Plati-'Tudes Summer Series: 1971 Week 3
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. 138 ... The third installment in a 12-game series in marking the 50th anniversary of CU's 1971 season, when the Buffaloes finished 10-2, won the Bluebonnet Bowl to finish third in the nation behind Nebraska and Oklahoma, the only teams that bested CU that fall. The Buffs opened with wins over No. 9 LSU on the road and at home over Wyoming, and for game three, headed back on the road to take on No. 6 Ohio State in Columbus.
1971 Game 3: Colorado 20, Ohio State 14
The third game in '71 followed wins in the season opener at No. 9 LSU and a home game with Wyoming; game three was CU's first-ever visit to Ohio State, where the sixth-ranked Buckeyes awaited (can you imagine any Power 5 team opening like that in today's times? Two road games at top 10 non-conference teams? We all know what member schools of a particular conference wouldn't dare do that (maybe at a neutral site and at home, but on the road? Never). Ohio State, the defending Big Ten champion, opened its season with a 52-21 win over Iowa at home, but were off the Saturday before hosting CU, now ranked 10th in the nation. It would be the Buckeyes' first game against a Big Eight team since 1956, when OSU defeated Nebraska in Columbus, 34-7.
The Buffaloes, 7-point underdogs, no doubt were not only looking forward to the challenge, but to some traditional fall weather for college football: 64 degrees at the 1:30 p.m. kickoff with slight breezes up to 10 miles per hour; Colorado played in sweltering heat and humidity at LSU and in light snow and 38 degrees at the start of the Wyoming game. And with a standing room only crowd of 85,586 in attendance, it became the largest crowd a CU football team would ever play before, regular season or postseason (which remains the 12th most in Buff history; the 67,000-plus at LSU two weeks earlier had been the largest regular season crowd to ever see CU).
CU was not intimidated by the massive crowd and drove 50 yards to the OSU 30 on its first possession, where it ended with an interception; but the Buff defense forced the Buckeyes into a three-and-out and took over on their own 29. Quarterback Ken Johnson promptly directed a 10-play, 71-yard drive that ended with him scooting around the left side for seven yards and a 6-0 CU lead. However, J.B. Dean's extra point try sailed wide left, and as is often the case, for the remainder of any game that's close, the phrase, "that missed extra point looms big" comes to mind.
The Buffs limited Ohio State to three first downs total on its next three possessions, the last of which stalled at the Buckeye 31. Cliff Branch fielded a 38-yard punt at the CU 32 and raced 68 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown; Dean's PAT kick was good and CU was ahead, 13-0. That held up into the fourth quarter, with neither team scoring again despite eight possessions between them – not that there weren't opportunities.
After exchanging punts, including the fifth straight time CU forced OSU into boot the ball, the Buckeyes used 13 plays to drive to the CU 4, where the Buffs stuffed them on a 4th-and-2 with 47 seconds left in the first half. Then on the opening possession of the second half, after 14 plays, Ohio State had a 4th-and-1 at the CU 2 but were again stifled. Now it was Colorado's turn; the Buffs marched 96 yards from their own 2 to the OSU 2, where on a 1st-and-goal, Johnson fumbled with the Buckeyes gathering the ball in at the CU 1. The craziness continued one more time, as OSU countered with 16 plays (the last eight to start the fourth quarter) to face a 2nd-and-goal at the CU 6, but was called for offensive pass interference, and following an incomplete pass, was tagged for a personal foul and had to punt on a 4th-and-goal … from the 38.
The Buffs took over at their 2 and used up some minutes in running 10 plays, but punted with OSU taking over at the Buff 43. This time, the Buckeyes finally got into the end zone on an eight-play drive, which included converting on a 3rd-and-20, when quarterback Don Lamka took it in from a yard out. The extra point was good, and now CU had a precarious 13-7 edge with 4:28 to play. OSU's onside kick was recovered by the Buffs at their own 45, and three plays later, Johnson broke free and rambled in from 39 yards and Dean's kick made it 20-7 with 3:30 remaining. OSU by now had found some offense and in five plays drove 77 yards on gains of 8, 40, 0, 15 and 14, the latter on a TD pass and its PAT kick pulled the Ohioans back to within 20-14; there were 131 ticks of the clock left (2:11).
