Plati-'Tudes Kicks Off Summer Series With 1971 Opener
Welcome to a notes and comment column in its 22nd year, penned by CU Associate Athletic Director David Plati, who is wrapping up his 38th year as the Buffaloes' director of sports information.
Plati-'Tudes No. 136 ... Last year's summer series proved to be quite popular, so this summer, I'll take a look back 50 years ago to the 1971 season, when the Buffaloes finished 10-2, ranked third in the nation and once again became a player on the national scene, more so than ever before. I'll lead off with an in-depth look at CU's 31-21 win at Louisiana State, which I also selected last summer as the top season opener in our history.
1971 Game 1: Colorado 31, Louisiana State 21
Colorado was coming off a bit of a disappointing season; the Buffs had finished 8-3 in 1969, capped by manhandling Alabama in the Liberty Bowl and the outlook was for a similar season as the calendar welcomed the 1970s. And when CU opened with a road win at Indiana and then a 41-13 pulverizing of No. 4 Penn State at home, ending the Nittany Lions' 34-game unbeaten streak, CU climbed to No. 8 in the nation. But the Buffs lost three of the next four to drop out of the rankings and went on to finish fourth in the Big Eight and played a rather uninspired game against Tulane in the Liberty Bowl to finish 6-5.
Thus, CU was unranked heading into the '71 season, with a roster full of talented sophomores who had yet to see any collegiate action as freshmen were ineligible at the time (they became so the following year). LSU opened the season ranked No. 9, and was the defending SEC champion, coming off a 9-3 record (and a 29-7 mark dating back to the end of the '67 season). A Buffalo team with so many sophomores filling key roles came in as 14-point underdogs.
It also marked the first game for Larry Zimmer calling the play-by-play for the Buffaloes, his first out of 42 seasons as he would soon become known as "the voice of the Buffaloes."
While it was "just" 75 degrees at kickoff, 90 percent humidity and a sellout crowd of 70,099 packed into Tiger Stadium awaited Eddie Crowder's young Thundering Herd (it was the largest regular season attendance at the time to witness a Colorado game, second only to 72,552 that saw CU beat Clemson in the '57 Orange Bowl). Crowder raised eyebrows stating ahead of the game that he had a "gut feeling" his Buffaloes would win the game, something few agreed with. What lied ahead was a sound thrashing in which CU led for over 37 minutes and what one Tiger beat writer would scribble, "The Buffaloes were appropriately attired in black jerseys for the final rites in Tiger Stadium."
On the last play from scrimmage in the first quarter, CU struck first when sophomore quarterback Ken Johnson found Willie Nichols for a 7-yard touchdown, with J.B. Dean's PAT kick giving the Buffs a 7-0 lead. LSU tied the game at 7-7 just a few minutes later, u sing a 39-yaed kickoff return and a 15-yard late hit penalty to begin its game-tying drive at the CU 25. It remained tight at halftime, the Buffs owning a 10-7 advantage after Dean booted a 35-yard field goal with 4:35 left before intermission.
As it would happen several times during his career, a kick return score by Cliff Branch would open up the game for CU. This time, after CU turned the ball over on its first possession of the second half, Carl Taibi's sack of LSU quarterback Bert Jones forced the Tigers into a three-and-out and a punting situation. Branch both dazzled and silenced the sellout crowd with an electrifying 75-yard punt return for a TD and a 17-7 lead. And when sophomore Charlie Davis scored later in the quarter on a 3-yard run, LSU was facing an insurmountable 24-7 deficit. LSU clipped the lead back down to 10, and then John Stavely intercepted Jones on LSU's next drive, setting up a Davis 47-yard ramble to put the game out of reach. The Tigers added a cosmetic touchdown late on an interception return to account for the final score.
Davis made quite the splash in his first collegiate game, rushing 20 times for 174 yards and the two touchdowns, with John Tarver gaining 92 on 18 carries (prompting a postgame comment by LSU coach Charlie McClendon: "Colorado's running backs were some of the best we've ever seen. Have you ever seen such big backs with great speed?").
The CU defense forced six turnovers (four interceptions) and held the Tigers to just 227 net yards; John "Bad Dude" Stearns had seven tackles and returned two interceptions 88 yards. It was LSU's worst loss since a 31-7 drubbing to Alabama in 1965. The Buffs would go from unranked to No. 12 in the polls with the win and returned home to play Wyoming in Folsom Field's first game with an AstroTurf field. LSU went on to finish with a 9-3 record, Sun Bowl champions and a No. 10 final ranking.
