NORTH CHAMP COLORADO SET FOR BIG 12 TITLE GAME
BOULDER - For the third time in four years, the University of Colorado football team (7-4, 4-4 Big 12) was crowned the Big 12 North Division champion Saturday, as the Buffaloes continued a remarkable season and are now headed to Kansas City, Mo. for a Dec. 4 showdown in the conference title game versus No. 2 Oklahoma (6:00 p.m. MST, ABC).
After winning 26-20 at Nebraska Friday to keep their hopes alive in the North, the Buffs got the help they needed Saturday afternoon when Missouri pulled out a 17-14 overtime victory against Iowa State. CU and ISU, who both finish with 4-4 conference records, tied for the division lead, but the Buffs own the tiebreaker since they beat the Cyclones head-to-head earlier this season.
"It was sort of fitting with our season and everything else that it go down the way it did," head coach Gary Barnett said of the interception the Tigers came up with in overtime to seal victory. "I don't mean winning and losing, but I mean overtime - first-and-goal on the 3. It was looking like our chance was gone.
"I really don't have words for this," he continued. "I just don't have the proper words. I am so excited and happy for our coaches. I am really happy for our coaches. The kind of things they went through and held up to, and the way they held this team together. And then, the players and their parents ? they constantly believed and they constantly didn't let anything bother them. They stayed on course and they separated out what was important from what wasn't important and found a way to win the North for the third time in four years."
Ever since opening the 2004 campaign, the Buffs made it no secret that one of their main goals was to play in the Big 12 Championship. Stretching all the way back to July, when Barnett took captains Joel Klatt and Bobby Purify on a tour of Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium following Big 12 media day, CU has had its sight set on being division champions.
Even after a tough off-season when confronted by issues away from the field ? and when many people doubted that they'd bounce back on the gridiron ? the Buffs persevered. Knowing exactly the type of solid character and integrity surrounding the program, Colorado's upperclassmen became the nucleus for a team that stood "shoulder to shoulder" no matter what.
"I don't think there was doubt along the way, but you wondered how it was going to happen," noted Barnett, whose squad conquered every North opponent except Missouri this year. "I stood in front of our team after the Oklahoma State game and said, 'We're going to play in the championship game.' You don't always necessarily know how you're going to get there. ... But, I don't think we ever doubted that we were going to have a chance to play in this game.
"You always try to get the point across to your players to just take care of what you can control, and then things happen for you. If you just commit to the things you can control, things work out. Maybe not in the short term, but in the long term they will."
And that's exactly what's happened for Colorado. After opening the year 3-0, CU stumbled to lose four of its next fives games, including a difficult overtime loss at Texas A&M and then a demoralizing defeat against Texas. But, the Buffs continued on course and rallied to win their final three contests to remain in contention for the North title.
Following Friday's triumph over Nebraska - which kept NU out of a bowl game for the first time in 35 years and snapped its 43-year winning season streak - CU simply had to wait for all the pieces to fall into place. However, it wasn't easy watching them do so.
"I got up to get a glass of water about 32 times," Klatt stated on Missouri's close win. "I didn't know what to do with myself. It is terrible sitting there not controlling your own destiny. We did everything that we could after the Texas (loss) to put ourselves in position to have things go right for us. Fortunately for us, our coaching staff and everybody involved in this program we are going to get a chance to play in this championship game."
"It was difficult to see that (MU-ISU) game," sophomore linebacker Thaddaeus Washington added. "At one point I turned it off. I couldn't watch it anymore. It was just too close and nerve racking."
But the price of sitting through the afternoon nailbiter ? and battling through the ups and downs of the year - was certainly worth it for CU, who will now square off against Oklahoma (11-0, 8-0 Big 12) for the fourth time in three seasons. Having lost to the Sooners once in 2003 and twice in 2002 ? one of which came in the Big 12 Championship game - CU is no stranger to OU's prowess. With no player on the current Colorado roster having ever beaten the Sooners, the Buffs know they have a difficult challenge ahead of them, but that it's not one they'll back down from.
"We know we are going to play a great team and we know we are going to be huge underdogs," Barnett stated. "We know all those things, but we're sort of used to it. We went into this season huge underdogs and found a way to prevail, and we'll go to work to find a way to prevail next week, too."
"It's a credit to everybody on this team," senior defensive tackle Brandon Dabdoub added on winning the North and gaining an opportunity to face OU again. "Nobody ever quits on this team or gives up, and it seems like all we've been doing since January is getting through adversity. There is a quote in our offensive meeting room that says, ?Adversity introduces a man to himself,' and that's what it's really done for us. It has helped us out; it's made us grow as a team and as individuals."
Added Klatt on the opportunity awaiting the Buffs Saturday: "If you think back to last January, we've been underdogs the whole time. People thought that our program was buried and that coach Barnett wasn't going to be here. I give credit to the guys in our locker room who really hung together. We were underdogs before the season ever started. So, where we're at right now is no surprise to any of us on the football team or our coaching staff. We're just going to continue to work hard and go out and play like we can.
"We know we're going to get Oklahoma's best shot, and they're going to get our best, too."