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November 19, 2008


Funny. I'm not finding the Nebraska jokes in the media that usually come with late November here in Colorado.

That's strange, because there's not a lot happening with pro sports in the Denver metro area.

When things are going well for the professional teams, the Colorado Buffaloes sometimes get a free pass in the local media. Not this year. It's not going so well with the Rockies, Broncos and Avs, although the Broncos have managed to string together two wins in a row and lead the pathetic AFC West.

Consequently, there's plenty of interest focused on college sports around here right now, especially in Big 12 football. The locals are getting a little impatient for the Buffs to do something. So why so quiet on the Husker front?

Maybe it's because most people can see the writing on the wall. There's not a lot of optimism about CU football right now.

Buff fans were riding high a few months ago – but I'm using the word "fan" loosely. Living in Colorado for more than a year has confirmed my suspicions about a lot of things. One was that there are actually more prairie dogs than people in Boulder County. Another was that more than half of all CU supporters are fair-weather fans. Attendance at Senior Night against Oklahoma State last weekend was just a hair over 46,000, which left 6,000 empty seats in Folsom Field. That was the game where one yahoo tried to shine a laser light into the eyes of OSU quarterback Zac Robinson.

I guess the laser-wielding kid needed a diversion. It's been tough to watch the Buffaloes in 2008.

The year started well for the CU football program when it won a major recruiting battle with the Texas Longhorns to sign arguably the nation's best prep running back, Darrell Scott of Ventura, Calif. Also, Nebraska was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 North by several preseason publications, with Kansas and CU slated to finish in front of the Big Red.

Buff fans have been waiting all season for Scott to ascend to greatness, but he reported to fall camp out of shape and has had a series of nagging injuries that have limited him to 344 yards and one touchdown. Even the new "Ralphie" mascot has had a better season than Scott.

Colorado, which won its first three games this fall, has slumped to 5-6, has an embattled head coach and needs a win to get bowl eligible. Sound familiar?

One of the highlights of the 2007 season for Colorado was beating Nebraska 65-51 and keeping the Cornhuskers home for the bowl season. Many Husker fans argue it was also a highlight in the history of the NU football program, since it assured Bill Callahan's departure. But I digress. The point is, now the Huskers have a chance to return the favor.

Meanwhile in Boulder, the locals are starting to get restless with coach Dan Hawkins, who is finishing his third season at CU. He is not fighting for his coaching life – at least not yet – but everyone was expecting more than he has been able to deliver. The best the Buffs have been able to do this year is upset West Virginia 17-14 in overtime, thanks to some poor game management by the Mountaineer coaching staff. CU is only 2-5 in the Big 12, and both victories were squeakers at home against Iowa State and Kansas State. The Buffs have not won a road game since they upset Texas Tech 31-26 in October 2007.

CU fans love Hawkins's easygoing, shoot-from-the-hip style, but they're getting tired of his mediocre results on the field. Under Hawkins, Colorado is 13-23 overall, 8-15 in the conference and 4-17 against teams with winning records. Most CU boosters seem to think he needs to show significant improvement in his fourth season, or his job could be in jeopardy – that is, unless they believe that their worst days as a Buff really are better than your best day as a Husker, as Hawkins ad-libbed at a pep rally a little over a year ago.

You couldn't blame Hawkins if he is second-guessing his decision to move from Boise State to Boulder. Right now, he is having a tough time deciding on a starting quarterback. His son, Cody, had a solid debut last season as a redshirt freshman, but he has split time this year with true freshman Tyler Hansen, who is more of a running threat. Neither has performed very well, especially in a 58-0 drubbing at Missouri Oct. 25 and in an even more damaging loss, a 24-17 setback at Texas A&M the following week, the game where CU's leading rusher, Rodney Stewart, broke his leg.

But probably the Buffs' major weakness is their offensive line, where they start two freshmen and a sophomore, having already lost three other promising freshmen or sophomores to injury. One of their top defenders, safety Ryan Walters, limped off the field against Oklahoma State with knee and ankle injuries, and is listed as "day-to-day" for the Nebraska game.

The CU defense has been pretty good at times, but the offense has been lousy, scoring 20 points in only one conference game (ISU). Frankly, this is an emotionally fragile football team, one that Nebraska's newly-reborn Blackshirts could hold to 14 points or less if they force two or three turnovers and make the Buffs drive the length of the field on each possession.

At this time each year, several Colorado sports columnists, who help promote the rivalry with the Huskers, bring out their well-used clichs about Nebraskans being a bunch of country bumpkins. Traditionally, they flaunt the hip image of Boulder (population 95,000, many of them who drive cars with bumper stickers like "I brake for prairie dogs" or "Tree-hugging dirt worshiper") while poking fun at the hayseeds in Lincoln (population 240,000).

The "Nebraska is a hick state" argument has lost some steam this year. News item: On Sept. 5, Colorado law enforcement officers had to help herd stray cows and horses off state Highway 119 near the northeast edge of Boulder. Enough said.

Nebraska leads the all-time series against CU by a 46-18-2 margin. Colorado has put together a decent run since 2001 and has won four of the last seven games against Nebraska, but this series is about to turn the other way again. A Cornhusker victory on Nov. 28 would make it three wins out of the last four against CU, showcasing a program on the rise against a program struggling to break out of mediocrity. Coloradoans are beginning to dread a return of the same old Nebraska.

In all likelihood, the Missouri-Kansas game will get bigger billing out here than Nebraska-Colorado on Thanksgiving weekend. No joke.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive