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Looking back: Memorable win at Army for CU Buffs, Howard Ballage

Running back had career-high 128 rushing yards and two touchdowns

(Note: The coronavirus pandemic has postponed the fall sports season in the Pac-12 Conference until November and that means no Colorado Buffaloes football at this time. Instead, will feature memorable games and players from the past as we look back at each week in CU football history. In this installment, we look back at the week of Sept 28-Oct. 4.)

Walking around West Point, N.Y., and touring Michie Stadium before he and his Colorado teammates took the field was special for Howard Ballage.

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Howard Ballage was a running back and flanker for the Colorado Buffaloes from 1976-78. He had a career-high 128 rushing yards against Army on Oct. 1, 1977.

In many ways, Colorado’s visit to Army on Oct. 1, 1977, was just another game on the schedule, but for Ballage, a junior running back/flanker for the Buffaloes that year, it was more than that.

“My dad was in the service for 30 years,” Ballage said this week as he recalled that road trip from 43 years ago. “I’m a military brat and have been overseas three times. In my younger life, I lived over there more than I had in the States. I definitely had respect for the Army. It was a big deal.

“After we whipped up on them, I kind of teased him about that.”

Ballage’s father was a career Army man, he said, and his brothers were both in the military. While he got the best of the trash-talking after CU’s 31-0 victory over the Black Knights, he still speaks with respect about Army.

“It was just our day,” he said. “I don’t think that there was anything that they didn’t do to play well that day.”

CU, and Ballage, could not have played much better.

Coming in at 3-0 and ranked No. 7 nationally, the Buffs dominated a good Army team that went 7-4. The Buffs outgained the Black Knights 501-281 and pulled away in the second half, highlighted by Ballage’s 59-yard touchdown run and Mark Haynes’ 97-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Four different Buffs picked off Army passes, while fullback Mike Holmes added a touchdown run and Jeff Knapple threw for 119 yards.

Ballage was the star that day, though, with a career-high 128 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while adding two catches for 24 yards.

Ballage, who spent much of his childhood overseas or in Fort Hood, Texas., moved to Pueblo at age 12 when his father was stationed there. A linebacker for much of high school, he came to CU looking to play running back.

Early in 1977, CU head coach Bill Mallory was still tinkering with his backfield, trying to find the right fit for his weapons.

James Mayberry was the star running back that year, with 1,299 yards and nine touchdowns, but Ballage busted loose at West Point.

“We were kind of doing some shuffling around in the backfield,” Ballage said. “I wanted to go out and prove that I could be the running back.”

Ballage proved himself against Army, including his 59-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that gave CU a 17-0 lead.

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Howard Ballage rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns against Army in 1977.

After that game, however, Mallory elected to go with Mayberry and Mike Kozlowski as the primary running backs. Ballage spent part of his time at flanker that year and shifted full-time to that position in 1978.

“Coach felt like I was more suited to be on the outside,” he said. “In hindsight, that’s what team means: you do what was asked of you, what’s best for the team. Maybe back then I thought, ‘Yeah I’d rather be running back,’ but in hindsight, it was a good move. Smart move by the coach to try to get his best players on the field at the same time.”

For his career, Ballage racked up 555 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground; caught 16 passes for 185 yards and became a stellar kick returner. During his final two seasons with the Buffs, he averaged 27.0 yards on kickoff returns, with two touchdowns.

“As a young kid, you don’t see the full picture,” Ballage said. “They made the right decision. Mayberry, he needed the ball in his hands as often as possible. James was a super running back. We needed him to win.”

The Buffs also needed Mallory. While there are more celebrated coaches in CU history, Ballage believes Mallory was underrated. From 1974-78, Mallory went 35-21-1. His .623 winning percentage is almost identical to legendary Bill McCartney (.624) and he took them to a pair of bowl games. Mallory posted winning seasons four times in five years before being fired after the 1978 season and replaced by Chuck Fairbanks.

“(CU) lost a lot more than just a coach in him,” Ballage said. “Mallory, wherever he went he stood for who the team was. He was a leader. He was a good coach. He got it out of you. You have a bunch of young guys, a lot of guys don’t have the father figure in their lives, or even if they do, they don’t discipline the way that Bill was trying to. It made guys better; it made us better people.”

Mallory had trouble producing strong finishes in his last two years, though. In 1978, CU started 5-0 and ranked No. 13. They lost five of the last six.

In 1977, the Buffs also started 5-0 and vaulted to No. 3 in the rankings, but went 2-3-1 down the stretch and finished unranked, at 7-3-1.

Ballage, however, has fond memories of playing at CU and for Mallory. He also still keeps in touch with many of his teammates, who have an active Facebook group.

One of the highlights for Ballage, however, was that trip to West Point on Oct. 1, 1977. It was one of only two visits to Army in CU history (the other in 1947), and Ballage was honored to be a part of that game.

“If I wouldn’t have been going to school (at CU), I probably would have been in the service,” he said. “That was my upbringing.

“I left there (after that game) and even now, I have the utmost respect for Army and what they do for our freedom.”

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