SALT LAKE CITY — Colorado came up just short of recording an upset in its final Pac-12 game Saturday as the Buffaloes fell to Utah, 23-17, at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders’ Buffs lost their sixth straight game to finish the season 4-8 overall and 1-8 in Pac-12 play while the Utes improved to 8-4, 5-4.

The Buffs were without the service of injured starting quarterback Shedeur Sanders, but true freshman Ryan Staub had a solid starting debut. CU trailed just 13-10 at the half and with 7:31 to play in the game, Staub directed an 84-yard scoring drive, capping the drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Travis Hunter that pulled the Buffs to within 23-17.

But that was as close as Colorado could get down the stretch. The  Utes took possession after the CU score and ran the clock out with a steady dose of their running game.

Staub finished 17-for-25 for 195 yards and a touchdown and he was sacked just twice — the fewest sacks CU gave up in a game this season.

Hunter caught eight passes for 107 yards and a score and wide receiver Jimmy Horn Jr. had a 30-yard touchdown pass to Dylan Edwards.

Utah also had to play a backup quarterback, as Luke Bottari became their third different starter this season. Bottari threw just 10 passes and completed six for 61 yards, but he did run for two touchdowns. The Utes finished with 268 yards on the ground, led by 107 from Jaylon Glover.

Utah’s run game dominance allowed the Utes to hold the ball for more than 39 minutes.

Colorado also endured some tough luck in the game. A play that was initially ruled a touchdown pass to Hunter in the first half was overruled by replay, and the Buffs also had a long punt return by Edwards and a long reception by Horn nullified by penalties.

“We showed up and we played well,” Coach Prime said. “Staub did a great job of getting the ball to where it needed to go and getting it out of his hands … They ate up the clock. It was our thought process that we could  control the clock and keep them off the field but they kept the ball for  almost 40 minutes, which is astounding. Well coached, executed well and ran the ball down our durn throats. They did a great job.”

HOW IT HAPPENED: Staub had an excellent first half for the Buffs, throwing for 99 yards and guiding Colorado to a touchdown and field goal to send CU into the break trailing just 13-10.

But Colorado’s first possession didn’t end well as Staub fumbled as he was being sacked. Utah recovered at its own 42-yard line and eight plays later, the Utes had a 7-0 lead after quarterback Bottari scored from 2 yards out.

The Buffs’ next possession ended in a punt and the Utes drove inside the CU 20 before Colorado’s defense stiffened, forcing Utah to settle for a 34-yard field goal and 10-0 lead.

The Buffs finally got on the scoreboard on their next possession. Staub completed three passes for 25 yards to put the Buffs at the Utah 30-yard line before the Buffs perfectly executed a “double pass.” Staub threw a long lateral to Horn, who then tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Edwards.  Alejandro Mata’s PAT pulled the Buffs to within 10-7 with 8:17 still to play in the half.

“That gave us some good energy,” Staub said. “It gave the team some life and we were in it the whole time.”

Then it was the Colorado defense’s turn for another stand. The Utes drove to a first-and-goal from the CU 5-yard line, but the Buffs repelled three straight Utah runs and the Utes had to settle for another field goal and 13-7 lead with 1:38 to go in the half.

Staub then guided the Buffs on another scoring drive. He completed three passes to Hunter for 43 yards in gains, then threw what was initially ruled a 29-yard touchdown pass to Hunter, who made a beautiful diving catch in the end zone.

But replay officials then overruled the score, saying Hunter did not have full control of the ball and it hit the ground during the catch.

The Buffs then had to settle for a career-long 47-yard field goal from Alejandro Mata and enter halftime trailing 13-10.

Staub said playing with Hunter gave him an “insane amount of confidence.”

“He’s the best player in college football right now,” Staub said. “He’s a safety net, but he’s also a weapon at the same time. For me having a guy like him in my first start, it’s huge.”

After the two teams exchanged punts to open the second half, the Utes drove for their second touchdown of the game. Utah methodically pounded out a 62-yard drive in eight plays, with Bottari scoring again from 1 yard out to give the Utes a 20-10 lead.

“Anybody with a football mind knows, they’re gonna try to run the durn ball,” Sanders said. “What else are they gonna try to do? Just throw it around 40 times? It’s not who they are. They’re a physical, tough, hard-nosed team that runs right at you and that’s what they did.”

Utah added another field goal early in the fourth quarter to take a 23-10 lead after the Buffs defense once again came up with a red zone stop.

But the Buffs wouldn’t quit. Staub directed an 84-yard touchdown drive, completing a pass of 33 yards to Hunter, then a toss for 25 yards to Michael Harrison on fourth down to keep the drive alive. Two plays later he connected with Hunter again for an 18-yard touchdown and with 7:31 to play, Colorado trailed just 23-17.

But that was as close as the Buffs could come. The Utes took possession on the ensuing kick and ran the clock out, pounding out yardage with their run game.

The loss was Colorado’s fourth by one score this season.

“We’re certainly heading in the right direction,” Sanders said. “We’re certainly trending forward. We got our butt kicked twice this year in 12 games. There was no winning those two games but every other game we had a shot, and I think that’s progress.”

TURNING POINT: While the Buffs never led in this one, they remained within striking range the entire game. It wasn’t until late in the game when Utah gained a first down and forced the Buffs to use their final timeout that the Utes had the game in hand.

KEY STATISTICS: The Utes finished with 268 yards on the ground and held the ball for almost 40 minutes.

WHAT IT MEANS: Colorado heads into the offseason with a clear “to do” list that will start almost immediately. There could be some coaching changes in the works and the Buffs will once again hit the transfer portal hard to find players who can come in and automatically help.

UP NEXT:  The Buffs are scheduled to open the 2024 season Aug. 31 against North Dakota State in Boulder.


Story by Neill Woelk, Contributing Editor for Content courtesy of the University of Colorado at Boulder.