Plati-'Tudes Summer Series: 1971 Bluebonnet Bowl
Welcome to a notes and comment column in its 22nd year, penned by CU Associate Athletic Director David Plati, who is in his 38th year as the Buffaloes' director of sports information.
Plati-'Tudes No. 146 ... The 12th and long-awaited (because I couldn't find time to do it!) final installment in a 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 defeated CU that fall. Colorado was 9-2 in the regular season and earned a bit opposite No. 15 Houston (also 9-2) in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl. CU had split four games against teams ranked in the top 10, all on the road (wins at No. 9 LSU and at No. 6 Ohio State; losses at No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 1 Nebraska). Houston, then an independent, was 1-2 against ranked teams, losing on the road at No. 16 Arizona State and No. 4 Alabama with the win over No. 19 Florida State. The Cougars were 6-0 at home in the Houston Astrodome, and got to play Colorado in its friendly confines, though bowl officials made CU the official home team and the Buffs got to wear their black and gold.
1971 Game 12: Colorado 29, Houston 17 (Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl)
Colorado played just five home games in 1971 (the first year that schools were allowed 11 regular season games, which came down rather late from the NCAA; the season would start a week earlier—the second in September, and head coach and athletic director added a road game at LSU to open the season). Thus, playing Houston in its home stadium – the Astrodome – while no doubt cool as the first game in a dome in CU history, it amounted to another road game. Houston had averaged a little over 29,000 fans for its six home games, but this one would draw a capacity crowd of 54,720 for a early evening New Year's Eve kickoff. It was also just the second appearance on television in 1971 for the Buffaloes, as back in the day there was just one game a week (and two on rare occasions).
Colorado took the opening kickoff and promptly marched 70 yards in nine plays, with Charlie Davis capping the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run on third down. The Buffs converted on third all three times on Davis runs on the possession, which ended with J.B. Dean's PAT kick giving the Buffaloes a 7-0 lead at the 11:24 mark of the first quarter. But the Cougars answered with a 13-play, 79-yard drive that took six minutes and tied the game at 7-7. Robert Newhouse was the UH workhorse, with eight carries for 42 yards including the last two for the score, as the Cougars also converted on all three of its third down plays.
Houston would take its only lead of the night after a deflected pass wound up in the hands of linebacker Bill Hamrick at the CU 34. Newhouse toted the ball five of the drive's seven plays including the final three, and the Cougars were up 14-7 with 1:14 left in the quarter. So it looked like the Houston offense would be rolling all game, but little did anyone know the Cougars would add only a field goal later on.
With the hometown crowd abuzz with excitement, it took CU just under three minutes to quiet them. Ken Johnson connected with Larry Brunson on a 5-yard touchdown pass to cap a 10-play, 61 yard drive. Johnson connected with Willie Nichols for 23 yards earlier in the march, with Davis adding a 17-yard burst that set the Buffs up at the Houston 10. But Dean's extra point sailed wide, leaving CU down by a point, 14-13.
Dean came back to nail a 32-yard field goal with 5:03 left in the half, giving CU the lead for what would be for good at 16-14. The Buffs then completed a 16-point quarter after Dave Orvis recovered a UH fumble on the kickoff. Just 33 yards later, Davis crossed the goal line from a yard out and Dean's PAT kick had the Buffs ahead 23-14 at halftime. Houston had the only points in the third quarter, a 29-yard field goal by Ricky Terrell, but it did make it a one-score game again.
Houston, down 23-17, drove to CU's 9-yard line early in the fourth quarter, but safety John Stearns swatted down a fourth down pass intended for UH tight end (and future Denver Bronco) Riley Odoms, ending a 16-play possession. The Buffs took over at the 9, drew an illegal procedure penalty on the first snap, falling back to the CU 4. Three plays later, CU was faced with a fourth-and-9 from its 10, setting the stage for one of the gutsiest play calls in school history.
Except the coaches didn't call it. Stearns, also CU's punter, saw an opportunity, took the snap and raced 12 yards to earn a first down. Cliff Branch picked up 13 yards on the next play, then Johnson hit Brunson for 11 more and CU was in business at its own 46. Or so it seemed; Johnson was sacked for a 12-yard loss but on third-and-15, Johnson aimed for Branch some 32 yards downfield where he was interfered with. At that time, the penalty was similar to the pros, and 32 yards of yellow had the Buffs deep in UH territory at the 27. Davis blasted through the middle for 14, and the picked up five more on a delay. After Bo Mathews gained three to set up third-and-2, Davis earned the first on a draw play down to the 1, when Johnson scored on a keeper. The two-point pass try to tight end J.V. Cain was incomplete, but with just 3:48 remaining in the game, it didn't matter as the scoring for the night was complete. The 13-play, 91-yard drive (or 96 when counting the penalty) had eaten up over five minutes.
The final stats practically mirrored each other: Colorado finished with 336 rushing yards and 62 passing for 398 total, while Houston was a little more balanced, with 219 rushing and 173 passing for 392; CU had a slight edge in plays, 79-75.
Davis, who was from nearby West Columbia, Texas, came in as the nation's seventh-leading rusher (1,386 yards), finished with a bowl record 202 yards on 37 carries with two touchdowns. Newhouse, the country's second-leading ball carrier (1,757 yards), rushed 35 times for 168 yards and the two scores.
Billie Drake, Carl Taibi and Bid Magrum also had 10 tackles for the Buffs, while four different Cougars finished with nine.
Newhouse edged Davis, 29-27, in the voting for the offensive MVP, while Butch Brezina earned defensive MVP honors with 16 votes, outdistancing Herb Orvis (six tallies). Brezina had 10 tackles, seven solo, with two passes broken up; Orvis had 10 tackles, five solo and two for losses, and one pass breakup. One can only suspect the game being played in Houston, the number of media voting likely doubled those with Colorado ties. The winning team bot getting get either honor is pretty rare.
With the 29-17 win, Colorado finished 10-2, its first 10-win season in 82 seasons of intercollegiate football. And as aforementioned, the Buffaloes finished No. 3 in the Associated Press poll behind Nebraska and Oklahoma, to this day the only time that the top three teams came from the same conference. Houston, at 9-3, dropped just two spots in the poll to finish at No. 17.
NOTE: Beginning in 1968, the Associated Press began conducting its final poll after the bowl games; the UPI/Coaches didn't follow until 1974. Nebraska and Oklahoma were 1-3 in AP's final regular season poll, and the Buffaloes were seventh. Alabama was No. 2 but was destroyed by Nebraska in the Orange Bowl (38-6); Oklahoma cemented the runner-up spot with a 40-22 rout of No. 5 Auburn in the Sugar Bowl; No. 16 Stanford beat No. 4 Michigan in the Rose (13-12), and No. 6 Georgia beat No. 18 North Carolina in the Gator Bowl (in a real snoozer by 7-3). Thus the Buffaloes win over No. 15 Houston in what essentially was a road game vaulted CU from No. 7 into the bronze spot. (In the UPI/Coaches final poll of Dec. 6, Nebraska was No. 1, followed by Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan, Auburn, Arizona State and Colorado.)
This P-'Tudes Number: 2
Colorado would open the 1972 season ranked No. 2 in the both the AP and UPI polls; CU had 13 and four first place votes, respectively, behind Nebraska in each. To this day, it's Colorado's highest preseason ranking in either poll (the Buffs would finish 8-4 and ranked No. 14 in the AP and tied for 16th by the coaches).
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and the subject may appear in the next Plati-'Tudes.