Note: CU was fully integrated by that time; LSU's first African-American players took the field in 1972 but were on the team as freshmen in '71. Unlike problems CU's black players endured at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in 1969, there were no reports of any racial incidents or intimidation by anyone with LSU that occurred from Alabama fans (and the team, when it sent out 35-40 players to greet CU's captains, one of whom was black).
Watching the Avalanche and Nuggets exit the playoffs in the second round with such high aspirations was no doubt heartbreaking to those of us who are big fans. It made me think of what the five biggest heartbreaks we've endured in our athletic history (not to play an a.k.a. SNL Debbie Downer (when the show was good), but everyone has low points in their histories; these likely are our most heartbreaking:
- 1990 Orange Bowl. The Buffs took over the nation's No. 1 ranking late in the year, were undefeated at 11-0 and had outscored opponents, 452-150. Missed early opportunities resulting in a 0-0 halftime tie and a fourth-quarter nine-minute clinching drive by Notre Dame ends CU's hopes of a national championship in a 21-6 loss.
- 1995 Women's Basketball Elite Eight. Ceal Barry's Buffaloes were ranked No. 2, owners of a 30-2 record, with only No. 12 Georgia standing in the way of the school's first Final Four appearance. CU led at the half, 45-42, and built an 11-point lead (61-50) and was still ahead, 70-60, with just under five minutes remaining, but UGA mounted a furious rally and ended Colorado's season with an 82-79 win in Des Moines.
- 1994 Football vs. Nebraska. Both teams were 8-0, CU ranked No. 2 and Nebraska right behind at No. 3. As was the case the previous five seasons, the winner would have the inside track to the Big Eight title and subsequent Orange Bowl berth. The Huskers got the best of the Buffaloes in Lincoln that day, 24-7, as NU limited CU's vaunted passing game en route to winning the national championship.
- 2021 NCAA Second Round. Tad Boyle's fifth-seeded Buffaloes routed Georgetown, 96-73, in the first round, setting up a battle with fourth-seed Florida State. CU had been sharp-shooters against the Hoyas (clicking at 61 percent from the field while draining 16 threes), but couldn't recapture that magic against the Seminoles in a 71-53 setback. Adding to the disappointment was that the other four Pac-12 teams that made the tournament all advanced to the Sweet 16.
- Tie: 1952 & 1975 Football vs. Oklahoma. The '52 game ended in a 21-21 tie; Oklahoma entered with 26-game conference winning streak (22-0 in Big Seven since it expanded in 1948). CU was on the verge of ending that run, leading 21-14 in Boulder but a 13-play, 78-yard TD drive by the Sooners tied the game with 1:51 remaining; the PAT kick accounted for the tie (college football was still six seasons away from adding the two-point conversion). Speaking of 2-point plays, fast-forward to 1975: OU is leading CU ironically by that same 21-14 score; with 8:34 left, the Buffs march 68 yards, converting twice on both third and fourth down in driving 68 yards in 15 plays with 1:19 on the clock. But Bill Mallory elects to go for the tie, but the PAT sails wide left and OU escapes with a 21-20 win.
Honorable Mention (in no particular order): 1963 NCAA Men's Skiing (the Buffs dominated the alpine competition and won cross country, but lost the title to DU in the final event of the jumping competition) … 2019 NCAA Soccer (1-0 second round loss at North Carolina) … 2016 Lacrosse (9-8 last minute loss to USC, after CU had a go-ahead goal taken off the board with 59 seconds to play, and USC scored the game winner with 15 ticks remaining in what otherwise could have been CU's first win over a ranked program: the Trojans were 11-0 and No. 7) … 2021 Men's Basketball Pac-12 Tournament (dropping the title game to Oregon State, 70-68) … 2020 Women's Basketball vs. Stanford (CU was ahead 64-59 with three minutes left, but No. 7 Stanford rallied to set the stage for overtime, until the Cardinal stole the win, 69-66, when a half court 3-pointer sailed through as time ran out) ... 1980 Men's Basketball at Iowa State (needing a win to secure a home game in the Big Eight postseason tourney, the Buffs rally from down 54-42 with 9:34 to play to take a 65-64 lead with 20 seconds to go, but a Cyclone reserve scored his only points of the night on a layup in the waning seconds to send the Buffs to Kansas for the first round game) … 2013 & 2014 Volleyball (losing the fifth set each year in the round of 32, at CSU and at Minnesota, barely missing advancing to the Sweet 16 both years) … 1981 Men's Big Eight Golf (CU was poised to end Oklahoma State's 12 –year run as titlists, trailing by one shot after 36 holes; but the Cowboys stretched the lead to seven after nine holes and then held the Buffs at bay the rest of the way; Terry Kahl won the individual title, however, and Mark Simpson was named coach of the year) … 2018 Men's Pac-12 Golf (CU pushed host USC to the limit, losing by four strokes; every time the Buffs appeared to be closing in, USC responded, including scoring two eagles on the par-5 15th) … 1938 Cotton Bowl (CU is 8-0 and a national darling thanks to Byron White, and earned its first bowl invitation, but lost to Rice 28-14) … 1961 Football vs. Utah (CU is 6-0, ranked No. 8 and on its way to its first Big Eight title; but a 21-12 home loss to a Utah team with a 5-3 record derailed any hopes that Colorado could compete for the national title) … 1969 Men's Basketball / NCAA Regional (Sophomore sensation Cliff Meely couldn't prevent the Buffs from falling in Manhattan (Kan.) to Colorado State, 64-56, which kept the Buffs from reaching the Elite Eight) ... 1966 Football vs. Oklahoma State (the Cowboys drive 69 yards in 13 plays, score a TD and the 2-point conversion to win 11-10; that eventually cost CU a tie for the Big Eight title, as the Buffs finished 5-2, one game back of Nebraska). There are more as I likely forgot something major, but these are what I either experienced personally or recall throughout our history.
