This is how a football team asserts its will.

This is how a squad still unproven at the championship level not only scoffs at the mounting pressure, but revels in it.

As the final seconds ticked away Saturday evening at Folsom Field, the joy that has been building steadily throughout the season overflowed in a beautiful scene of euphoria. Students shared a brief victory chant with the Buffaloes. Kids clamored for quick high-fives from quarterback Sefo Liufau and running back Phillip Lindsay, now the unquestioned emotional leader and offensive workhorse of a team eager to put the finishing touches a historic turnaround.

In one singular moment it was as if the CU faithful vented a decade's worth of bitter losses and seemingly endless rebuilding projects. And it can all be owed to a team willing to embrace the spotlight.

Saturday's thrilling 38-24 win by the AP No. 12-ranked Buffs over 20th-ranked Washington State started to follow a script all too familiar to CU fans in past seasons. Yet once again the Buffs served a stern reminder the past is the past, and that 2016 is a new story altogether.

It was CU's dominance at crunch time that has the Buffs on the cusp of their first appearance in the Pac-12 Conference championship game. Throughout a campaign that now stands at 9-2 heading into next week's regular-season finale at home against Utah, a CU program that hadn't enjoyed a winning season in 11 years has hit uncharted territory with almost every victory. It happened again Saturday in the first clash between two ranked teams at Folsom since 2002.


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And it was the Buffs who didn't blink.

When Washington State took a 24-21 lead with 3 minutes, 18 seconds left in the third quarter, it wasn't as if the writing was on the wall for the Buffs. Not even close. Yet along the way it has been easy for Buffs fans to wonder when the inevitable letdown would arrive, or when this too-good-to-be true season might crumble in a heap of ill-timed mistakes.

Not only did it not happen Saturday, but the Buffs promptly outscored Washington State 17-0 the rest of the way after that late third-quarter score by the Cougars. Even when Liufau went down briefly with an injury early in the fourth quarter, mirroring a scene from the gut-wrenching loss at Michigan on Sept. 17, CU reversed the plot, this time erasing a frustrating stretch of field goal foibles with a clutch 46-yard boot by Chris Graham before Liufau returned for CU's final meaningful drive.

That drive ended with an 11-yard Lindsay touchdown run in which he ran through the Cougars defense — the top-ranked run defense in the Pac-12 coming into Saturday's battle — like a man who refused to be denied. It's a sentiment shared throughout the entire CU locker room.

The Buffs converted 8 of 11 third-down opportunities in the second half, a mark that was 8-for-10 before a late third down dive by Lindsay when CU was running out the clock with the victory already well in hand.

"We've just been through hell and back so many times, now that we're in this position we know that we never want to go back to where we were before," senior center Alex Kelley said. "That fear in the back of our minds just really keeps us moving forward."

Given Utah's stunning loss at home Saturday against Oregon, by the time our fine print readers get their hands on this column the Buffs might already have a spot locked up in the Pac-12 title game, if UCLA manages to upset USC late Saturday night. If not, the stakes will be even higher when the Utes visit Folsom next week.

You can bet it won't be the Buffs who flinch.

Pat Rooney: rooneyp@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/prooney07