BOULDER, Colo. — After all the jabs between coaches, all the trash talk and all the chippiness, the moments with the most tension between Colorado and Colorado State had nothing to do with perceived slights or sunglasses and hats. They had to do with football, as the Rocky Mountain Showdown turned into a much closer game than almost most anticipated.
Coach Deion Sanders’ Buffaloes were heavily favored entering Saturday, but the Rams pushed them to the brink. No. 18 Colorado (3-0) needed all of quarterback Shedeur Sanders’ 348 passing yards to complete a frantic comeback and stave off an upset. The Buffaloes struggled at points against a Mountain West opponent coming off a 3-9 season — a reminder that, while Deion Sanders and his collection of transfers have injected life into a floundering program, the roster still has holes that likely will take more than one offseason to fix.
“We played like garbage in the first half,” Sanders said after Colorado’s 43-35 double-overtime win. “The second half we did some things. We showed we were resilient. We showed we would fight. We showed we had no surrender or give up in us. That’s a lot for a team that’s fairly new.”
The lackluster stretches of play are far from the Buffaloes’ only source of concern coming out of the game. Star wide receiver and defensive back Travis Hunter went down with an undisclosed injury after a late hit from Colorado State’s Henry Blackburn. Hunter briefly returned to play, only to leave the game once again and eventually go to a local hospital. Sanders said he anticipates Hunter will miss “a few weeks,” which is a blow for the Buffaloes, who play ranked Oregon and Southern California the next two weeks. As safety Shilo Sanders said, losing Hunter is essentially losing two players because of his contributions on both sides of the ball.
Blackburn’s hit on Hunter, which came after a Shedeur Sanders pass fell incomplete, earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Shedeur — who, like Shilo, is one of Deion’s kids — immediately jawed with Blackburn before kneeling next to Hunter. The play was the latest in a series of chippy events leading up to and throughout the game, and the Buffaloes’ quarterback said it left him feeling “some type of way.”
“When they did that Travis stuff, it really clicked for me: ‘Oh, they’re really out here tripping,’” Shedeur said. “Like, overly tripping.”
Dislike between the two teams began to grow Wednesday when Rams coach Jay Norvell chose to feed into the rivalry, expressing his displeasure at Deion Sanders’ frequent interview attire featuring a hat and sunglasses.
“I sat down with ESPN today. I don’t care if they hear it in Boulder. I told them, ‘I took my hat off, and I took my glasses off,’” Norvell said on his radio show. “I said when I talk to grown-ups, I take my hat off and my glasses off. That’s what my mother taught me.”
After Norvell’s comment, the Colorado coach wasted no time using it as motivation. At practice, Sanders told his players, “They messed around and made it …,” adding a pause for them to respond.
“Personal!” they shouted back.
Deion Sanders, his players, his fans and approximately 96 percent of the people around Folsom Field carried that energy into the game. In the morning, he started an, “It’s what?” … “Personal!” call and response chant with onlookers at Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” set. One fan entered the stadium with a shirt embroidered with the phrase. The student section featured a smattering of white cowboy hats and sunglasses, and the elder Sanders pumped the group up during his pregame lap of the field. He moved his way to the front of the section and paused. Slowly, he took off his glasses — a nod to Norvell’s comments — and grinned. The students responded with delighted screams. Some bowed to their coach.
Most notably, about 90 minutes before kickoff, a scuffle broke out near midfield between Colorado State and Colorado players. Shedeur Sanders was right in the thick of things.
“To me, they just wanted attention,” he said. “They just wanted to go viral.”
Before the game, Deion Sanders said on ESPN’s “College GameDay” — which made its first trip to Boulder since 1996 — that ESPN should “keep the cameras rolling” for the postgame handshake between coaches. But after Colorado State failed to convert a fourth down while trailing in double overtime, the two shared a cordial meeting at midfield. And, in his news conference, Colorado’s coach insisted he holds no ill will toward Norvell.
“I’m happy for the brother. I really am,” he said. “I’m happy that they fought, that they played a good game. I’m happy he’s a head coach. I’m happy for any brother that’s doing it and is successful.”
That doesn’t mean Sanders didn’t want to beat Norvell.
“Truthfully, there was one point in the game where I said, ‘We can’t let this dude win. ’His press conference is going to be unbearable if we let this dude win,’” the Buffaloes’ coach said.
The lead-up to Saturday’s game was essentially a Deion Sanders-inspired party. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made an appearance on “College GameDay” wearing a Shedeur Sanders jersey, and Lil Wayne held a concert on campus. By game time, NBA star Kawhi Leonard and rappers Master P and Offset were in the building.
Lil Wayne, who Sanders said is like a son to him, led Colorado onto the field and performed in the end zone less than five minutes before kickoff. A season ago, when the Buffaloes went 1-11, the idea of a world-famous rapper going out of his way to see a Colorado football game — against a Mountain West opponent, no less! — would have been ludicrous. But there he was, wearing a customized jersey and rapping Sanders-inspired lyrics.
Colorado rallies to beat Colorado State in double OT
This is Colorado’s new reality, and it will be as long as Sanders is in charge. The hype in Boulder is new, but Shilo Sanders, who had a pick-six and forced fumble, didn’t think that contributed to the team’s uneven performance.
“It’s not really that deep,” the safety said. “We just have to do our job on offense, defense, special teams all the time, and then we’re going to be the team that we are.”
Doing their jobs will be harder against more difficult opponents, however, so there are plenty of questions entering conference play. Yes, Shedeur Sanders looks like a Heisman Trophy candidate, but the offensive line struggled when Colorado State brought pressure, and the Buffaloes netted only 70 yards on the ground. On defense, Colorado barely kept the Rams to fewer than 400 passing yards. Plus, for the second week in a row, the offense didn’t play well early in the game.
“That’s an, ‘I gotta figure it out’ thing,” Deion Sanders said of the team’s starts. “I’m getting tired of that thing. … As coaches, as a team, as the offense, we’re better than that.”
But thanks to an 11-point fourth-quarter comeback and a Shedeur Sanders touchdown pass to Michael Harrison in the second overtime, Colorado snuck away with a win. The sometimes lackluster showing didn’t stop fans from rushing the field.
“We’re here!” one shirtless student yelled repeatedly, quoting his football coach’s words from before the team’s Week 1 win against TCU. Shedeur Sanders did his TV interview wearing sunglasses and a hat — one final clap back at Norvell — and kicker Alejandro Mata signed autographs for fans. “Thank you!” one joyful student called to each player walking past him.
Times like these are new in Colorado. Sure, there’s reason to doubt the Buffaloes going forward. But there’s also excitement and bravado and — at least at the moment — winning football. And for a starved fan base, that was enough Saturday.
(Top photo of Shedeur Sanders: Andrew Wevers / USA Today)