Another onside kick failed, though initially ruled an OSU recovery, the ball failed to travel the necessary 10 yards. One first down would have ended it, but the Buckeye defense was up to the task, forcing John Stearns to punt; he nailed a beauty that was downed on the OSU 5 as 1:02 remained. It took six plays, including two third down conversions, to work the ball out to the 43, where Lamka's last gasp pass downfield fell incomplete as time ran out. Thus, that missed extra point no longer loomed big.
Looking at the postgame quote sheet some 50 years later, one could presume CU coach Eddie Crowder displayed a calm demeanor on the outside but on the inside was giddy as all heck. "From a coaching standpoint, all wins are big wins. This one was very satisfying. Ball control and Cliff Branch's punt return were the big factors in the game."
Hard to tell what he meant by ball control, time of possession was not yet an official stat so was not kept, but Ohio State ran 89 plays to CU's 59, yet the Buckeyes outgained the Buffs by just 400-382. CU held the edge in yards on the ground, 285-145, while OSU won the air battle, 255-97 (with most of those – 126 – coming in the fourth quarter trying to rally from 13-0 down). CU also committed three turnovers (two interceptions) while OSU had zero.
Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes said, "We'll, we just didn't play well enough to win. When you stop Ohio State twice on the 2-yard line, I guess you deserve to win." He was dazzled by Branch's punt return. "Wasn't Cliff Branch's punt return something? We punted for two weeks to keep the ball inside the hash mark but the one we got outside, he ran it in for the score. He has the speed to get outside and we did not have very good coverage."
Five Buffaloes had 10 or more tackles in the game, led by Bud Magrum with 20 (nine solo, two for losses); Randy Geist followed with 17 (seven unassisted), John Stearns with 12 (six), Billie Drake with 11 (two) and Carl Taibi with 10 (one). Geist added two pass break ups and Stearns one. OSU was 10-of-22 on third down and 4-of-6 on fourth down, the two stops in the latter both at the CU 2.
Charlie Davis gained over 100 yards for the third straight game, picking up 135 on just 18 carries; that upped his total to 418 yards on the year, or 139.7 per. Johnson added 84 yards and his two scores on 16 attempts, while completing 4-of-9 passes for 97 yards. Two passes were caught each by Willie Nichols (for 61 yards) and Bob Masten (36).
The Buckeyes dropped to 15th in the polls but would win their next five to improve to 6-1 and climb back to a No. 9 national ranking, but lost the last three games by a combined 14 points to finish 6-4. For whatever reason, even though 1971 was the first year where 11 games were permitted in the regular season, OSU only played 10. And only one Big Ten team was permitted to go bowling until 1975, as the conference was concerned with the "over commercialization" of college football.
Colorado would return home for its Big Eight Conference opener against Kansas State, which was 2-1 and heading to Boulder following a 23-7 win over BYU.
NOTE: ABC was present at the game, but it was not televised; those were still the days when the NCAA only permitted one game to be televised, so either they would do one national game or two or three regional games that all aired at the same time; that day ABC selected No. 5 Auburn at No. 9 Tennessee for national broadcast (Auburn won, 10-9). But it filmed highlights to show on its weekly Sunday show that aired at Noon eastern time, "College Football Today." I want to say Bill Flemming was the host.
This P-'Tudes Number: 3-0
Including 2020, Colorado has opened a season 3-0 on 42 occasions … 1971 marked the 27th time in school history the Buffs won at least their first three (CU has opened with four or more straight wins 32 times). Only one other time did CU open 3-0 with two of the wins over top 10 teams: in 1994, the Buffs defeated No. 10 Wisconsin in Boulder, 55-17, and then won at No. 4 Michigan in a certain memorable game that ended 27-26. How rare is it for a team to open 3-0 with two road wins over top 10 teams? Initial research is indicating it might be beyond rare; a national survey so far has yielded no other schools that have done so; a few have two wins, but either both at home, one at home but not two away (will update).
"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.