BOULDER - After seven consecutive blowout losses, the Colorado Buffaloes found themselves competing in the fourth quarter Friday at Folsom Field. It was a strange, unfamiliar situation, but the Buffs appeared ready to handle it.
Like their 2012 season, it slipped away.
CU and Utah swapped 100-yard kickoff returns in the fourth quarter, but the Utes' runback came in response and proved to be the difference in their 42-35 Pac-12 Conference win.
The gut-wrenching loss ended CU's season at 1-11 overall, 1-8 in conference, and made this Buffs team 0-6 at Folsom. The last time a CU team didn't win a home game was 1920, and the school's most recent one-win season was 1984 (1-10).
Utah (5-7, 3-6) won for the first time on the road this season. CU's only 2012 win came on the road - 35-34 at Washington State on Sept. 22.
"Tough game, tough loss," said an emotional Jon Embree, whose two-year record at his alma mater is 4-21. "I just want to thank the seniors for what they did for us." CU said goodbye to eight seniors and three fourth-year juniors who are graduating.
"I'd like for it to have been better," senior tight end Nick Kasa said of his career and final season. "But it was good to be in a game until the last play. I think we all know there are better things coming for this program."
Senior linebacker Jon Major characterized his CU career as "super frustrating . . . life ain't fair, and that's just the way it is."
Making his third career start - the second this season - CU sophomore quarterback Nick Hirschman completed 30 of 51 passes for 306 yards and a touchdown. But four interceptions, the last ending the Buffs' final chance in the final half minute, cast a long shadow. Three of the picks led to 21 Utah points.
Embree said Hirschman "gave us everything he had . . . he rallied, he gutted it out. He got banged around a little bit, but he didn't stop fighting."
Redshirt freshman Nelson Spruce caught 10 passes for 98 yards and an 8-yard touchdown, while freshman tailback Donta Abron rushed 14 times for 84 yards and a TD. The Buffs outgained the Utes 418-336 in total offense, led 25-18 in first downs and held the visitors without a third-down conversion until the middle of the fourth quarter.
As the season's grind intensified, Major said CU's locker room stayed tight: "We got closer. We knew, the guys in the locker room knew who would fight and have each other's backs. That was a priority around here."
Utah led 17-14 at halftime, but the way the game opened it appeared the Utes might make this a first-half blowout - something the Buffs had experienced in their previous seven games.
Opening series, second CU play: Hirschman's first pass is picked by defensive end Trevor Reilly and returned 13 yards to the CU 16.
First Utah play: Travis Wilson hits Dres Anderson for a 16-yard touchdown and the Utes are up 7-0 less than a minute into the first quarter.
Fortunately for the Buffs on the ensuing possession, a roughing-the-kicker penalty salvaged a stalled drive and provided a first down at the Utes' 23-yard line. Four plays later, Hirschman found Spruce in the end zone for an 8-yard score and Will Oliver's extra point tied the game at 7-7.
CU's defense provided a rare - in this season anyway - goal line stand, stopping Utah on three plays from the one and forcing a 21-yard Coleman Peterson field goal that put the Utes ahead 10-7 with 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
That Utah possession followed CU's second turnover - a fumble by Abron, who started in place of former high school teammate Christian Powell (concussion).
The Buffs botched an opportunity to tie the score after snapper Ryan Iverson recovered returner Charles Henderson's fumble at the Utes' 15. After a Hirschman sack and an illegal substitution penalty, CU wound up trying a 43-yard field goal by Oliver. But Utah defensive end Joe Kruger, a 6-7, 280-pounder lined up inside, swatted it down.
The Utes capitalized on their second interception of Hirschman - this one by free safety Eric Rowe - and marched 47 yards in six plays to go ahead 17-7. Backup tailback Kelvin York scored the TD on a 4-yard run.
The Buffs had 3:35 before intermission to respond, and they used all but 16 seconds of it on an 11-play, 78-yard drive. After Hirschman went four-of-four for 46 yards on the march, he scored on a 1-yard sneak to bring the Buffs to 17-14.
Utah padded its lead (20-14) on a 37-yard field goal by Peterson on the second half's opening possession, but CU offered an immediate response and took its first lead of the afternoon. Tony Jones' 3-yard run capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive and tied the score, then Oliver's PAT pushed the Buffs in front 21-20 with 8:46 left in the third quarter.
Having an advantage felt so good CU had to expand on it. After again shutting down Utah on third down - the Utes finished the third quarter 0-for-8 - and forcing a punt, Hirschman drove the Buffs 71 yards for another score. Abron got it on a 4-yard run.
Of the drive's eight plays, three were Hirschman passes that covered 60 yards - the big play a third-down screen to fullback Alex Wood that covered 34 yards. After Abron's TD, Oliver kicked CU ahead 28-20 and the third quarter ended that way.
Less than 5 minutes into the final quarter, the game was tied. Those third-down conversions Utah was having problems with? No problem on a 75-yard drive that saw the Utes convert two and ultimately score on an 11-yard run by tailback John White (20 carries, 168 yards, 1 TD).
A two-point conversion would tie the score and that's what Utah opted to do. After lining up in a spread PAT formation, Jake Murphy took a direct shotgun snap, took a couple steps toward the end zone then pulled up and lobbed a pass to David Rolff.
Utah 28, CU 28.
The tie held until Hirschman's third interception set up the Utes at the Buffs' 30. Wilson ran 9 yards around right end for the TD that broke the tie - 35-28.
Then came the exchange of 100-yard kickoff returns by CU's Marques Mosley and Utah's Reggie Dunn. Mosley's jaunt - he started left, reversed his field and finally outran the kicker - tied the score at 35-35. Dunn's answer - he started near the right hash mark, cut up the right sideline and was untouched until his teammates mobbed him in the end zone. The Utes went up 42-35 with 8:12 to play.
The Buffs chance to answer stalled when the decision was made to go for a fourth-and-three at the CU 45. A Hirschman pass for Gerald Thomas was batted away, but the Utes were forced to punt on their next series.
CU took over on its 7-yard line with 2:55 showing. Last chance for a miracle, but the Buffs couldn't find one. They moved as far as the Utes 46, where on fourth-and-eight Hirschman's fourth pick - this one by strong safety Brian Blechen - ended the afternoon and CU's one-win season.
Despite the record and the string of blowout losses, Embree said there are positives although "it may not be crystal clear. We've got a lot of young talent that's grown up. We get some guys back who were hurt, we've got some good grayshirts coming in. There's a lot to be excited about and feel good about."
BUFF BITS: Senior defensive end Will Pericak received the Buffalo Heart Award, presented by a group of long-time fans seated behind the CU bench . . . . Saturday's actual attendance was 39,400, with 46,052 tickets distributed.