In the not-too-distant future, the Colorado Buffaloes will have a new head football coach.
It might be Deion Sanders. It might be someone else.
Either way, the next coach can’t get to Boulder soon enough in the eyes of the fans.
Through one of the worst seasons in program history, however, and even in another ugly game on Saturday, the Buffaloes found a way to savor one more opportunity together and with interim head coach Mike Sanford.
At Folsom Field, the Buffs capped a miserable season with a 63-21 loss to No. 14 Utah. They closed the season at 1-11 and on a six-game losing streak.
“Just a really emotional locker room that I just left,” Sanford said.
On the surface, just about everything about this season was a disaster for CU.
The Buffs (1-11, 1-8 Pac-12) matched the 2012 team for the second-worst winning percentage in program history, at .083. The only worse percentage came in CU’s first season, in 1890, when it went 0-4.
Ten of CU’s losses this year came by 23-plus points and the Buffs were beaten by at least 38 points in the last four games. After five consecutive blowout losses to start the season, head coach Karl Dorrell was fired, with Sanford taking over on an interim basis.
After a brief moment of joy with a 20-13 overtime win against California on Oct. 15, in Sanford’s first game at the helm, the losses returned. November was especially ugly, with four consecutive losses by at least 38 points to teams ranked in the top 15.
For many fans, Saturday’s finale might have brought some relief that the season was over. Not for Sanford.
“I think it’s closure, in terms of knowing that you did fight the fight until the end, that you ran the race until the end,” Sanford said. “The feeling that I got in that locker room after tonight’s game is that there’s nobody who’s glad the season’s over and that’s a testament to everybody that was inside of these walls, working their tails off.”
Still, CU was a team running on fumes in the final weeks. Several players were banged up, including starting quarterback JT Shrout, who didn’t play against the Utes. Maddox Kopp, who had never played a snap in college, got the start. He was often throwing to walk-ons or fellow freshmen.
Utah (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12), meanwhile, had no trouble rolling to one of the most lopsided games in the 69-game history of the series between these teams. Utah’s point total broke the previous series record of 54 by CU in a 54-0 win in 1951. That 1951 game was the only one in the series with a more lopsided margin.
The Utes finished with 662 yards, the eighth-most ever by a CU opponent.
Cameron Rising completed 17-of-19 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Utes to a 42-0 halftime lead and sitting out the second half. Ja’Quinden Jackson added 117 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, despite carrying the ball only 10 times.
“It was obviously not the start that we wanted,” Sanford said. “When we got to halftime, obviously, it was a situation which nobody felt good about.”
On senior day, however, Sanford spoke to his team about fighting to the end. The Buffs did that in the second half. CU tied the Utes, 21-21, after intermission.
“I don’t believe in moral victories normally, but tonight I did,” Sanford said. “At the end of the day, we won the second half. That might sound like, ‘You’re playing against their backups, or their third string player,’ but for that team, that locker room of players to not only not quit, but actually go fight and put together a really good second half of football, it speaks to exactly what’s going on in that group and in our organization right now.”
Sophomore Nikko Reed had a 56-yard interception return to set up CU’s first touchdown – a 1-yard run by senior Alex Fontenot.
Anthony Hankerson added a 23-yard touchdown late in the third quarter and CU capped the night by tackle Frank Fillip, recently converted to tight end, catching a 1-yard touchdown pass from Kopp.
It certainly wasn’t the result or the season that CU wanted, but for the seniors, there were brief moments of fun in an otherwise miserable game and season.
“There’s probably not a class ever that’s had this crappy of a six years,” senior tight end Brady Russell said. “The amount of stuff we faced together, I think our record might not show it, but I’m just proud of the way that everybody that stuck around … I’m just really proud of those guys and that’s the legacy they leave on me. It might not be the legacy they leave on the fans because they’re gonna see 1-11, but I know those guys are going to be able to deal with whatever comes in their face in life.”
While this group savored its final moments together, CU now turns the page.
