CU vs. Utah, at a glance
What went right: The Buffs were exceptional on defense all night, forcing four turnovers and keeping the Utes out of the end zone in crucial situations.
What went wrong: CU's offense sputtered throughout the night and made things closer than they probably should have been.
Turning point: With 10:56 to play, Rick Gamboa forced Utah's Joe Williams to fumble and Kenneth Olugbode picked up the ball and ran 10 yards for a touchdown. That gave CU a 27-16 lead and the breathing room they needed at the end.
CU player of the game: Olugbode. His touchdown was monumental for his team and put a cap on his career at Folsom Field.
Bottom line: The Buffs are Pac-12 South champions for the first time and will move on to Friday's conference title game against Washington.
At some point Saturday night, Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre expected it to finally hit him and his players.
The Buffaloes are the Pac-12 South champions.
The doormat of the conference since it was invited to join the group in 2011, ninth-ranked CU is headed to the Pac-12 championship game after a bruising 27-22 victory against No. 21 Utah on Saturday night at Folsom Field.
CU (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) will face No. 6 Washington (11-1, 8-1), the North division champion, on Friday at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
"I think the feeling is going to hit (the players) after they get all their family away and they're kind of sitting there and they'll wake up in the middle of the night and go, 'Wow,' and they'll have that moment when it's just them, by themselves," MacIntyre said.
"I know I will. I guarantee I'll wake up somewhere in the middle of the night and just go out in the den and just sit there and pray and cry and yell and do everything else. It's an emotional deal."
Emotions were at an all-time high for this group on Saturday night after they survived one last fight to claim the South title.
As usual, Utah (8-4, 5-4) gave the Buffs a whale of a battle. It was the sixth time in six years that these two teams fought to a one-score game. For the first time since 2011, CU came out on top.
Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau wasn't at his best, but he shook off two fumbles and several errant passes to throw for 270 yards and a touchdown and rush for 59 yards and another score.
"I'm very excited to be able to grind one out," Liufau said. "The defense really stepped up today. Offensively we were hot and cold tonight. Shout out to the defense, holding the Utah offense. It was really big all game."
Defensively, the Buffs forced four turnovers, came up with four red-zone stops and bottled up running back Joe Williams. The Utes' star had averaged 202.6 rushing yards over the last five games, but the Buffs held him to 97 yards and kept him out of the end zone.
Perhaps no play was bigger than one by senior linebacker Kenneth Olugbode, who scooped up a Williams fumble and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown that gave CU a 27-16 lead with 11 minutes to go.
"Right before that, we were both talking about that," said linebacker Rick Gamboa, who forced the fumble. "We knew the offense was struggling a little bit and we knew defensively we needed to make a play - either force a turnover, get the offense the ball or just score as a defense.
"I had the running back up and I pulled the ball out and (Olugbode) was in the perfect spot to pick it up and score. That was a big play for us in the game."
Utah scored with 1:34 to play to pull within five, but the Buffs stopped a two-point conversion attempt and then recovered the ensuing onsides kick. They ran out the clock from there and sparked the biggest celebration at Folsom Field in years.
"It was definitely emotional," receiver Devin Ross said of the final minutes. "It was unreal and a once in a lifetime experience.
"I'm glad we could let (the seniors) go out on top."
CU made big plays all night at crucial times, epitomizing how this season has gone for a team that finishing last or tied for last in the South every year since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
The Buffs came into this season with a 5-40 record in five years of Pac-12 battles, including 1-8 last year. Their seven-win improvement this year is the greatest single-season turnaround in the history of the conference, topping the 6.5-win improvement by Stanford from 1939 to 1940.
"Worst to first," MacIntyre said. "Not many people can say they've done that.
"I just can't say enough about these seniors. I'm speechless to be honest with you. They're my heroes."
Those heroes helped the Buffs secure just the seventh 10-win season in school history, and establish a school record for conference wins in a season.
They aren't done yet, though.
This is their first division crown since winning the Big 12 North in 2005, but now they've got a battle with Washington coming up to truly complete their quest.
"Now we've got one more to do," MacIntyre said.
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.No. 9 Colorado 27, No. 21 Utah 22 Utah 7 0 6 9 — 22 Colorado 7 6 7 7 — 27 First Quarter
UTH_— B.Hobbs 55 punt return (Phillips kick), 9:17
COL — Liufau 2 run (Price kick), :00Second Quarter
COL — FG Graham 25, 9:20
COL — FG Graham 19, 5:21Third Quarter
UTH — FG Phillips 22, 11:54
UTH — FG Phillips 22, 11:54
COL — Fields 6 pass from Liufau (Price kick), :00Fourth Quarter
UTH — FG Phillips 23, 13:53
COL — Olugbode 10 fumble return (Price kick), 10:56
UTH — Simpkins 7 pass from Tr.Williams (pass failed), 1:34UTAH COL First downs 15 18 Rushes-yards 41-179 38-108 Passing 160 270 Comp-Att-Int 13-40-2 23-44-0 Return Yards 202 39 Punts-Avg. 6-42.16 9-32.11 Fumbles-Lost 2-2 2-2 Penalties-Yards 3-36 0-0 Time of Possession 30:15 29:45 INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING — Utah, J.Williams 26-97, Butler-Byrd 2-46, Tr.Williams 11-19, Moss 2-17. Colorado, Liufau 21-59, Lindsay 12-55, MacIntyre 1-3, (Team) 3-(minus 4), Evans 1-(minus 5).
PASSING — Utah, Tr.Williams 13-40-2-160. Colorado, Liufau 23-44-0-270.
RECEIVING — Utah, Patrick 5-78, Butler-Byrd 2-23, Moeai 2-20, Simpkins 2-15, Handley 1-18, Singleton 1-6. Colorado, Ross 9-94, Fields 7-78, MacIntyre 2-46, Ento 2-38, Lindsay 2-10, Lee 1-4.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — Utah, Phillips 45.