In a moment, a confession from Joe Garten, Colorado’s All-American guard and survivor of last year’s Orange Bowl loss to Notre Dame.
But first, a history lesson.
Remember when Irish Coach Lou Holtz told his team that the Buffaloes were “living a lie,” which is Holtzspeak for, “They’re overrated?” Remember how a Denver television station had the whole thing on tape? How Colorado players angrily vowed revenge? How Holtz, although embarrassed by the incident, never actually apologized for the remarks?
Yes, well, said Garten, there’s a good reason for that. Holtz--and this pains Garten to admit--was right. Despite its No. 1 ranking, Colorado was scared stiff a year ago. And it showed.
“I think we were immature,” Garten said. “We were No. 1 in the country, but we didn’t know how to handle it. We didn’t know what the crowd was going to be like. It was like we looked up to Notre Dame.”
Understandable enough. Notre Dame had 11 championship trophies gathering dust back in South Bend, Ind.; it was Colorado’s first shot at one.
“They’re a big-time team,” Garten said. “You always see them play as a little kid. I mean, it was like a dream. We really didn’t approach it the right way.”
Colorado receives another chance tonight. Same bowl. Same opponent. Same stakes. Different circumstances.
This time, the Buffaloes arrived in Miami with a bit of an attitude. They insisted their No. 1 ranking was well deserved. They deftly deflected all criticism of their infamous “fifth-down” victory over Missouri. They praised No. 5-ranked Notre Dame, but not too much.
“Last year, we came into it glossy-eyed,” Garten said. “This year, we come in with blood-shot eyes.”
Notre Dame is reduced to the role of spoiler. Of course, don’t tell Irish Coach Lou Holtz that.
"(We) have a chance, no matter how big or small, at a national championship,” he said.
Now then, how seriously is Colorado taking this game?
Seriously enough that Colorado Coach Bill McCartney, after examining reams of scientific data relating to the advantages of high-altitude training, considered delaying his team’s departure for South Florida.
Seriously enough that McCartney prepared himself and his team for the fifth-down backlash.
Seriously enough that starting wide receiver Mike Pritchard, who suffered a broken left hand last week, has vowed to play.
“I feel very strongly that to come up short again, it would really spoil the broth,” McCartney said.
From unknown to budding powerhouse--this is the path Colorado has taken under McCartney. A year ago, the Buffaloes were as compelling a story as there was in college football. Quarterback Sal Aunese, an inspiration to the team, had died of cancer. His replacement, Darian Hagan, had come out of nowhere to become a Heisman Trophy candidate. And who could resist the allure of an underdog such as Colorado?
Even when the Buffaloes lost, 21-6, Colorado was commended for a season of overachievement. But the pats on the back annoyed McCartney, who maintained that Colorado could have, should have defeated the Irish.
“I didn’t really feel that Notre Dame did a better job preparing (for the game),” he said. “Notre Dame was more prepared in how to compete in a close game. I think a lot of that is mental.”
Whatever it was, the Buffaloes didn’t have it.
This year, Colorado finds itself with a different identity. Gone is the so-called Aunese Factor. Running back Eric Bieniemy replaced Hagan in the Heisman hunt. As for underdogs, forget it. After a 1-1-1 start, the Buffaloes have won nine consecutive games.
All of this, McCartney said, proves absolutely nothing.
“I’m extremely proud of our team,” he said, “but we all know that it’s necessary for us to win this game to realize our potential.”
Sensing that Colorado might have a motivational advantage--mainly revenge--Holtz sprang into action earlier this week. First, he suggested that Colorado had earned the respect of everyone, including Notre Dame. Then he tried to reverse the motivation argument in his favor.
“If anything, we need to gain a little respect,” he said. “I’m not sure Colorado has much respect for Notre Dame, their players. They were saying before the bowl games that if we were smart, we’d duck them.”
Should the Buffaloes beat the Irish, a national championship would probably be Colorado’s for the taking. Of course, a rout of Nebraska by undefeated Georgia Tech would add to the voting intrigue.
But first things first. The Irish present Colorado with some familiar and still troubling problems, beginning with the multipurpose Raghib (the Rocket) Ismail.
Ismail has had nearly a month to recover from a collection of medium bumps and bruises, which will help. If he dodges would-be tacklers as well as he dodged the media the past two weeks, then pity poor Colorado.
Ismail rushed for 108 yards and one touchdown against Colorado in the 1990 Orange Bowl. Not surprisingly, Holtz wants the ball in Ismail’s hands at least 18 to 20 times, maybe more.
The Buffaloes also must deal with the Irish passing attack, which is enhanced by the emergence of first-year starting quarterback Rick Mirer. Mirer might very well be the key to Notre Dame’s hopes.
Not so frightening is the Irish defense, which never recovered from the loss of three starters in the secondary. At times, the Irish pass coverage was positively porous. Not even cornerback Todd Lyght was spared.
Despite the problems, Notre Dame still has linebacker Michael Stonebreaker and nose tackle Chris Zorich, who can play the run as well as anyone. None of this is lost on McCartney.
“I see Notre Dame as being a better team than a year ago, even though that wasn’t the popular opinion,” McCartney said. “I think Colorado will have to play its greatest game to beat Notre Dame.
“But we have a lot of things going for us, too.”
You wouldn’t have known it in Colorado’s season opener against Tennessee. Back then, the Buffaloes didn’t have a passing game. Now they do--sort of.
McCartney wanted Hagan to crack 2,000 yards this year but had to settle for 1,538, which isn’t bad considering Bieniemy occupied a place in the backfield. McCartney also has predicted that Hagan will test Notre Dame’s secondary early and moderately often.
Bieniemy, you know about. His 1,628 yards and 17 touchdowns earned him a third-place Heisman finish, behind BYU’s Ty Detmer and Ismail.
And if the Buffaloes have an overlooked strength, it is their special teams and defense, especially at the outside linebacker position. Watch Alfred Williams, this year’s Butkus Award winner, for a single series and you will understand.
A few days ago, Holtz offered some advice to Orange Bowl viewers: Pay special attention to the first five minutes of the first quarter, the last five minutes of the second quarter, and the first five minutes of the third quarter. Those 15 minutes, he said, will determine the game.
And with it, a national champion.