Ryan Thorburn, Camera Sports Writer
Ryan Thorburn, Camera Sports Writer ( PAUL AIKEN )

Time of death: 4:36 p.m. on Friday.

The suffering is finally over for the 2012 Colorado Buffaloes.

In a wild fourth-quarter finish that goes under the heading of "Things that can only happen to the Buffs," the pure joy of Marques Mosley's 100-yard kickoff return to tie the score 35-35 lasted 13 seconds.

Before the crowd of 39,400 had a chance to catch its collective breath, Utah's Reggie Dunn knocked the wind out of Colorado's most loyal followers with a 100-yard kickoff return of his own that proved to be the difference in the Buffs' 42-35 loss.

"This game kind of summarizes the year," Jon Embree said after this CU team became the first not to win a single game at Folsom Field and provided the Utes with their only road win of the season. "Our kids have always fought. They've never quit."

Three valiant seniors -- Nick Kasa, Jon Major and Doug Rippy -- wore blood and sweat to the somber postgame press conference in the bowels of the Dal Ward Center.

Embree shed the tear.

The second-year CU head coach, whose overall record is now 4-21, understands that fans demanding his firing comes with the territory.

But when a coward from the cheap seats called wide receiver Gerald Thomas, who dropped a pass on fourth-and-3 with 5:29 remaining, unspeakable things as the freshman walked off the field, it was too much for Embree to take.

"Those kids gave us everything they had all year," Embree said. "I'm just mad because when people say something to our kids, I've got a problem. ... It's an 18-year-old kid playing his heart out."


The kids are going to be all right. The wins are coming.

At least that's the message Embree is selling the base and his bosses entering a make-or-break offseason in Boulder.

Eventually, playing so many sophomores and freshmen will pay off on the scoreboard.

Won't it?

"We (seniors) have left them with a lot of motivation," the bruised, batter and blocked in the back (no call on a key Utah touchdown) Major said of his legacy. "Whether it was for our non-success or our work ethic ... they're going to recognize it's going to take everybody."

Coaching is a cruel business and not everyone on Embree's staff will survive in the aftermath of what was arguably the worst season in the program's proud history.

Defensive coordinator Greg Brown, whose unit was last nationally in the most important statistic (scoring defense) and 118th in total defense entering the finale, should expect a pink slip.

Brian Cabral -- who was 2-1 as CU's interim head coach at the end of the 2010 season and worked for Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisel, Gary Barnett and Dan Hawkins before Embree -- will probably be asked to retire.

Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy could be demoted to running backs coach and have the play-calling duties taken away if he returns.

"I want to make sure we're doing the right thing and talking to the right people," Embree said when asked about a timeline for making staff decisions. "But I don't think it's a process we want to drag out."

Once the assistant coaches for 2013 are set and the recruiting class is signed, the focus will be on spring football.

Nick Hirschman, despite throwing four interceptions to a Utah defense that had four picks in the previous 11 games, may have played his way into consideration after completing 30 of 51 passes for 306 yards with a touchdown pass and a touchdown run against the Utes.

Jordan Webb and Connor Wood could still be factors in the never-ending competition, but both were underwhelming this season and still have a lot to prove.

If the Buffs are serious about a fresh start, freshman Shane Dillon should get the first opportunity to run the spread offense Embree plans to fully implement.

CU's entire offensive line, which started to play better down the stretch, returns to block for some promising running backs (Christian Powell, Donta Abron, Tony Jones).

Paul Richardson will headline a much more dynamic group of wide receivers that is expected to include Gerald Thomas and Jeff Thomas. Tyler McCulloch and Nelson Spruce, who combined for 16 catches, 186 yards and a touchdown against Utah, might have trouble cracking a deeper and faster lineup.

Defensively, the Buffs return seven starters and 18 of 22 players on the two deep.

A number of freshmen, including Tyler Henington and Josh Tupou on the defensive line and Mosley and Kenneth Crawley in the secondary, appear to have bright careers ahead of them as soon as they blow out some more birthday candles.

The kicking game was a bright spot again this season, save for kickoffs obviously (how hard is it to find someone with a strong enough leg for touchbacks?) CU needs to make sure punter Darragh O'Neill is used less often and place-kicker Will Oliver is called on in more close games next fall.

But patience is wearing thin and potential is a four-letter word after seven consecutive losing seasons. The Buffs must show some more life in 2013 or this rebuilding project will be terminated.

"For next year, we start (preparing) Sunday night at 6:30," Embree said. "We have a lot to build on. It may not be crystal clear outside the program, but we have a lot of young talent and some kids coming in that are going to help us. ...

"There's a lot to be excited about and feel good about."

Only 281 days until the theory is put to the test against Colorado State.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanThorburn