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Rooney: Mel Tucker, CU Buffs make sweet music at expense of Big Red nation

Improbable comeback sets off jubilant scene at Folsom

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Mustafa Johnson admitted he wasn’t part of the celebration choir. Yet his absence certainly wasn’t from a lack of desire. Not after what the Colorado Buffaloes’ junior defensive lineman experienced in his own back yard Friday.

As Johnson was walking across campus 24 hours before the Buffs hosted their rivals from Nebraska for the first time in a decade, he encountered more than a few red-clad Nebraska fans who couldn’t help but run their mouths.

It seems as if Big Red nation was trying to take over campus much like they took over nearly half of Folsom on Saturday. Johnson took the high road and didn’t try to shut anyone up on Friday. Yet on Saturday evening, as the Huskers and their fans were silenced by an improbable 34-31 overtime victory by CU that will go down as an instant classic, Johnson and his teammates were more than happy to turn to Nebraska’s primary cheering section for a short yet oh so sweet rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”

While being serenaded, the Cornhuskers’ faithful were trying to make sense of a game in which their team led 17-0 when the Buffs took possession with 4 minutes, 6 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Roughly one hour and several clutch performances later, the Buffs were striking up the choir.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
University of Colorado head coach Mel Tucker hugs Jaren Mangham during Saturday’s win.

“I was not a part of (the song), but I loved the way it felt,” Johnson said. “Just when I was walking in our hotel from when I was going to class on Friday, I happened to be wearing all my CU stuff. I saw a bunch of their fans just walking through our campus, booing me and doing all kinds of stuff like that. Great feeling to send them home with a loss.”

It probably is too early to anoint Saturday’s stirring comeback as a signature win of what’s to come under first-year coach Mel Tucker. All Buffs fans need to tap the brakes a little is to remember one year ago, when the Buffs went into Lincoln and pulled out a comeback victory. CU improved to 2-0 and eventually ran their record to 5-0 before the season unraveled with dizzying speed during a seven-game losing streak.

Nebraska was grossly overrated coming into Boulder as the No. 25 team in the nation. The guess here is the Huskers won’t be ranked again this season. Still, this Buffs team feels like it has a different swagger about them. And that starts with Tucker.

What has been most striking about the new-look Buffs through an admittedly small sample of two games has been how the Buffs have made dramatic adjustments at halftime. In the first half of last week’s opener against Colorado State, the Rams gained big yardage at will by attacking the perimeter of the Buffs’ defense. Those yards disappeared after halftime.

It was the same story against Nebraska, but on both sides of the ball. It took a while for quarterback Steven Montez and the rest of the Buffs’ myriad weapons to heat up, yet after watching the defense force three consecutive punts to start the second half, some of that mojo rubbed off. Jaren Mangham got the Buffs on the board with an 11-yard touchdown run, and after CU forced another punt, offensive coordinator Jay Johnson dialed up a flea flicker that resulted in the longest play from scrimmage in CU history — a 96-yard Montez-to-KD Nixon bomb that changed the momentum for good.

From there, the Buffs were the aggressors. Maybe last year beloved Nebraska alum Scott Frost, who was coaching his first game at his alma mater when CU came to town, could get the benefit of the doubt. New coach. Freshman quarterback. Young team. All that jazz. But on Saturday it was Tucker, in just his second game as the leader of his own program, whose staff pushed all the right buttons. Where the Buffs might have bent, the Huskers broke.

There will be time enough later to figure out what it all means for the Buffs in a weak Pac-12 South. For now, it seems the Buffs have discovered a genuine leader in Tucker, and so far the Buffs have bought into his message of toughness — physically and especially mentally — without reservation.

It’s not often a home team has to try and shut up the vocal fans of the opposition. Yet while fans poured on to the Folsom turf and the Buffs sang, their slightly off-key rendition more than offset by the jubilation in their voices, it was the stunned silence of Big Red nation that was the sweetest music of all.