One more second. Maybe two. Sefo Liufau needed just a little more time to let his receiver break free.
The Colorado quarterback could feel pressure coming up the middle, but he waited until the last moment, releasing the ball just before getting leveled by a blitzing safety.
“The guy was a little faster than I thought,” Liufau said, smiling at the memory. “He took a good shot at me.”
Though Liufau’s throw sailed incomplete, a pass interference penalty kept the drive going. He picked himself off the turf — bent-over, wincing — and completed his next two passes for a go-ahead touchdown in last weekend’s victory over Utah.
The win earned Colorado a spot in the Pac-12 Conference championship game against Washington on Friday night and added to Liufau’s reputation as one of the toughest quarterbacks in college football.
“Sefo is a dog, and you have to be a dog in this game,” tailback Phillip Lindsay said. “That man, he puts his body on the line day in and day out.”
If the Buffaloes rank among this fall’s Cinderella stories, rising to 10-2 from the ashes of 10 consecutive losing seasons, then Liufau is their heart and soul.
At 6 feet 4, 230 pounds, he has passed for 2,150 yards with an efficiency rating of 140.8, which puts him in the neighborhood of Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Houston’s Greg Ward Jr.
Just as important, the four-year starter has sacrificed himself for an offense that had him running for 483 yards this season. Time and again over the course of his career, he has overcome injuries that might have put a lesser man down for the count.
“If you take a hit and just lie around or mope, it can be demoralizing for the guys,” he said. “If you get back up and keep going, it can be a boost.”
Maybe Colorado needed that kind of attitude to revive its moribund program.
The Buffaloes were the only team to offer Liufau a scholarship when he graduated from high school in 2012.
Of Polynesian descent, he is the nephew of former NFL quarterback Jack Thompson, who was known as “The Throwin’ Samoan.” Though he wasn’t a blue-chip recruit, Liufau had sparked a turnaround at Bellarmine Prep in Washington, leading his team to the state championship game.
By the sixth game of his freshman season, he had assumed the starting role in Boulder under new coach Mike MacIntyre.
“We took a redshirt off of a guy who is very talented, who we think is very bright, and who is an excellent leader,” MacIntyre said at the time, adding: “I felt like it was the right time.”
In those days, Colorado operated from a more-conventional offensive scheme. Liufau finished the 2013 season with 1,779 yards passing and improved to 3,200 as a sophomore. On a team that went 6-18 over that stretch, he also took some lumps.
Microdiscectomy surgery — the same procedure Tiger Woods had — repaired an aching back after his freshman season. The next fall, he sustained a separated shoulder.
Things would get even harder as MacIntyre’s offense evolved, calling upon the quarterback to execute more zone-read options and designed runs.
“Obviously it takes a toll on your body,” Liufau said.
Last season, Liufau lasted until the 11th game before suffering a Lisfranc injury against USC. If that medical term sounds unfamiliar, let him explain: “Basically, my foot snapped in half. No bones broke; it was just ligaments and things.”
Rehabilitation progressed slowly and painfully; there were times he considered walking — or limping — away from football.
“You just have to go sit in an ice bath,” he said. “Take it one day at a time.”
If anything kept him going, it was the hope that Colorado might have a breakout season in 2016.
The difference was palpable during summer workouts and through early victories over Colorado State and Idaho State. Then came highly regarded Michigan.
Playing before a hostile crowd at the “Big House” in Ann Arbor, Liufau gave Colorado a third-quarter lead with his third touchdown pass of the day. But he also suffered another injury.
“I have the utmost respect for Sefo Liufau and the game that he played and the type of player he is,” Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He got that ankle injury that looked pretty, pretty serious and he hops up, kind of drifts out there and throws a post route that’s as good a post route as you can possibly throw.”
The pain sidelined Liufau for the fourth quarter as Michigan came back to win. He missed most of the next three games, including a loss at USC where, still hobbled, he managed only a few snaps.
But there was no question about coming back.
“When you play a team as good as Michigan at their place, and you play well, it gives you a lot of confidence,” he said. “I knew we had a chance to do something special.”
Returning in mid-October, Liufau passed for 265 yards and ran for a touchdown against Arizona State. The Buffaloes were on a roll, defeating Stanford, UCLA and Arizona.
Against Washington State, Liufau’s ankle was re-injured but returned to action, the crowd chanting his name as he passed for 345 yards and rushed for 108 in a 38-24 victory.
“We had trouble tackling him, especially in the second half,” said Parker Henry, a Washington State nickel back. “He’s a good player and probably the biggest quarterback we’ve seen all year.”
Last week’s 27-22 win over Utah was not Colorado’s most-consistent performance. Liufau fumbled twice but passed for a touchdown and ran for another, leading the Buffaloes with 59 yards rushing.
Now comes a bigger test against Washington, which has the No. 17 defense in the nation, averaging three sacks. Early odds put the Huskies as a one-touchdown favorite.
Colorado will answer with an equally stingy defense and a balanced offensive attack built around the quarterback MacIntyre calls “the toughest sucker in the building.”
Asked if there is any part of his body that doesn’t ache at this point in the season, Liufau shrugs. Playing in pain is nothing new to him.
“Whatever it takes to win,” he said, “I’ll do it.”