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Buffaloes keep hooves in Rose Bowl door with win over Utes

Utah v Colorado
Colorado receiver Shay Fields catches a touchdown pass while being defended by Utah defensive back Tyrone Smith during their game Saturday.
(Justin Edmonds / Getty Images)

At about the same time USC was finishing up with Notre Dame, things were just getting started at Folsom Field.

A sellout crowd packed into the stadium, cheering as Ralphie the Buffalo charged out of his pen, rumbling down the sideline.

It felt like a celebration, and the Colorado football team made sure to provide a happy end, grinding out a 27-22 victory over Utah in the biggest college game this state has seen in years.

There were turnovers and missed opportunities, but the Buffaloes managed to continue their Cinderella season, clinching a spot in the Pac-12 Conference championship game on Friday.

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“It’s not always going to be pretty,” quarterback Sefo Liufau said. “It’s not always going to be perfect.”

In this case, it was enough to leave USC out in the cold or, more specifically, in second place in the conference’s South Division. But before Trojan fans get too upset, consider the curious math in this new era of the College Football Playoff.

If the Buffaloes, ninth in the CFP ranking, lose to No. 5 Washington on Friday — and if Washington makes the four-team playoff — No. 12 USC could leapfrog Colorado in the rankings and be selected as the conference’s Rose Bowl replacement.

Call it addition by subtraction. Colorado didn’t care much on Saturday night.

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“The sideline was definitely emotional,” receiver Devin Ross said. “It was just unreal, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Colorado and Utah have a recent history of playing close games and this one was no different.

Coming off an upset loss to Oregon, No. 22 Utah (8-4) figured to have an edge on special teams and took advantage early when Boobie Hobbs returned a punt 55 yards for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

But the Utes could not get much going on offense, primarily because running back Joe Williams could not find open space against a defense geared to stop him.

Given time to overcome its early hiccups, the Colorado offense started to find a rhythm, mixing short passes with runs by Liufau, who ended up with 270 yards passing and 59 rushing.

The senior scored on a short keeper to tie it 7-7 at the end of the first quarter, then engineered two long drives after that. Missed opportunities — incomplete passes to open receivers in the end zone — kept the halftime score close at 13-7.

The Buffaloes know that kind of play might prove more costly against a high-scoring Washington team.

“We need to get in the end zone when we’re down there,” said Colorado Coach Mike MacIntyre.

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This is a program that had fallen on hard times, losing 40 of 45 conference games in its first five seasons in the Pac-12.

“Usually at this time of year, we’re just moseying about on the field and just playing for pride,” Liufau said.

This fall, the Buffaloes have raced to a 10-2 record with thoughts of establishing a winning culture that extends beyond the current roster. Talking about his seniors playing their final season, MacIntyre said, “It’s definitely a send-off, but it’s not an end-off.”

Veteran leadership came into play in the second half Saturday as the Buffaloes had to weather a Utah comeback.

The Utes defense found a way to contain Liufau early in the third quarter, both on the ground and through the air. Their offense warmed up, too, with Williams on his way to 97 yards rushing.

But they could not translate this momentum into quite enough points, driving inside the 10-yard line three times and coming away with a total of only six points.

“We just weren’t able to get it done,” quarterback Troy Williams said. “Point, blank, period.”

Liufau led the Buffaloes on a long touchdown drive that ended with a perfect fade pass to Shay Fields for a 20-13 lead.

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A few minutes later, Joe Williams fumbled and Colorado linebacker Kenneth Olugbode went 10 yards with a scoop-and-score to widen the lead to 27-16. That was enough cushion to allow for a late Utah touchdown. As the clock ticked down, a roar began to grow in Folsom Field.

No one cared about playing a formidable Washington team next week. Or about CFP machinations that could put another team in the Rose Bowl.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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