After sitting in hot traffic for an hour and coughing up $40 for a parking spot, some were looking for good omens Saturday night. Maybe this filled the bill--for CU fans, anyway. Following months of big-game hype and just five minutes before the kickoff, Cam the Ram, Colorado State's galloping, fearsomely horned mascot, wiped out a CSU cheerleader at the ten-yard line. She tumbled down in a tangle of blond hair, brown legs and green skirt. To her credit, the girl popped up off the turf like nothing had happened. But the untamed look in Cam's eyes told you he was out of control. That the pressure had gotten to him. That things might get worse.
They did. Under a full moon at Mile High Stadium, Sonny Lubick's highly touted, fifteenth-ranked Rams, road winners over mighty Michigan State a week earlier, had taken a 14-13 lead on the opening drive of the second half. But their old demons returned, and they quickly fell prey again to the Colorado Buffaloes. The final margin was a hopeless 42-14, duplicating a blowout at Boulder three years ago.
Once more, the upstarts from Fort Collins had been quashed. Once more, the poor cousins had been sent off to sit at the children's table. Once more, Buff fans had all the bragging rights on Saturday night. CU has now beaten CSU eight in a row.
In other words, nothing has changed in the CU-CSU series but the scenery. The "Rocky Mountain Showdown" was the first college-football game ever played in Mile High and the first CU game in Denver since 1947. ESPN broadcast it to the entire country. The crowd of 76,036 bipartisan lunatics was the largest ever to witness a college game in the state. The contest also featured the highest concentration of ticket scalpers, reeling drunks and Ram coeds with "Fuck CU" painted on their faces in green and gold in local football history.
But in the end, the Aggies of old remained second-class citizens within these borders. Since the rivalry was renewed in 1983 after a quarter-century on the shelf, CSU has won only once, by a 32-7 count in 1986, while losing nine times.
The chant that came raining out of the CU section of the north stands after the final gun Saturday night was particularly haunting for Ram fans:
"Over...rated! Over...rated!" shouted the throngs waving the gold pompons. By Sunday morning--hangover time--CSU had vanished from the national rankings, and CU had risen from off the charts to number sixteen.
"You gotta give them all the credit," CSU quarterback Ryan Eslinger acknowledged. "They played four quarters of football, sound football in all areas of the game. And we didn't. The score shows that. I think there were a lot of guys who thought they were pumped up and ready to play this game. But if you come out here and you don't make plays and you don't do the things it takes to win, this is what happens."
What happened is that Colorado State's not-so-special special teams gave up nearly 38 yards per kickoff return to CU. Trailing 20-14 late in the third quarter, they yielded an 82-yard, touchdown-scoring punt return to speedy Buff Cedric Cormier--CU's first six-point runback since 1990. And with nineteen seconds remaining in that disastrous third quarter, Rams punter Deone Horinek mishandled a snap, giving CU the ball at the CSU eighteen-yard line. Less than three minutes later, Colorado scored again to go ahead 35-14. Neuheisel's troops had driven the same old nail into the three-point favorites from Fort Collins.
"We answered a lot of critics tonight," said CU quarterback Mike Moschetti, an amazingly cool customer (21 of 31 for 257 yards and three touchdowns) who was making his first start. "The CU offense is definitely going to move the ball this year...Coach Neuheisel, Coach Christoff [defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff] and the rest of the coaches took a lot of crap in the off-season this year. Everybody picked Colorado State to win. So we played this game for the coaching staff. For the stuff they've been taking from the papers and everyone. We wanted to make a statement for them."
In the course of a long, hot, well-lubricated evening, personal statements were never in short supply. For anyone. Hours before the game got under way, before the scalpers started selling end-zone seats for a hundred bucks and forty-yard-line tickets for $250, fans at scores of tailgate parties exchanged views, made wagers and chided friends.
At a party for employees of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, sixty CU and CSU graduates and their spouses happily chomped grilled chicken and hamburgers under a tent decorated with twin flags--one for each school. "After this game," said CSU fan Mark Helseth, "things are going to change on the college football scene around here. This is like the Super Bowl all over again. I just have that feeling. My prediction? CSU 28, CU 16."
Barry Amman, a 1994 CU grad, was taking the opposite view, espousing the notion that the major-league atmosphere of Mile High Stadium meant more to most Ram fans than to, say, himself. "It's probably a bigger deal to Fort Collins than it is to us," he said. "After all, they only have seats on one side of the stadium up there."
"And cows grazing on the other side!" someone yelled.
"Whaddya mean? Cows getting in the way when you're running pass patterns!" another voice chimed in.
"Actually, I think this is a great thing for both schools," Amman went on. "This has gotten to be a big enough rivalry that it deserves this attention. Hopefully it can continue in the future. I love going to Boulder for games--it's a lot more beautiful up there at Folsom Field than Mile High Stadium. But this is great."
"Won't be so great when the Rams kick your sorry ass!" another voice shouted.
Amid the banter and the beer, a veteran of football wars past also had a view. Ex-Buff quarterback Rick Wheeler, who started against Nebraska in 1985 and Washington State in 1987, wore his old No. 7 jersey to Saturday's game and sported quiet enthusiasm for the proceedings.
"I think Sonny's done a great job up there, on and off the playing field," he said. "And I think it'll be interesting to see how things go forward. But until CSU beats us, I think it's hard for them to say they've taken over. Once they do, we'll be on the same level, and it will be interesting to see who goes upward and who goes downward."
For now, Wheeler said, he was happy to indulge the feeling of equal rights at bipartisan gatherings like the Andersen tailgater. "However," he laughed, "you notice which flag is higher." Indeed, the black-and-gold Buffalo flag of the University of Colorado rippled in the breeze a few inches above CSU's green and gold.
Four hours later, inside the stadium, beer-stained CSU fans wearing army helmets decorated with yellow plastic rams' horns were staring disconsolately into their empty beer cups. Embattled Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, his job safe for another couple of weeks, was making a speech from the fifty-yard line about the greatness of the game, the generosity of the city of Denver and the sweet qualities of life in general. CSU wide receiver Frank Rice, who had caught a 36-yard touchdown pass just before halftime that cut CU's lead to 13-7, was talking, in vaguely shell-shocked tones, about how the Rams had overcome a 16-0 deficit the week before and 13-0 tonight but just couldn't get it done after that. His helmet was off and his eyes were moist.
"It was like a dream come true to play in Mile High Stadium," he said. "Home of the Super Bowl champions. Denver Broncos. I really enjoyed it. I only wish we'd put in a better performance."
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Around midnight, as the last of the 76,000 drifted out of the stadium in the moonlight, one of the girls with "Fuck CU" painted on her forehead ran into an old girlfriend, who had a little black-and-gold CU Buffalo tatooed on her cheek.
"Oh, my God. Linda!" she cried, a little hoarse.
"Hey, you! Tracy!" the other girl cried. They embraced in the parking lot, then stared, smiling, into each other's faces as they caught up on old news. Their respective boyfriends stood by silently, wobbling. The crowd and the night and the excitement and the beer had finally caught up with them.
"Where you going now?" Tracy asked.
Linda named the post-game bar of choice, where the stories and bragging would begin again, and off they walked, the four of them, laughing. For now, the game was forgotten, a meaningless detail in the life of old friends at different schools located in the same state.
"You know what was cool?" Linda said. "Your cannon. The CSU cannon. The huge explosions. And the way it blew those big smoke rings.