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Football: Little victories carried CU Buffs through final stretch of difficult season

Colorado's Frank Filip catches a touchdown against the Utah Utes during Saturday's game. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Colorado’s Frank Filip catches a touchdown against the Utah Utes during Saturday’s game. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Frank Fillip didn’t care about getting hit with a 15-yard penalty. Tommy Brown has probably never moved so fast in his life.

In the midst of a dreadful season and in the waning moments of a miserable loss, the Colorado Buffaloes still managed to find some joy in the game, and perhaps no play defined that more than Fillip’s touchdown catch on Saturday night.

CU’s 63-21 loss to Utah at Folsom Field put an end to a 1-11 season (1-8 Pac-12), but not before an unforgettable play.

Down 63-14 with 2 minutes, 52 seconds to go, the Buffs had first-and-goal at the Utah 1. Fillip, a 6-foot-7, 295-pound offensive lineman, busted through the Utah defense and sprinted into the end zone. The Utes never saw him and Maddox Kopp floated a pass to him for a touchdown.

“I’m gonna get into some extreme sarcasm here,” interim head coach Mike Sanford said, “but I told (offensive coordinator) Clay Patterson before the game, I said, ‘Clay, if you don’t call the Frank Fillip pop pass in the game, I’m going to fire you after the game.’”

Colorado Buffaloes' Frank Filip celebrates a touchdown catch against thePac-12 football on Nov. 26, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Colorado Buffaloes’ Frank Filip celebrates a touchdown catch against thePac-12 football on Nov. 26, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

A tackle throughout his five seasons in Boulder, Fillip lost his starting job earlier this season and had not been playing much in recent weeks. But a couple of weeks ago, the coaching staff came up with a plan to convert him to tight end. Fillip ditched his familiar No. 76 for a No. 94 jersey and he was reinvigorated by lining up as an extra blocker the past few games.

All along, the plan was to try to get him a catch.

When that catch came, Fillip spiked the ball – prompting the 15-yard penalty – while Brown excitedly ran to greet him. Within seconds, eight offensive linemen, including a couple who ran from the bench, were jumping up and down together in celebration.

“That is a moment and a memory that Frank Fillip will never forget,” Sanford said. “That’s a moment I guarantee you that Tommy Brown will never forget. And those wins, those little Vs – little victories – to me, they add up to big Ws.

“I’ve always said that football is a game. It’s all about the moments and memories.”

This was only the second 11-loss season in CU history. It included five straight blowouts to start the year, leading to head coach Karl Dorrell being fired. It then concluded with a brutal November.

For the first time in program history, the Buffs played four consecutive teams ranked in the Associated Press top 15, and this squad didn’t stand a chance. They lost to No. 8 Oregon, 49-10; No. 8 USC, 55-17; No. 15 Washington, 54-7; and then No. 14 Utah, which rolled to a 42-0 halftime lead on Saturday.

Heavy underdogs every week and with a young, beat up roster, the Buffs knew beating any of those teams was going to be difficult. But, they bonded through misery and focused on finding fun in their final month together.

“That was probably the coolest thing I saw about coach Sanford is he could bring joy into chaos and peace and contentment when you shouldn’t have any,” senior tight end Brady Russell said. “(This season) has been pretty miserable, but for whatever reason we were able to thrive the way we were and fight the way we were. I mean, most teams would have folded but I don’t think that’s the case here.”

CU found little victories with competition in practices, players taking on new roles and spending time together. On Saturday, the Buffs took their second half as a little victory, too. After the ugly first half, they matched the Utes, 21-21, in the final two quarters.

“That second half, it was a different, determined team,” guard Casey Roddick said. “The way that we finished, I can say that I’m proud of that. To the guys who this was their last game, I’m extremely proud of them.”

Brown and Fillip were two of the 22 players who went through senior day. They might remember the score of that game, but they’ll definitely remember Fillip’s touchdown.

“We had to be able to find the joy in those little victories,” Sanford said. “I’d say that was a big victory for the team in terms of just fighting through it.”

For Sanford, it was more than a small victory when backup lineman Noah Fenske and others embraced him and thanked him after the game.

“(Fenske) gave me a hug and he told me, ‘Coach, you made football fun for me for the first time in my life,’” said Sanford, who got emotional in his postgame press conference. “There were quite a few players that came up to me after the game just telling me that you made football fun again for us. That meant more to me then I think probably anything that could have ever happened. Just seeing Noah, a young man that went  through a lot at Iowa and transferred here and say that … he went through a lot and that meant a lot to me.”