A season filled with ups and downs for the Colorado football program has taken a turn for the better the past two weeks under interim coach Brian Cabral, and now the Buffs have made their final trip to Lincoln, Neb., next week a meaningful one against the hated Cornhuskers.
With its bowl hopes and any chance of a winning season on the line against Kansas State on Saturday, Colorado rallied from an early 10-point deficit to win a shootout 44-36 in the final Big 12 Conference game in Boulder. As the game ended, chants of "Beat Nebraska" filled the stadium.
It didn't take long for the focus to turn to Nebraska in postgame interviews as well.
"It's Big Red week," Cabral said. "These guys are getting a little bit of a taste of what that is all about, but they are going to hear a lot about that this week and what Nebraska means to this program, what Nebraska means to a lot of dudes who went through this program and battled."
Colorado improved to 5-6 overall and 2-5 in Big 12 play, one win shy of the six victories necessary to qualify for the postseason.
The bad news is Nebraska will be similarly motivated after losing 9-6 at Texas A&M on Saturday night. Nebraska must win next week to assure itself of a Big 12 North Division championship and a trip to the title game. If the Buffs win and Missouri wins its finale against Kansas, the Tigers would win the north.
Saturday's contest was the highest scoring game in the series between the Kansas State and CU, and it was played in front of the smallest crowd -- 41,107 -- ever to see a Big 12 Conference game in Boulder.
"I couldn't be more proud of our players and coaches by the way they have responded the last two weeks," Cabral said. "You couldn't have asked for more."
Two weeks after rushing for a career-best 175 yards in a heartbreaking loss to Kansas, tailback Rodney Stewart fell just short his first 200-yard rushing day and helped the Buffs rack up more than 250 yards on the ground. He finished the game with 195 rushing yards. Will Jefferson ran for 73.
Stewart continues to thrive with a heavy workload. He has handled the ball 105 times in the past three games for a combined total of 511 yards rushing and receiving. And he is hungry for more.
"Give me 40 if you can," Stewart said when asked if all the action he is seeing is wearing him out.
Stewart also completed the first touchdown pass of his career, connecting with wide receiver Toney Clemons on a 23-yard pass in the second quarter. It was the go-ahead score.
"The only thing I could have done better was probably sell the run a little better, but I was so excited to see the (defensive backs) coming up," Stewart said.
Senior quarterback Cody Hawkins became the first in school history to throw for three scores in three consecutive games, and was instrumental in keeping drives alive. The Buffs converted nine of 14 third downs and Hawkins played a part in almost all of those conversions.
Hawkins completed 14 of 25 passes for 202 yards, moving within 130 yards of becoming the Buffs' all-time passing yardage leader. In his past two games, Hawkins has completed 30 of 49 passes for 468 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions.
For the second week in a row, Hawkins brought the entire team together in a huddle between the third and fourth quarters and reminded his teammates to finish the game. CU would be bowl eligible today if not for an historic collapse in the fourth quarter three weeks ago.
"This is the last quarter these seniors are ever going to have on this football field," Hawkins quoted himself as saying. "Give it everything you've got and keep fighting."
Colorado honored members of the senior class in a pregame ceremony and Hawkins was greeted on the field by members of his family, including former CU coach Dan Hawkins, who was fired two weeks ago. The ovation for Hawkins was the loudest of all the seniors and fans honored him again at the end of the game by presenting him with the Buffalo Heart Award.
He walked off Folsom Field for the final time after a game in which he played shaking hands and giving high-fives to fans lined against the railing still cheering for him.
Hawkins wasn't the only senior to perform well on Senior Day.
Wide receiver Scotty McKnight caught two touchdown passes to capture the career record for scoring catches at CU. He caught a 37-yard pass from Hawkins late in the second quarter to move ahead of Rae Carruth and Derek McCoy and he hauled in a 13-yard pass from Hawkins in the third quarter, the 22nd of his career.
"I think we have really started to hit on all cylinders," McKnight said. "Unfortunately, it's later in the season, but I'm thankful that we really are starting to click."
The Buffs scored at least 34 points for the third consecutive week, the first time that has happened since the 2002 season. They produced a season-high 476 yards of total offense and have scored in 12 consecutive quarters.
CU built a two-touchdown lead more than once in the second half, but Kansas State remained persistent and continued to answer with scores of its own.
Kansas State starting quarterback Collin Klein was knocked out of the game in the second quarter and was replaced by Carson Coffman, who had been the regular starter for much of the season for the Wildcats.
Coffman performed well and had an opportunity to lead the Wildcats to a tying score late in the game with his team trailing by eight. But the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs after CU defensive end Josh Hartigan came up with his third sack of the game on fourth-and-six.
Coffman completed 16 of 23 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for another touchdown. Klein also scored on two early 1-yard touchdown plunges before he was hurt on Hartigan's first sack of the game.
"I might not be the biggest guy but I can do some things and come out and play with the best of them," Hartigan said.
CU held Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas, the Big 12's second leading rusher, to 58 yards on 14 carries.