Rooney: Tree-chopping CU Buffs find a way against Stanford

Big recruiting weekend ends in victory celebration

Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
Colorado’s Terrance Lang pressures Stanford’s KJ Costello on Saturday at Folsom Field.
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With his team threatening to put together a losing streak that would surpass the one that sent his predecessor packing from Boulder, Colorado football coach Mel Tucker looked to the past to inspire his Buffaloes.

And it wasn’t so far in the past as to be un-relatable to the current Buffs. No video of running backs coach Darian Hagan dissecting defenses during the 1990 national championship season. No highlights from the four Big 12 North Division championships won by coach Gary Barnett, who this week was inducted into the CU Athletics Hall of Fame.

Tucker simply rewound the video of the 2019 season back to August and September to inspire some of the gumption that helped the Buffs post a huge sigh-of-relief 16-13 win against Stanford Saturday at Folsom Field.

The win ended a five-game losing streak and ended the threat of Tucker’s first CU team posting a longer losing streak than the seven-game slide that capped the Mike MacIntyre era last year. It also ended an eight-game losing streak for CU in November games.

As senior receiver Tony Brown prepared to take the field for what became the Buffs’ winning field goal drive in the final minutes, he took to heart a video Tucker showed his troops this week reviewing some of the big moments and clutch plays that paved the way for early-season wins against Colorado State, Nebraska, and Arizona State. All in hopes of chopping down that famed Stanford Tree.

“It was earlier in the week, actually, coach Tuck showed us a video. He said you want to chop it down the field. We want to keep chopping, keep chopping that tree,” Brown said. “Just keep running the ball, keep pushing. That’s what we continued to do, kept chopping it up and obviously we got the win. It was images of us going back to Colorado State, Nebraska, and how we kept fighting. There was a guy in the background talking about how to chop the tree. That’s what motivated us all week. You could see it on our sideline just chopping it up.”

With the game tied at 13-13 and the Buffs taking over at their own 20-yard line with exactly six minutes remaining, CU indeed hacked Stanford into submission not with a telling strike, but with 13 little cuts. The 13-play, 61-drive included only two plays good for double-digit yards — a 10-yard Brown reception and a 12-yard Steven Montez-to-KD Nixon strike that set up Evan Price’s winning 37-yard field goal at the buzzer (Brown also forced the Cardinal into a 15-yard pass interference penalty during the march).

The celebration that ensued probably was less about maintaining those slim postseason hopes as adding some load-bearing columns to the foundation Tucker is attempting to set. The Buffs still will be challenged to collect the two wins necessary to achieve bowl eligibility when, following a bye, they complete the regular season with a home date against Washington before visiting No. 8 Utah. This was about continuing to move the program forward.

Last year, the Buffs couldn’t pull themselves out of the seven-game slide that prompted the coaching change. For whatever it’s worth, CU shook off a forgettable month to battle its way back into the win column. Sure, Stanford is a down program by its standards this season. And the continuing struggles of a CU offense that found the end zone just once (on the opening drive, no less) against a Stanford defense that had allowed at least 450 total yards in three of its previous four games remains the biggest head-scratcher of the Buffs’ season.

Yet for a program that has posted just one winning record over the past 13 seasons and counting, a win is a win. And while it might have been an ugly one on the scoreboard, a picturesque day at Folsom capped by a victory celebration easily may have looked downright beautiful to the dozens of recruits attending the game. The odds remain stacked against Buffs for a bowl berth, yet given the two biggest recruiting weekends of the season — Nebraska and Stanford — ended with last-play wins that touched off jubilant celebrations, Tucker seemingly is putting the building blocks in place, regardless of CU’s final record.

“Coach Tuck came in trying to change the culture. And he did,” Brown said. “He’s changing the culture. I don’t know if everybody can see that, but he’s definitely changing the culture. We want to finish strong, that’s what we want to do.”