Colorado State-Colorado’s late-night viewers are the lucky ones

If, in some other year, you sat up well past 2 a.m. in the United States Eastern time zone watching Colorado vs. Colorado State, you probably had an affiliation to one of the schools, a relative on one of the teams, a bet, a problem such as insomnia or tedium, or a college football fandom so intricate as to cry out for meditation or yoga.

If, on this past Saturday night here in 2023, you did likewise, lucky you.

The potential power of one person has never gotten a ride any vivider than with Coach Deion Sanders at Colorado, from a spring game mind-bogglingly sold out last April to a September of booming TV ratings to a rivalry game with bleary eyeballs gripped into a saga.

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Now Sanders’s Colorado, with one of the loudest 2-0 records ever, trailed less-resourced Colorado State from up the road by 28-17 with eight minutes left. It trailed Colorado State 28-20 with three minutes left and the Rams peeling off one first down and then another first down to lurk one more first down from a lifetime dreamscape. It trailed after so much noise and so much buildup that included, as defensive back Shilo Sanders told reporters in Boulder, “Lil Wayne over here (leading the team onto the field), ‘Coach Prime’ doing his thing, a whole animal running around (Ralphie, the buffalo mascot), and (the Buffaloes) winning right now, and … so many cameras on everybody, I would have been so scared (as an opponent) about it.”

It trailed after its usual relentless hunt around the country and the WiFi, just hoping and aching for some useful disrespect, had seen the country hurl some perceived disrespect smack into Colorado’s lap, in the form of Colorado State Coach Jay Norvell’s comment about Deion Sanders wearing sunglasses and hats when among adults.

“Truthfully,” Coach Sanders told reporters in Boulder, “at one point in the game, I said, ‘We can’t let this dude win. There is no way we let this dude win. The press conference is going to be unbearable if we let this dude win.’”

“It’s like I’m not going to be able to live with myself with a loss like that,” his son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders, said. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I just didn’t want to go through that.”

“I think we were just out there fighting for hats and sunglasses,” Sanders’s other son, Shilo, said.

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This would take a college football day stuffed with the usual goodies, and this would throw it aside and render it secondary, from Harrison Mevis’s banger of a 61-yard field goal to beat No. 15 Kansas State for Missouri, to Washington’s shiny excellence in mauling Michigan State, to Florida’s spring from dormancy in felling No. 11 Tennessee, to Boston College fans looking unusually, enviably crazed as the Eagles threatened No. 3 Florida State, to South Alabama’s happy trip to Oklahoma State, as in 33-7, upset-romp happy.

Colorado trailed 28-20 with 2:06 left when a marvel of an inelegant pooch punt from one of those deft Australians, Colorado State’s Paddy Turner, quailed to the ground and wandered out of bounds at the Buffaloes’ 2-yard line.

It did not end up at the 1.

It did not end up at the 3.

It ended up at the 2, demanding a drive of 98, a number known in the bones of Coloradoans ever since Jan. 11, 1987, when John Elway steered the Broncos that distance in Cleveland to send the AFC championship game to overtime. Elway took 15 resolute plays, and now Shedeur Sanders handed to Dylan Edwards, who gained two yards to the 4. “In my own mind I was thinking about (Tom) Brady,” Shedeur Sanders said of a 46-year-old who has lent Sanders advice. “He does it all the time and I got to be able to do it. Just talking to him and representing him in that way.”

So his arm, his capacity to move to corral more time to throw, his underrated ability to refrain from unwise plays … it all kicked in. Sanders passed 11 yards up the middle to tight end Michael Harrison. He passed 18 yards to the left to Tar’Varish Dawson. He threw one of his mere nine incompletions out of 47 passes. From his own 33-yard line, he passed 26 yards up the middle to Xavier Weaver. After a false start, he passed six yards to Edwards. After an illegal motion, he passed 30 yards up the left sideline to Jimmy Horn Jr., who made a hell of a move to travel the last 15 yards and burrow into the end zone.

The 98 yards had taken eight plays, 90 seconds and several million held breaths. Sanders floated one to an open Harrison for the two-point conversion.

This rivalry that matters to one state — and sometimes, not much more than somewhat even there — mattered across the land somehow, what with the power of one and all. Colorado’s 43-35 double-overtime win on its way to Oregon at 3-0 came stuffed with a bouquet of delights.

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They ranged from Rams tight end Dallin Holker’s great low catch of a short pass on third-and-7 that became a 35-yard touchdown for a 28-17 lead, to Harrison’s two overtime touchdowns (plus that regulation two-point conversion), to Rams quarterback Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi whose game Shedeur Sanders called “great,” to Shilo Sanders’s 80-yard interception return during which he pondered high-stepping like his father used to do (but abstained), to Rams receiver Tory Horton’s 16 catches for 133 yards. It had thuds like Colorado State’s 17 penalties for 187 yards, including one near the beginning, Henry Blackburn’s late hit on two-way Colorado star Travis Hunter, sending Hunter to the hospital, and one near the end, an illegal block that wiped out a Colorado State touchdown in the second overtime.

That last one even came across as questionable, thereby fulfilling one of sports fans’ favorite pastimes, the questionable call.

“They drove the length of the field,” Norvell said, “so you’ve got to give them credit for that. I just — we fell a little bit short.” He said, “There was nothing left on the sheet that we didn’t call.”

The coaches’ handshake, around 2:30 a.m. Eastern time, looked cordial as Norvell explained his intent of addressing his own team (even as the quote had begun, “I don’t care if they hear it in Boulder”). Then the show went on postgame, if you looked, as when Deion Sanders said, “Shedeur has been there, you guys just haven’t seen him, because he was at an HBCU (Jackson State with his father, his first two years). And we were secluded. I guess no one had TVs, and they didn’t work out here. But that’s who he is, no matter where he came from. That’s who that guy is. His passion, his study habits and commitment to excellence show every weekend. I know many people who wait for him to fail as if he can’t keep this going. But he can keep going because this is who he is.”

He had taken Coloradoans on another 98-yard drive, one of less significance than the predecessor but maybe even more noise, and it didn’t even matter all that much that the Buffaloes had to do that to withstand a program that lost 50-24 to Washington State in its home opener, or that spent the last four full seasons going 3-9, 4-8, 3-9 and 3-9. In a country that reveres celebrity, here came another heaping plateful, capped with Deion Sanders wondering if one spectator, The Rock, might tap his 390 million Instagram followers for $1 each so “we’d have no problems with the NIL,” or Coach Prime’s mention of who gave — and excelled at — one of the pregame speeches.

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