’ turn . . .
With his first carries of the afternoon, Powell got 11 yards on consecutive carries and helped launch an 85-yard CU drive. Powell accounted for 9 more ground yards on the march, but it was three Liufau completions for 52 yards – two to Fields for 30 yards, one to Spruce for 22 – that moved the chains.
On third-and-one at the 5-yard line, Jones scored. Oliver’s point after put CU up 20-14 with 2:23 left in the half. But only 18 seconds before intermission, UMass responded with Sifrin’s leaping grab and snared its one-point halftime lead.
THE MINUTEMEN THREATENED TO break the afternoon open by scoring 10 unanswered to open the second half. The first three were courtesy of a 34-yard Lucas field goal on UMass’ first second-half possession. Needing an answer, CU instead suffered an interception when UMass DB Randall Jette outdueled Fields for a Liufau pass and returned the pick to the CU 2-yard line.
A play later, Jamal Wilson ran it in. Lucas kicked the extra point and the Minutemen had their largest lead – 31-20 – of the afternoon.
But the Buffs had something – a lot, in fact – left. A 77-yard drive capped by Powell’s 14-yard run and Oliver’s PAT pulled CU to within 31-27, and after a critical fourth-down stop at their 37 the Buffs struck again.
On third-and-nine at his own 30-yard line, Liufau scrambled right and final spied Spruce breaking toward the right sideline. Liufau lofted a pass, Spruce ran under it and completed a career-long 70-yard TD play. Oliver sent CU ahead 34-31 with his PAT and the third quarter ended that way.
“Protection broke down on the backside, so I rolled to the right,” Liufau said. “Spruce was going up the middle so I tried to give him a chance (to get open deeper toward the sideline).”
Added Spruce: “I don’t know how he saw me – probably out of the corner of his eye. But I was able to get behind the safety.”
The fourth quarter began with the Buffs huddled on their sideline and jumping in unison. Whether it was a show of final-quarter exuberance, unity or something else, it was enough.
Continuing a drive started with two plays in the third quarter, CU opened the final quarter with seven more plays that completed an 81-yard scoring march. After Liufau and Spruce teamed for a 3-yard TD pass, Oliver booted the Buffs in front 41-31, allowing them to shed just a little nervousness. OIiver’s fifth PAT gave him the school record for consecutive successful kicks (67).
Awuzie and fellow safety Tedric Thompson then teamed to stop a UMass march, with Thompson gathering in an interception of Frohnapfel that Awuzie had deflected.
“I wish I could have had the pick, but Tedric is like my brother in the secondary,” Awuzie said. “I tipped it and he caught it. It’s still a great thing.”
Thompson, also a sophomore, finished with a team-high 11 tackles (four unassisted), while Awuzie registered six total (four solo). Sophomore linebacker Addison made eight tackles (two solo) and was credited with half a sack. Senior defensive lineman Juda Parker got the other half sack, while redshirt freshman end Timothy Coleman got one sack by himself to account for CU’s two.
The Minutemen didn’t threaten again until they moved to the Buffs 13-yard line on a drive aided by a pair of roughing-the-passer flags. CU finished the game with 12 penalties for 124 yards, numbers that MacIntyre said must decrease.
After the second penalty, UMass scored on a 7-yard receiver sweep by Marken Michel. Lucas’ PAT brought the Minutemen to within 41-38 with 2:55 left. But that was as close as UMass could come, leaving CU to close it out and look forward to a long but rewarding flight home.
“We were just talking about finishing,” Awuzie said. “It was finish, finish, finish, finish, finish . . . do it anyway you could and find a way to win.”
The Buffs found a way and now face their home opener and Pac-12 Conference opener next Saturday against Arizona State (8 p.m., Folsom Field, ESPNU).