Despite an explosive first quarter, the University of Colorado Buffaloes football team lost on the road to the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines 45-28 in CU’s first trip to Ann Arbor since 1997.
Special teams was the bane of Colorado’s play against the Wolverines. Michigan’s dynamic Jabrill Peppers — who plays linebacker, defensive back and occasionally tailback, but also returns punts and kickoffs — made the day unenjoyable, to say the least, for the Buffs’ specialists and offense.
“We had some issues [with the punt team],” head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “It hurt the game for sure. There’s no doubt about it.”
Pepper put on a clinic against the Buffaloes. He returned four punts and two kickoffs for a total of 180 yards, including a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown. He also had a 55-yard kickoff return.
“He’s a player that makes plays,” said Sefo Liufau, senior quarterback. “You respect a player like that that can do so many great things.”
CU got off to a red-hot start. Liufau found junior wide receiver Devin Ross in the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown that capped a 49-second drive. He would score another touchdown by the end of the first quarter.
The Buffs went up 14-0 when senior defensive back Chidobe Awuzie sacked Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight deep in Wolverine territory. Speight fumbled, and junior linebacker Derek McCartney recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone, which silenced about 110,000 Michigan diehards in the stadium.
Liufau played well, completing 16 of 25 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
The Buffs ended the first quarter with a 21-7 lead over Michigan, with the Wolverines’ lone score coming off a blocked punt that was recovered and ran into the end zone. It was the Buffs’ first special teams malfunction of the night.
The Buffaloes failed to score in the second quarter, and the Wolverines took advantage, scoring 17 unanswered and retaking the lead 24-21 at halftime.
“We sensed a momentum shift” said Rick Gamboa, sophomore linebacker. “It came off of special teams. Everybody knows that. As a defense we just kind of stick to what we can handle.”
A real kick in the teeth came late in the second quarter. The Wolverines were driving, but the Buffs’ defense held and forced Michigan to settle for a 39-yard field goal with 1:59 left in the half. But a minute later, Speight connected with wide receiver Amara Darboh for a 45-yard touchdown with 33 seconds left to give the Wolverines their first lead of the game.
But the Buffaloes struck right back. With only 58 seconds played in the third quarter, Liufau hit junior wide receiver Shay Fields Jr. with a bullet that turned into a 70-yard touchdown reception to put the Buffs back on top 28-24.
It would be the Buffs’ final score of the day.
Liufau’s game was cut short after that. He suffered a sprained ankle in the game and was replaced with freshman Steven Montez.
“I don’t have a full diagnostic yet, but I’ll find that out tomorrow,” Liufau said. “It’s a little sore right now.”
The Buffs also lost McCartney to an undisclosed injury and senior place kicker Diego Gonzalez, who tore his Achilles tendon and will miss the remainder of the season.
The offense failed to gain any traction after Liufau left. Montez failed to complete any passes and was constantly rushed out of the pocket by the Wolverines’ front seven defenders.
Liufau described the loss in one word: “Devastating.”
Another thorn in the Buffaloes’ side was the Wolverines’ Jake Butt, a 6’6″ senior tight end from Pickerington, Ohio. He was constantly open and led Michigan with seven receptions for 87 yards.
Fields Jr. led the Buffaloes with four receptions for 99 yards to go along with his touchdown.
“We knew he was an All-American tight end,” said Kenneth Olugbode, senior linebacker. “He’s one of their playmakers. We just have to play better, wrap up and tackle.”
The Buffs also failed to adequately pressure Speight. They did record three sacks against him, but they were largely irrelevant. Most of the time, Speight had enough time to knit a sweater in the pocket if he chose to.
The Buffs were also awful on third down, converting just one out of 13 on the day.
“We just couldn’t move the ball as well as we would have liked,” MacIntyre said. “They pressured us a little bit. We had too many third-and-longs, so that was a problem.”
Junior tailback Phillip Lindsay failed to make a sizeable impact in the game. He rushed for 51 yards on 12 carries, but was often stuffed up the middle by the Wolverines’ defensive line.
The final nail in the coffin for Colorado was Peppers’s 54-yard punt return touchdown, which he scored early in the fourth quarter and would turn out to be the final tally for either team in the game.
The Buffaloes lost. That fact likely won’t surprise many. But the manner in which they lost will. Despite the team’s shortcomings and blunders, unranked Colorado came into Ann Arbor and played a competitive game, giving the Wolverines their first relatively close football game of the year.
For CU, up next is the Oregon Ducks, who lost 35-32 to Nebraska on Saturday night. The Buffs and Oregon will square off in Eugene to kick off both teams’ Pac-12 schedule next Saturday, Sept. 24. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. MST.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.