Earlier this week, Adam Munsterteiger of 247Sports.com reported that CU has offered its head coaching job to Sanders, the Jackson State head coach and Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback. Several national outlets reported the same news Saturday.
Regardless of who coaches the Buffs in 2023, it will be a heck of a job to fix a program that limped through the 2022 campaign. The next coach will take over a group that fought through adversity, however.
“To have a group of players do what they did and continue to fight, I’ll never forget this,” an emotional Sanford said. “I’m so grateful to this group of players. It really has been the most enjoyable season of my life. I told them before the game, one of my favorite scriptures is, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race and I’ve kept the faith.’ And I don’t think there’s anything that could define this group of players, coaches, and everybody inside of these walls more than that. I’m really proud of them. “
Snapshot: No. 14 Utah Utes at CU Buffs
Play of the game: Late in the fourth quarter tackle-turned-tight end Frank Fillip caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Maddox Kopp. It was the first catch and touchdown for Fillip.
Turning point: After a slow start, Utah scored on its second possession, forced a CU punt and then needed just four plays to score again, taking a quick 14-0 lead and rolling from there.
Top 3 Buffs of the game
1. TE Frank Fillip: Caught just one pass, but it was memorable for a player who has battled through five seasons.
2. QB Maddox Kopp: Didn’t put up big numbers, but avoided turnovers and threw for 123 yards and his first career touchdown.
3. CB Nikko Reed: Had an interception that set up CU’s first touchdown. Also had five tackles and a tackle for loss.
No. 14 Utah 63, Colorado 21
Utah 14 28 14 7—63
Colorado 0 0 14 7—21
UTAH — Bernard 8 run (Redding kick), 6:35.
UTAH — Ja.Jackson 10 run (Redding kick), 2:20.
UTAH — Ja.Jackson 2 run (Redding kick), 12:34.
UTAH — Yassmin 41 pass from Rising (Redding kick), 4:43.
UTAH — M.Parks 9 pass from Rising (Redding kick), :52.
UTAH — Kincaid 29 pass from Rising (Redding kick), :03.
COLO — Fontenot 1 run (Becker kick), 11:47.
UTAH — Ja.Jackson 66 run (Redding kick), 10:59.
UTAH — Cope 21 pass from B.Barnes (Redding kick), 5:37.
COLO — Hankerson 23 run (Becker kick), 2:59.
UTAH — Glover 5 run (Redding kick), 8:34.
COLO — Fillip 1 pass from Kopp (Becker kick), 2:46.
First downs 31 12
Total Net Yards 662 185
Rushes-yards 43-383 25-62
Passing 279 123
Punt Returns 6-12 0-0
Kickoff Returns 1-32 6-131
Interceptions Ret. 0-0 1-56
Comp-Att-Int 21-24-1 15-28-0
Sacked-Yards Lost 0-0 1-10
Punts 2-35.5 9-40.778
Fumbles-Lost 2-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 4-39 8-82
Time of Possession 21:15 32:45
RUSHING — Utah, Jackson 10-117, Bernard 12-91, Barnes 2-62, Glover 13-62, Vincent 4-23, Dixon 1-15, Rising 1-13. Colorado, Hankerson 8-46, Fontenot 7-11, Kopp 4-9, Bell 1-7, D.Smith 2-3, Roddick 1-0, Russell 1-(minus 1), Offerdahl 1-(minus 13).
PASSING — Utah, Rising 17-19-0-234, Barnes 4-5-1-45. Colorado, Kopp 15-28-0-123.
RECEIVING — Utah, Kincaid 5-102, M.Parks 4-40, Cope 3-34, Dixon 2-28, Ta.Pututau 2-17, Yassmin 1-41, Bernard 1-8, Vele 1-7, Enis 1-2, Kendall 1-0. Colorado, Russell 4-39, Hestera 3-25, Lemonious-Craig 2-26, Bell 2-7, Capolungo 1-18, Harrison 1-9, Fillip 1-1, D.Smith 1-(minus 2).
MISSED FIELD GOALS — None.