SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Sefo Liufau pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, swung his backpack over his shoulders, and grabbed his box dinner on his way out of the locker room.
It’s a routine Liufau and his Colorado teammates have repeated countless times over the years.
This was not routine, however.
Colorado’s 41-10 loss to Washington on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium hit Liufau harder than others.
“Definitely,” he said softly as he walked through the Levi’s Stadium tunnel and toward the team busses. “My freshman year, when I was hurting and things weren’t going very well at all, I told my mom, told my dad, told my girlfriend, ‘By the time I’m done here, I want to fill out the stadium. I want to pack Folsom. I want to lead them to a championship.’
“And, I missed the boat on this one.”
There’s no denying that. Liufau and the Pac-12 South division champion Buffaloes had a miserable night against the North champion Huskies.
Playing in the penultimate game of his career, Liufau missed most of the first half with an injured ankle. He returned in the third quarter and threw as many interceptions (three) in those 15 minutes as he had all season. He wound up completing just three of 13 passes for 21 yards.
“To set a goal and to have it really fall apart like that, and the way I performed is really frustrating on my part,” he said. “I feel like I really let my teammates down.”
To be fair, Liufau was hardly the only Buff to blame for this one, while the talented Huskies deserve a lot of credit for playing a great game.
Offensively and defensively, the Buffs did not play their usual game. The special teams set a bad tone when the opening kickoff rolled out of bounds. On the first play from scrimmage, the Buffs were flagged for pass interference.
Just like that, the Buffs spotted the Pac-12’s best offense the ball at the 50-yard line. Washington then powered its way through the CU defense to get the last 50 yards and score the opening touchdown.
All night, CU was beaten in the trenches, unable to run the ball on offense and unable to stop the run on defense.
Liufau’s performance overshadowed all of that because, as the quarterback, everything he does is magnified. He was the easy target for fans after the game.
“I’ve already had tons of direct messages from people hating on me and my team,” Liufau said as he continued his slow walk out of the stadium.
This was the 12th time CU was beaten by at least three touchdowns in the 50 games the Buffs have played since Liufau arrived. It was the first time it happened this year, though.
Liufau thought these types of games were behind the Buffs.
“Yeah, I did,” he said. “The standards for ourselves are a lot higher. The standard for everyone else is a lot higher.”
It’s higher because Liufau and the Buffs spent this season climbing from the Pac-12 basement to the top of the South division. It was the first time in six years since joining the conference that the Buffs weren’t in last place.
During Liufau’s freshman year, he played through a painful back injury while the Buffs finished 4-8. They were 1-8 in the conference that year, but that’s when he made it his goal to win a championship.
It’s been a steady climb since 2013, and this year, it was often CU delivering the blowouts. Liufau had the best season of his career. So did many of his teammates.
This game, however, was off to a bad start before Liufau went down with his ankle injury on CU’s fifth offensive snap of the game. The injury was bad enough to keep him out of the remainder of the first half, but he managed to come back in the third quarter.
When it all fell apart in that quarter, it was easy to blame the ankle. Liufau denied that it impacted his performance.
“I’ll be the first to tell you if it did or not,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t go back in in the first half.”
When he did go back in, the results were disastrous. On the first play of the third quarter, he was picked off by Huskies safety Taylor Rapp, who returned it 35 yards for a touchdown.
It wasn’t the ankle that led to CU’s unraveling, Liufau said. It started with a poor throw that was followed by a lack of leadership on his part.
“Once I threw that pick, it was really demoralizing for a lot of the guys,” he said, “and I did a really poor job as a leader trying to get them back.”
The Buffs will play one more game this season — they’ll find out their bowl game destination on Sunday — and Liufau will have a chance to go out on a high note.
There was finality in his voice on Friday night, however. More than any game he’s played at CU, he wanted this one.
Liufau and his fellow seniors will always be remembered as the group that turned the CU program around. They went 10-27 from 2013-15 and vaulted to 10-3 this year. They got that sellout at Folsom that Liufau wanted. They got to a bowl game — and not just any ol’ bowl game — for the first time in nine years.
At some point, Liufau will look back at this season with pride and call it a success. But, as he continued making his way out of Levi’s Stadium, he managed a bit of a smile and said, “Not right now.
“There’s a lot more positives (to this season). It’s just really hard to see the good right now.”