After two seasons of junior college football, playing in front of a couple hundred fans each week, Mike Moschetti’s introduction to Division I ball was one he’ll never forget.
Wearing a Colorado uniform for the first time, Moschetti had been named the Buffaloes’ starting quarterback by head coach Rick Neuheisel and was honored to be one of the first players on the team to take the field in the 1998 opener against in-state rival Colorado State.
Moschetti walked out of the tunnel at old Mile High Stadium in Denver next to linebacker Jashon Sykes and receiver Darrin Chiaverini.
“Colorado State fans were at our tunnel, so they were throwing beer on us and yelling at us,” Moschetti recalled this week. “I remember walking out and I looked up and the place was just pumping; it was electric.”
Thus began a new chapter in the CU-CSU rivalry, dubbed the Rocky Mountain Showdown. On that night, Sept. 5, 1998, the Buffs and Rams played for the 70th time overall and for the first time in Denver.
On Friday, the 91st meeting between the two will mark the 19th and final –at least for the foreseeable future – time they square off in the Mile High City.
The Showdown, an annual tradition since 1995, is slowly dissolving. There are no more games slated for Denver after this year, and only three more – 2020 and 2024 in Fort Collins, 2023 in Boulder – scheduled in the next nine years.
Among past and present Buffs and Rams, there are mixed emotions about the rivalry. In general, Buffs are happy to see it fading away, while Rams are disappointed.
For many, the Showdown’s run in Denver seems to have run its course.
On the night that a beer-soaked Moschetti threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a stunning 42-14 upset of the 15th-ranked Rams, 76,036 fans squeezed into the seats Mile High Stadium.
The first six meetings in Denver, from 1998-2003, all featured at least one ranked team and, not surprisingly, large crowds. Four times in those six games, attendance topped 75,000.
“Early on, it was as good of an atmosphere as I ever played in,” said Moschetti, who competed in the first two Denver games.
The idea behind the game in Denver was a good one. It’s the biggest college football rivalry in the state, and playing it on the largest possible stage makes sense. For years, players have relished the opportunity to be guests in the home of the NFL’s Denver Broncos.
“You’re playing in a great stadium with a great opponent,” said CU head coach Mel Tucker, who will take part in his first Showdown on Friday. “It’s going to be exciting on both sides and everyone is looking forward to it. I want to thank the Broncos for what they’re doing and having the game there. It’s a great opportunity for our players, a great moment.”
The moment, however, isn’t quite what it used to be.
In 2003, when Joel Klatt’s sensational debut – 402 passing yards with four TDs – led to a thrilling 42-35 upset of the 23rd-ranked Rams, a record crowd of 76,219 poured into the then-two-year-old Invesco Field at Mile High.
The next two meetings were played in Boulder, and when the game returned to Denver in 2006, it hasn’t been the same. With the exception of a year or two here and there, neither team has been very good in recent years. This year marks the seventh time in the past 13 meetings that both teams come in after losing seasons. Early this decade, the game drew less than 60,000 fans three years in a row.
“The players like playing there, and I think if it’s a sellout it’s a good game,” said former CU head coach Gary Barnett, who coached in the game seven times. “But if we’re getting to the point where it’s not selling out, I’d prefer to have it at the two campuses. I think it takes the college atmosphere back to the campuses, which is where it really fits better.”
CU tight end Brady Russell, who grew up in Fort Collins and has been around the rivalry his entire life, said, “It’s cool knowing that I’m part of the last one of those (in Denver),” but added that he’s glad it’s the last one.
“To be honest, I’m really excited about it going to campus,” he said. “Playing in Mile High is cool and everything, it’s definitely a fun atmosphere, but being on campus I think is going to be a really cool environment. I think the on-campus rivalry will make it more fun.”
Buffs center Tim Lynott Jr., who is from Parker, has a different view of the game. His first experience with the Showdown in Denver came when he was a high school recruit and watched the game from the Rams’ sideline as their guest and he’s taken part in several as a Buff.
“It’s sad,” the senior said of seeing the series in Denver come to a close. “Honestly, after this year I wanted to be able to go back and watch a game there. It’s great at least having it one more year. I’m excited for that and we want to go out with a win and have a great last year there and make it the best experience we can.”
Over the last 21 years, there have been a lot of great experiences with the Showdown in Denver. Moschetti will never forget being a part of the inaugural game. But, he leans toward tradition and is happy to see the Denver chapter of this rivalry come to a close.
“Especially the first one, that atmosphere was absolutely incredible, but I just still think it belongs on campus,” he said.
Next year, it will return to campus, but on Friday night, the Buffs and Rams will battle one more time for the Centennial Cup on a neutral site, and Tucker is eager to be a part of the finale.
“From what I’ve been told, it’s a really good atmosphere, a strong turnout, passionate fans on both sides that desperately want to win,” Tucker said. “That’s what makes college football great.
“It’s going to be a special night and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Game at a glance
Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (0-0) vs. Colorado State Rams (0-0)
Kickoff: 8:10 p.m. MT
Where: Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver. Capacity: 76,125. Turf: Kentucky Bluegrass
Radio: KOA (850 or 760 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: Colorado by 13.5
Coaches: Colorado – Mel Tucker, 1st season; CSU – Mike Bobo, 5th season (24-27)
Series: CU leads 66-22-2, including 12-6 in Denver