California 33, Colorado 21
Play of the game: Steven Montez threw a short pass to KD Nixon, who turned on the jets and scored from 24 yards out in the second half. That pulled the Buffs within 24-14 at the time.
Turning point: Although CU made it interesting late, the turning point came early, when Cal had two interception returns for touchdowns on the first six plays from scrimmage, taking a 14-0 lead before its offense touched the ball.
Top 3 Buffs of the game
1. Buff Davion Taylor: He was aggressive and all over the field making solid plays on defense.
2. DE Mustafa Johnson: Finished with a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.
3. KD Nixon: Caught just two passes, but both went for 24 yards, including a touchdown in the second half.
Colorado turned a promising season into a horrendous finish, as it lost the last seven games of the season to finish 5-7. The Buffs failed to reach a bowl for the second year in a row.
BERKELEY, Calif. — Outside of the Colorado locker room at California Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, there were plenty of hugs and smiles between Buffaloes' coaches and players.
This wasn't a celebration, by any means. Rather, it was a goodbye.
Goodbye to the seniors.
Goodbye to the coaches.
And, goodbye to the 2018 season, which will forever be remembered for a historical collapse that changed the direction of the CU football program.
"I'm definitely stunned," quarterback Steven Montez said after a 33-21 loss to the California Golden Bears. "When we were sitting at 5-0, I never even thought we'd have two losses. That's just how football goes sometimes. It's a tough game. It's tough to win."
Winning has never seemed more difficult for this group. Once 5-0 and ranked No. 19 in the country, the Buffaloes (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12) crashed into the offseason with a seven-game losing streak.
Six days after athletic director Rick George fired head coach Mike MacIntyre, the Buffaloes joined the 2009 Kansas Jayhawks as the only Power 5 Conference teams in the last 20 years to start 5-0 and finish 5-7, beginning their offseason much sooner than anyone ever expected.
CU's focus now shifts completely to finding MacIntyre's replacement.
"Stunned, disappointed," senior linebacker Drew Lewis said how the season unfolded. "It's a bizarre feeling. Nothing that any of us have been a part of or experienced. It definitely doesn't feel real."
Unreal because earning bowl eligibility for the second time in three years seemed to be a given not long ago, but somewhere along the way, the Buffaloes forgot how to win. During the last two seasons, they are now 0-10 when trying to get win No. 6 and become bowl eligible.
Unreal also because CU seemingly invented new ways to lose during the streak.
On Saturday, the Buffs outgained Cal (7-4, 4-4) by 107 yards and held the Bears to 1-for-17 on third downs. Cal's offense didn't need to do much, though, because CU made life easier on the Bears.
On the third play of the game, Montez was picked off by Elijah Hicks, who returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.
Three plays later, Montez threw another pick-six, this one to Ashtyn Davis, who returned the interception 35 yards for a score. Just like that, Cal had a 14-0 lead before its offense touched the ball.
"That's probably the worst I could have started," Montez said. "I just wasn't seeing throws really well. I don't know if we could have started worse. I could have done a lot better job just seeing the throws I was throwing and making better decisions."
Montez said on both plays, Cal's defense disguised its coverage and surprised him after the snap, but added, "I've got to see it better."
Montez threw for 170 yards and two touchdowns to rally the Buffs in the second half, but his season-high three interceptions were back-breaking. He had thrown just six interceptions all season, and never more than one in a game.
He certainly wasn't alone, though, as CU finished with a season-high five turnovers, all in the first half.
A fumbled punt return by Ronnie Blackmon set up Cal's third touchdown - a 1-yard pass from Chase Garbers to Patrick Laird - putting the Buffs in a 21-0 hole in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, KD Nixon replaced Blackmon on the punt return team and he also fumbled. That set up a field goal that gave the Bears a 24-7 lead.
Without much work on offense, Cal took a 17-point lead into intermission, but CU didn't fold.
Montez threw touchdown passes to Nixon and Juwann Winfree in the third quarter, pulling the Buffs within 27-21.
"I think those guys really fight hard and they competed for the entire game and tried to battle back in it and gave us a shot," CU interim head coach Kurt Roper said. "I don't think they ever stopped believing."
Yet another miscue helped the Bears put the game away in the fourth, though.
On third-and-goal from the 18-yard-line, the Buffs chased Garbers out of bounds for a 4-yard gain, but Lewis was flagged for a late hit. Instead of Cal likely trying a field goal on fourth down, the penalty gave the Bears a first down. On the next play, Garbers threw a 7-yard touchdown to Moe Ways to extend the Cal lead to 33-21.
CU was unable t complete the rally, failing to score in the fourth quarter for the fourth game in a row.
"We bounced back, got a few plays, but we missed some, too," Nixon said.
That's been the general theme this season, as the Buffs have missed more plays than they've made down the stretch, leading to the sudden end to their season.
"It kinda hurts," Nixon said. "You have to suck it up, you have to go back to work tomorrow. We started off good, but it's not how you start; it's how you finish. This year we didn't finish the way we wanted, so the only thing you can do is fix it and come back ready for next year."
Not everyone will have that chance to fix it for next year, though. That's what led to all the postgame hugs.
There were 19 seniors playing their final game for the Buffaloes and 10 full-time coaches - and many others on staff - who are uncertain about their futures.
"I told those guys we appreciated the effort and the sacrifices they make for us as coaches," Roper said after the first game of his career as a head coach. "You get really close in a football season you spend a lot of time together. A lot of ups and downs and a lot of emotions in this game. Those emotions create a bond that's hard to break. Obviously there's an uncertain future moving forward, but there's relationships that will last a lifetime that were in (the locker room)."
Down the road, it may be those relationships that players and coaches remember most from 2018, but this season is destined to be remembered for missed opportunities and an epic collapse.
California 33, Colorado 21Colorado 0 7 14 0 — 21
California 21 3 3 6 — 33
CAL — Hicks 34 interception return (G.Thomas kick), 13:49
CAL — Davis 35 interception return (G.Thomas kick), 13:04
CAL — Laird 1 pass from Garbers (G.Thomas kick), 4:41
COL — Evans 1 run (Stefanou kick), 11:32
CAL — FG G.Thomas 24, 8:14
COL — Nixon 24 pass from Montez (Stefanou kick), 10:15
CAL — FG G.Thomas 33, 4:56
COL — Winfree 3 pass from Montez (Stefanou kick), :41
CAL — Ways 7 pass from Garbers (pass failed), 10:35
First downs 19 14
Rushes-yards 43-148 38-95
Passing 170 116
Comp-Att-Int 16-33-3 14-26-0
Return Yards 119 84
Punts-Avg. 5-39.0 8-47.12
Penalties-Yards 7-54 9-75
Time of Possession 28:51 31:09
RUSHING — Colorado, McMillian 21-58, Montez 10-53, Evans 10-33, Shenault 0-10, (Team) 2-(minus 6). California, Garbers 12-47, Laird 18-45, Ali Walsh 3-8, C.Brown 2-1, (Team) 3-(minus 6).
PASSING — Colorado, Montez 16-33-3-170. California, Garbers 14-26-0-116.
RECEIVING — Colorado, Shenault 7-65, Nixon 2-48, McMillian 2-12, Winfree 2-1, Ento 1-26, Russell 1-18, T.Brown 1-0. California, Wharton 6-61, Ways 3-43, Laird 3-6, McMorris 1-10, McIlwain 1-(minus 4).
MISSED FIELD GOALS — None.
Chris Schmaedeke: 303-473-1303, firstname.lastname@example.org