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Plati-'Tudes Summer Series: 1971 Week 4

Jul 8, 2021
Quarterback Ken Johnson threw for a CU record 276 yards against Kansas State in 1971.

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. 139 ... The fourth 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 then defeated No. 6 Ohio State in Columbus before heading home for the Big Eight opener against Kansas State.

1971 Game 4: Colorado 31, Kansas State 21  

Colorado at 3-0 with two impressive road wins came in as 14-point favorites against the 2-1 Wildcats in the conference opener for both teams.  The Buffs had won 15 of the last 17 meetings, though K-State won the '70 game in Manhattan, 21-20 (the Buffs missed a PAT kick to tie the game with 7:05 to play, but KSU ended the game at the CU 1 and were thus in position to score).  The pass-happy Wildcats had torched the CU defensive backfield for over 600 yards the previous two games and were coming off a second-place finish in the league in 1970, so the Buffs were certainly wary of the challenge they imposed.
Colorado came in as one of the top rushing teams in the nation, averaging 328 yards per game (and a healthy 430 overall on offense); Kansas State countered by being in the top five against the run, allowing paltry numbers of 43 yards per game and 1.4 yards per carry (and just 167 yards total overall as well as just 27 points in three games).  A classic top offense versus top defense battle, and it was obvious for CU to find its passing game to avert any kind of upset. 
The KSU run defense was as advertised: CU had 37 rushes for 97 yards, though Charlie Davis, who came in averaging 139 yards per game, lost 29 yards when he was credited with fumbling three bad pitches and finished with 16 yards total.  But … the Buffs found a passing game and then some; Ken Johnson completed 14-of-28 passes for a CU record 276 yards.  It broke Jim Bratten's mark of 251 yards two years earlier against the Wildcats and was the second-most in game in CU history (to 288 … against guess who? ... Kansas State in 1968). 
And that's exactly what Kansas State head coach Vince Gibson was worried about – that the Buffs would come out passing.  And a receiver did score the first CU touchdown, but once again, Cliff Branch did so by returning a punt, this one covering 59 yards just under six minutes into the game.  Each team then ran three plays on their next possession, fumbling the ball to the other; KSU took over at the CU 20 and converted twice on third down to get into the end zone at tie the game at 7-7.  Two series later and early in the second quarter, a carbon copy situation led to a CU score: the Wildcats fumbled on third down with Randy Geist recovering at the KSU 19.  Charlie Davis hauled it in from a yard out on the fifth play after the turnover, and with J.B. Dean's PAT kick, CU was up 14-7.  That score held at intermission.
The Wildcats weren't going away – not by any means.  Driving 54 yards in five plays, they tied the game at 14-all on a 12-yard run by quarterback Dennis Morrison.  CU came right back with a nine-play drive, highlighted by a 25-yard run by Johnson, but it stalled at the KSU 17 where Dean made good on a 34-yard field goal and CU was back on top, 17-14.  Then K-State countered right away with an 81-yard march, with three different plays netting 14 yards and a face mask penalty on the Buffs adding 15 more, setting KSU up at the CU 17.  When Morrison connected with Fred Merrill, the Wildcats had their first – but only – lead of the game at 21-17 with 5:25 left on the clock in the third quarter.
The Folsom Field crowd was no doubt getting nervous, especially after CU fumbled the ball back to K-State three plays later.  Facing a 4th-and-5 at the CU 21, the Wildcats faked a field goal and converted for an apparent first down, but were flagged for an ineligible receiver downfield.  A subsequent 54-yard field goal was long enough but (use your best Bob Uecker impersonation): "was just a bit outside" and the Buffs took over at their own 20.  CU took no prisoners on the possession, driving 80 yards in seven plays: Johnson started it off with a 20-yard run, then connected with Branch for 31 yards to the KSU 34 (on 3rd-and-15).  Davis then scooted around the right end to the 20, and two plays later, the Johnson-to-Branch combo yielded a touchdown and CU was back ahead, 24-21, with only two ticks left on the third quarter clock.
Defense then took over.  K-State went three-and-out on its next three drives, gaining only 10 total yards; but CU did the same on its next pair, netting only six.  But the clincher came next: taking over at midfield with 8:52 remaining, the Buffs scored in six plays (all passes): the first from Johnson to tight end Bob Masten for 20 yards to the KSU 30 (on 3rd-&-10), then a 7-yard pickup from Johnson to Willie Nichols.  On 3rd-&-3, Johnson found Nichols over the middle for 23 yards and the game's final points with 7:14 left.
The Wildcats did drive 80 yards from their own 11 to the CU nine, but the possession died on an overthrown pass in the end zone.  The Buffs used two huge pass played to get out their end, first a 44-yard bomb from Johnson to Branch and then a 40-yard pass in the flat to Nichols for 40 more.  That possession ended on fourth-and-goal at the KSU 4 and just 35 seconds on the clock.
Johnson also led CU in rushing yards with 56, while Branch hauled in three passes for 94 yards and Nichols four for 85.  Branch had 217 all-purpose yards on the day.  CU once again had to overcome a deficit in the turnover game (4-2 this time),
Geist led the defensive effort with 15 tackles (seven solo), with Bud Magrum and Carl Taibi racking up 13 each and Billie Drake 11.  For the second straight game, the opponent had a substantial edge in plays (83-65), but the Buffaloes were outgained by just 397-373; KSU was limited to 178 passing yards (completing just 15-of-32 throws).  In the return yardage game, CU (well, Branch) held a hefty 106-0 edge.
K-State went on to finish 5-6, earning league wins on the road over Missouri and Oklahoma State and would tie for fifth in the standings with the Tigers and Kansas with a 2-5 mark.  One of the losses was a massive 75-28 setback against Oklahoma at home (a week after OU dispatched the Buffaloes); the Sooners figured out KSU's rush defense: they ran for 711 yards and 10 TD's.
Colorado, 4-0 for just the third time since 1958, now faced two consecutive daunting road games, the first against a revenge-minded Iowa State team (who CU beat 61-10 in 1970) and then at No. 2 Oklahoma.  The Cyclones were 3-0 and the Buffs were their conference opener; ISU was 3-0 when it rolled into Boulder the previous year and went on to finish 5-6.
NOTE: Colorado played just five home games in 1971, the first season the NCAA allowed schools to play 11 regular season games.  But that ruling didn't come down until mid-November 1970, so schools were scrambling for that 11th game.  The start of the season could now begin the second Saturday in September, and that's how the game at LSU came about.  CU added California at home to open the '72 and '75 campaigns and two more road games at LSU in both '73 and '74 (meaning Bill Mallory's first two games as CU head coach in 1974 were at No. 9 LSU and then at No. 6 Michigan—with No. 11 Wisconsin in game three at home).  Back to '71—the crowd for the Kansas State game was a season-high 47,740.

This P-'Tudes Number: 2                                                                       

That's the number of CU alumni on the top two major golf tours (well, not including Champions level, where Hale Irwin and Steve Jones compete on occasion).  And I should say alumnae, as we have two Buffs competing regularly on the LPGA Tour: Jenny Coleman and Esther Lee.  Coleman's rookie year was 2017, and she's gradually been seeing more action and making more cuts (seven this season).  Lee, who made the Tour in 2020 when there were limited events, has made the cut four times this year. 
Update on last week's 3-0: No responses from my colleagues, at least yet after nine days, if any other team besides the '71 Buffaloes to open 3-0 with two wins on the road against top 10 teams.  Possible it's the only time it has happened?  Won't declare that as fact just yet, as people are on vacation.  But at this point, it has to be very rare.
"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, and the subject may appear in the next Plati-'Tudes.