A sunny Northern California afternoon was just giving way to evening when Mike MacIntyre paused his exit from Stanford Stadium deep in the venue’s bowels.
Marked by the drained-yet-joyous expression that has become one of the many signatures of this most improbable of Colorado Buffaloes football seasons, MacIntyre graciously took a moment to answer just a few more questions about his team’s latest triumph, a messy but critical 10-5 win against the Cardinal.
Attempting to tread carefully — bristling at even the mere suggestion of good fortune is as much a part of coaching DNA as video study and recruiting spiels — MacIntyre was asked to comment on how all the little things seemed to be falling into place for his Buffs, from Stanford’s turnover on a botched first-and-goal snap that afternoon while knocking on the door of a go-ahead score to the rotating Pac-12 schedule that had Washington off the ledger this season.
“Skipping Washington?” MacIntyre countered, grinning knowingly. “We’re going to play Washington.”
A bold statement certainly, particularly considering the unsightly manner in which his team escaped with a victory roughly an hour earlier. Yet the message remained as consistent as it’s been since the end of the 2015 season.
This year, the Buffs weren’t just aiming for a winning record. They wouldn’t be satisfied with any ol’ bowl berth. And while a South Division title would be nice, MacIntyre and his Buffs made it clear all along that would only be a consolation prize compared to what they truly coveted — the Pac-12 Conference championship.
On Friday night the upstart Buffs will get their chance, taking on Washington in the league championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. In recent Colorado sports lore, only the 2007 Colorado Rockies and their ridiculous 21 wins in 22 games romp to the World Series can compare to what the Buffs have done in terms of defying expectations, ending a decade of misery with a season as improbable as it has been inspiring.
The 2016 Buffs have proven to be a team of destiny, from breaks falling their way to the cast of veterans who embraced the idea their unified sum was far more powerful than their individual parts.
For every fortuitous bounce, like center Alex Kelley pouncing on a fumble into the end zone for a touchdown to cap the season’s opening drive that could’ve (should’ve) been scooped up by a Colorado State defender, there was Chidobe Awuzie turning in a play of pure effort to track down Utah kick returner Kyle Fulks inside the five-yard line, saving a touchdown and allowing the CU defense to hold the Utes to a field goal.
There were gifts, like Stanford’s fumbled goal-line snap, and there was grit, from Sefo Liufau’s one-legged bomb to Shay Fields in the near-miss at Michigan to Phillip Lindsay, the diminutive running back with the oversized heart, getting stronger late in games while opposing defenses got sick of trying to bring him down.
Throughout it all the Buffs have played with a collective chip on their shoulders. Expect that to continue Friday. A recurring theme from Buffs players this week has been the belief that outsiders want Washington to win, as if fans of the Pac-12 are rallying behind the knowledge that a Huskies win is the league’s easiest path into the CFP.
And while it’s unlikely CU’s players will publicly cite this week’s All-Pac-12 results as a source of motivation, you can bet it’s a slight, perceived or otherwise, certainly simmering in the backs of the Buffs’ minds. Two UW defensive backs, Budda Baker and Sidney Jones, landed on the first team, while CU’s dominant trio of Awuzie, Tedric Thompson, and Akhello Witherspoon were relegated to the second team.
Statistics never tell a complete story. But Thompson’s seven interceptions were more than the two Huskies combined, while Thompson and Witherspoon ranked one-two in the league in passes defended. And no disrespect to any of the fine players on the first team, but folks weren’t paying attention if they believe there were four defensive backs in the Pac-12 that had better seasons than Awuzie.
Think that unit won’t be eager to make a statement against the league’s top-scoring offense and the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, UW quarterback Jake Browning?
The bet here is the Buffs once again embrace the moment.
Pat Rooney: email@example.com or twitter.com/prooney07