CU vs. UCLA, at a glance
What went right: CU's defense was exceptional and, for the second game in a row, was the reason the Buffaloes came away with a victory.
What went wrong: The Buffs were undisciplined all night, racking up eight personal foul penalties. They also struggled on offense throughout the game.
Turning point: Isaiah Oliver's 68-yard punt return for touchdown with 5:27 to play gave the Buffs a 20-10 lead and the cushion they needed down the stretch.
CU player of the game: Oliver. His punt return for a touchdown was the big play of the night, but it wasn't his only big play. In the third quarter, he had a 42-yard punt return down to the UCLA 17. That set up a game-tying field goal.
Bottom line: It was an ugly game overall, but CU got the win, and that's all that mattered. At 7-2, 5-1 in the Pac-12, they remain in first place in the South division.
Mike MacIntyre has been around football long enough to know that wins are too hard to come by to not celebrate each one.
The Colorado head coach also knows that not every win deserves to be treated equally.
On Thursday night, the Buffaloes - No. 21 in the Associated Press poll, No. 20 in the Coaches poll and No. 15 in the College Football Playoff rankings - knocked off UCLA, 20-10, at Folsom Field.
For the Buffs (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12), it was their first victory against the Bruins (3-6, 1-5) since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. It increased CU's lead in the Pac-12 South division to a full game over Utah and USC. And, it clinched CU's first winning season since 2005, the last year the Buffs won as many as seven games.
Because of all that, MacIntyre said, "I want them to enjoy it."
They should enjoy it, because the defense was spectacular once again, and Isaiah Oliver saved the day with two game-changing punt returns. One set up a game-tying field goal in the third quarter and the other was a brilliant 68-yard return for touchdown that iced the game in the fourth.
"It was probably the first time I smiled all night, to be honest," CU quarterback Sefo Liufau said of Oliver's touchdown. "To see a big play on special teams, which hasn't really been our strong point this year, was a really big lift for the team."
Frankly, Liufau and the Buffs didn't have much to smile about before that return, and whatever joy they got out of the win won't last long because this was a game that left an ugly mark on the Buffs.
So disciplined and fundamentally sound all season, the Buffs were anything but that against the Bruins - the preseason Pac-12 South favorites who are now officially eliminated from the division title race.
The least penalized team in the Pac-12 during the first nine weeks of the season, the Buffs were flagged 12 times for 128 yards. A stunning eight of those penalties - for 113 yards - were for personal fouls. CU had 10 personal foul penalties in the first eight games of the season, combined.
"They need to understand if we want to be Pac-12 champions, we cannot do that," MacIntyre said. "We have to have better poise and we can't be selfish."
It was an extremely uncharacteristic night for CU, as seven different players were hit with personal foul penalties, including Ryan Moeller for taunting and Jimmie Gilbert for targeting. Gilbert was ejected from the game early in the first quarter for a helmet-to-helmet hit on UCLA quarterback Mike Fafaul.
"We haven't been (selfish this season), but we won't be again, because we've got too much at stake," MacIntyre said. "You don't want to screw it up, because you have a couple selfish plays and lose a game because of it and it keeps you from going to the Rose Bowl."
In addition to the high penalty count, CU had a season-high four turnovers, all in the first half. The Buffs had just eight on the season coming in, and just three in the previous four games.
Liufau increased his school-record streak to 152 passes without an interception before his first pick of the season - on a tipped pass - ended the Buffs' initial possession of the game.
Liufau threw his second interception in the second quarter and then fumbled while getting sacked two possessions later. He was injured on the play - "Just a little stinger, nothing serious," he said - and didn't play the rest of the half.
In Liufau's place, Steven Montez threw an interception just before halftime.
Luckily for the Buffs, they've got a defense that continues to play at a championship level, and UCLA managed to convert those four CU turnovers into just three points.
"We've got a lot of good players on defense," MacIntyre said. "They keep competing."
The defense set up CU's only offensive touchdown of the night, when linebacker Kenneth Olugbode picked off a Fafaul pass and returned it 51 yards. Eight plays later, Phillip Lindsay scored on a 1-yard run to give the Buffs a 7-0 lead.
"(Defensive coordinator Jim) Leavitt always talks about it: it's not a big deal; it's what we do," Olugbode said of the great performance by the defense. "That's how we feel as a defense. We go out there and ball every single time we get a chance."
They certainly did against the Bruins, holding them to 210 yards of total offense and just 25 yards on 30 rushing attempts.
With CU clinging to a slim 13-10 lead with less than 6 minutes to play in the fourth, the defense stuffed the Bruins once again. Christian Shaver's sack of Fafaul on third-and-10 forced UCLA to punt.
Oliver fielded the kick at his own 32-yard line and then raced nearly untouched to the end zone for CU's first punt return for touchdown since Stephone Robinson scored against Kansas on Oct. 22, 2005. Oliver's touchdown, with 5:27 to play, gave CU a 20-10 lead.
"It was pretty much a feeling of relief," Oliver said of reaching the end zone. "We knew if we could get one more touchdown or a few more points that we could pretty much solidify the game. We didn't expect it to happen on a punt return but however you can get in the end zone, we're happy with that."
Happy, but the Buffs certainly were not in a festive mood.
This is a team with Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl aspirations, and they know they got away with one on Thursday. Performances like this one don't often result in wins.
"It's a good testament that good teams really find a way to win even when you are not playing at your best," Liufau said.
"With all the negatives that tonight brought and with the amount of negativity on offense especially, it's great to be 7-2 and it's a lot better than being on the opposite end, 2-7 and trying to fight for respect. There's a lot to learn from this game, but to keep going in the right direction, no matter how small the step is, is always a great thing to see."
COL_Lindsay 1 run (Graham kick), 5:49
UCLA_Andrews 39 pass from Fafaul (Strauch kick), 4:04Second quarter
UCLA_FG Molson 48, 12:19Third quarter
COL_FG Graham 21, 7:28Fourth quarter
COL_FG Graham 37, 13:40
COL_Oliver 68 punt return (Graham kick), 5:27
UCLA COL First downs 15 24 Rushes-yards 30-25 52-145 Passing 185 160 Comp-Att-Int 15-29-1 20-33-3 Return Yards 103 148 Punts-Avg. 7-23.14 3-40.33 Fumbles-Lost 0-0 4-1 Penalties-Yards 13-95 12-128 Time of Possession 24:35 35:25 INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING — UCLA, Jamabo 23-66, N.Starks 1-0, Fafaul 5-(minus 19), (Team) 1-(minus 22). Colorado, Lindsay 24-74, Liufau 23-58, Evans 2-8, Ross 1-4, Montez 1-2, (Team) 1-(minus 1).
PASSING — UCLA, Fafaul 15-29-1-185. Colorado, Montez 1-3-1-17, Liufau 19-30-2-143.
RECEIVING — UCLA, Andrews 6-88, Lasley 4-22, A.Roberts 2-57, Jamabo 2-6, Adams 1-12. Colorado, Lindsay 11-76, Fields 3-39, Ross 3-24, Bobo 2-7, MacIntyre 1-14.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — UCLA, Molson 26, Molson 44, Strauch 36. Colorado, Graham 36.