Oklahoma 17, Colorado 38

September 30, 1995 | at Norman | Attendance 75,004

NORMAN, Okla. (Jeff Linkowski) -- The Big Eight Conference was giving it one last go around before it officially became the Big 12 Conference in 1996, and Colorado visited Oklahoma to open play in a key early season match up. But it marked the first time in 54 years that both schools would have a new head coach walking the sidelines.

In Norman, gone was Gary Gibbs, who had been thrown into a tough situation when he inherited the team from Barry Switzer, plagued by NCAA probation in '89, and tried to make the best of it. In his six years, Gibbs was 44-23-2, including wins in two of three bowl games, but he had finished as high as second in the Big Eight only once. Additionally, the Sooners had lost to their two main rivals, Nebraska and Texas, five times out of six games each, sealing his fate, and had even slipped behind Colorado in the conference's hierarchy.

In came Howard Schnellenberger to try to return the team to the national spotlight, and it must have felt good to get back to a school where football was the main focus. He had left Miami after leading them to the national championship in '83, and spent ten years at basketball-crazy Louisville, posting a 54-56-2 record, before coming to Norman. But the cupboard was not bare at Oklahoma.

Nine starters return for the offensive unit, which featured a pro-style offense. At the helm was sophomore quarterback Eric Moore, who had impressed coaches during spring practices, earning the starting nod senior Garrick McGee, who was the Big Eight coach's Offensive Newcomer of the Year in '94. Junior running backs Jerald Moore and James Allen returned in the backfield, and the two had rushed for 1,202 yards and 12 touchdowns a year earlier. But the receivers, seniors P.J. Mills and JaJuan Penny, were the keys if the Sooners were going to be successful.

On defense, Oklahoma had returned ten starters who ranked 12th nationally in total defense, and the had switched to an attacking 4-3 style. Up front was all-conference and honorable mention all-American senior end Cedric Jones, who had led the Big Eight with 14 sacks, and senior tackle Fred Lewis, the Big Eight Defensive Newcomer of the Year. Junior linebacker Tyrell Peters, who led the team with 101 tackles, including 11 tackles for a loss, led an experienced group that had combined for 321 tackles, including 8.5 sacks. And in the secondary, all-conference senior cornerback Darrius Johnson led the way, owner of 12 career interceptions.

With 19 returning starters, Schnellenberger and the Sooners used wins over San Diego State, SMU and North Texas by an average score of 37-14 as a chance to get everything together. Armed with the nation's top defense against the rush, Oklahoma was undefeated and ranked #10, the first time since their '93 game against Colorado that they had been ranked that high. But the Buffaloes were a team the Sooners had not beaten since '88.

Meanwhile, in Boulder, gone was coach Bill McCartney. In his 13 years, he had been the school's all-time winningest coach with a 93-55-5 record, including losing all seven games against Switzer before being unbeaten against Gibbs with 5 wins and a tie, won two outright Big Eight titles in '89 and '90 and a share of a third in '91, and won the '90 co-national championship.

In was rookie head coach Rick Neuheisel. In his playing days as a quarterback at UCLA, he had a spectacular 298-yard, four-touchdown passing performance in the '84 Rose Bowl and was named the game's MVP. In '88, he joined the UCLA staff as a volunteer under his college coach Terry Donahue, specifically to tutor Troy Aikman on the intricacies of the offense, and spent six years at his alma mater. Neuheisel moved on as an assistant coach for one season on McCartney's staff, and was named to lead the Buffaloes on November 29, 1994.

Neuheisel inherited a team that had gone 11-1 in '94, but had lost ten players selected in the NFL draft, including three All-Americans, receiver Michael Westbrook, Heisman-winning running back Rashaan Salaam, and Thorpe-winning free safety Chris Hudson. "Any time that you lose the senior class that we lost, you have a reloading job to do," Neuheisel had said. "But that's what's neat about college football, that the young players now have a chance to make their mark."

Luckily for Buffalo fans in '95, receiver Rae Carruth and running back Herchell Troutman should pick up the slack behind a pair of returning All-American candidates, center Bryan Stoltenberg and guard Heath Irwin, and the defense would still have veteran safeties Donnell Leomiti and Steve Rosga. So far, so good, as Neuheisel and fourth-ranked Colorado (4-0) was also enjoying a perfect start, beating three ranked opponents along the way. However they had just lost new starting junior quarterback Koy Detmer to an injury.

In his place would be untested sophomore John Hessler, who had led the Buffaloes to a 29-21 victory over then #3 Texas A&M a week earlier. Leading up to the game, Schnellenberger had chimed, "I would prefer Detmer play. Our football team would prefer Detmer play. I don't want a damn asterisk when we beat their ass."

In front of 75,004 fans, the Sooners seemed to be feeding off of the emotion of their first sellout crowd since '89, and Schnellenberger looked as if he was a man of his word in the first half. Oklahoma grabbed a first quarter lead after Jeremy Alexander's 21-yard field goal, and they increased it to 10-0 on redshirt freshman quarterback Eric Moore's one-yard touchdown run in the second period.

With the Sooners defense crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run, and unable to establish consistency, the Buffaloes were forced to the air. They cut the lead when Hessler hit receiver Phil Savoy with a 19-yard scoring pass, but the home team came right back. Moore found JaJuan Penny for a 20-yard scoring strike, and the Oklahoma lead was back to 17-7.

Colorado grabbed some momentum heading into halftime. First, faced with a fourth down-and-one, Hessler kept the drive alive with quarterback sneak. Then, with 17 seconds left in the half, Hessler found Carruth, a fast and physical wide out listed at 5 feet 11 inches and 190 pounds, for an 11-yard scoring reception. It was a critical touchdown that sent the Buffs into the locker room trailing 17-14.

Neuheisel told the team at halftime, "we took their best shot and you came back twice and answered."

Whether it was the coach's words or not, the second half was all Colorado. Hessler found Carruth and got the ball to him, where the receiver made some Oklahoma tacklers miss and jetted through the secondary for the end zone on a 71-yard touchdown reception. Carruth, a junior, had made 28 catches in his first two seasons, but was quickly emerging as the main man in Neuheisel's passing offense. His score put the visitor's up for the first time, 21-17.

The touchdown also gave the defense a big lift. On the Sooners next possession, they lost nine and were forced to punt, signaling the beginning of the end, as their offense was held to 56 total yards and just two yards rushing in the second half.

Hessler went on to throw two more touchdowns, a 28-yarder to Lendon Henry in the third quarter and a 42-yard connection to Savoy in the fourth, to put the game out of reach. While the Oklahoma fans were exiting in the fourth quarter, the Colorado faithful who had journeyed to Norman were chanting Hessler's name. Buff kicker Neil Voskeritchian's 28-yard field goal closed out a 24-point second half, and put the final touches on a 38-17 Colorado victory.

Hessler had shown Schnellenberger and his other skeptics that his performance against Texas A&M was not a fluke. He set a Colorado record with five touchdown passes while completing 24 of 34 passes for 348 yards. "I was fired up all week on what Schnellenberger had to say," the quarterback said. "I wanted to prove I could play."

So much for the asterisk.

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