This P-'Tudes Number: 12
When the Avalanche won their first five playoff games, was curious about all-time winning streaks by Colorado teams (pro and college; high school would have been crazy to figure). Here's what I came up with:
12 Metro State Men's Basketball (2000: 3-0 vs. RMAC/*Tournament; 5-0 NCAA Div II/*Tournament;
2001: 3-0 RMAC/*Tournament; 1-0 NCAA Division II/Tournament)
11 Metro State Men's Basketball (2002: 6-0 NCAA Div II/*Tournament; 2003: 3-0 RMAC/*Tournament;
2-0 NCAA Division II/Tournament)
9 Northern Colorado Bears (1996*: def. Pittsburg St., NW Missouri St., Clarion, Carson-Newman; 1997*: def. Pittsburg St.,
NW Missouri St.; Carson Newman; New Haven; 1998: def. North Dakota).
8 Colorado Ski Team (1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979 NCAA titles)
8 Colorado Rockies (2007; 1-0 vs. San Diego; 3-0 vs. Philadelphia; 4-0 vs. Arizona)
8 Metro State Men's Basketball (2013: 3-0 RMAC/*Tournament; 5-0 NCAA Division II/Tournament)
7 Pueblo College (1961: 2-0 JC/*Tournament; 4-0 NCJAA/*Tournament; 1962: 1-0/JC Tournament)
7 Denver Pioneers Ski Team (1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967 NCAA titles)
7 Colorado Football ('93 Aloha, '95 Fiesta, '96 Cotton, '96 Holiday, '98 Aloha, '99 Insight.com; 2001 Big12 Ch.)
7 Colorado Avalanche (1996*: 1-0 vs. Detroit, 4-0 vs. Florida; 1997: 2-0 vs. Chicago)
7 Denver Broncos (1997*: def. Jacksonville, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Green Bay; 1998*: def. Miami, N.Y. Jets, Atlanta)
7 Adams State Women's Cross Country (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 NCAA Division II titles)
7 Metro State Men's Basketball (2004: 3-0 RMAC/*Tournament; 4-0 NCAA Division II/Tournament)
7 Metro State Men's Basketball (2014: 3-0 RMAC/*Tournament; 4-0 NCAA Division II/Tournament)
6 Denver Zephyrs (1991: 3-0 vs. Buffalo/*American Association; 3-0 vs. Columbus/*Triple-A Classic)
6 Metro State Men's Basketball (2005: 3-0 RMAC/*Tournament; 3-0 NCAA Division II/Tournament)
6 CSU-Pueblo Thunderwolves (2014*: def. Angelo State, def. Ohio Dominican; def. West Georgia; def. Minnesota State;
2015: def. U. of Indianapolis, def. Midwestern State)
6 Colorado Avalanche (2021: 4-0 vs. St. Louis; 2-0 vs. Las Vegas)
"Plati-'Tudes" features notes and stories that may not get much play from the mainstream media; offers Plati's or CU's take on issues raised by those who have an interest in the program; answers questions and concerns; and provides CU's point of view if we should disagree with what may have been written or broadcast. Have a question or want to know CU's take on something? E-mail Dave at email@example.com and the subject may appear in the next Plati-'Tudes.