Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, August 30, 2013

10th anniversary of the 'Rain Game'

It's time to jump in the WABAC Machine, as today marks the 10-year anniversary of the 'Rain Game.'  (Yes, it really was 10 years ago, doesn't that make you feel old?)

The 75th iteration of the Rocky Mountain Showdown was one for the ages.  A culmination of five years of in-Denver buildup, it was one of the most exciting games I've ever attended.  More than that, it was the last time both programs seemed to deserve the national stage.

The record 76,219 who packed Invesco Field at Mile High in 2003 were expecting a no-holds-barred show, and that's exactly what they got.  These were two teams loaded with talent and a deep dislike of each other.  Each had won their respective conference in the proceeding years, and had made a habit of biting each other in the press in the days leading up to the game.  CU desperately wanted revenge for 2002, when CSU QB Bradlee Van Pelt had spiked the ball at a Colorado defender on the game-winning touchdown run, and the Rams were looking for a statement win to mark their fourth over CU in five seasons. 
2002 had the Buffs seeing red.
August 30th, 2003, started out musty, with overnight rain dampening what normally would've been a bright late-summer morning.  The sky would remain overcast for much of the day, portending the deluge that would arrive that evening.  By early afternoon, I was with the marching band, huddled-up under the Colfax overpass as a micro-cell moved in an hour before kickoff.  Despite the rain, I remained excited about the new football season, and a national television audience on ESPN2.

Kickoff was right on time at 5:45, and the sun even made a brief appearance as the game got underway.  What would end up being a high-flying affair packed with offense actually started out mired in lethargy.  Six punts and a CU turnover scarred the opening quarter, with the lone productive drive being an eight-play march from CSU that ended on a 10-yard Van Pelt touchdown run.  Luckily, the two teams got that offensive mediocrity out of their systems early.

Once the second quarter hit, the Buffs came alive.  A 6-yard plunge from Bobby Purify was immediately answered by CSU, but the Rams had no answer for three successive touchdown drives to end the half.  The run started with a quick 82-yard streak over the top from Joel Klatt to Derek McCoy.  Staggered, CSU went three-and-out, leading to a vintage 13-play Gary Barnett grinder, capped by a slick little 10-yard completion to D.J. Hackett.  The Rams tried to answer with a 32-yard field goal, but CSU kicker Jeff Babcock shot it wide left.  CU would make them pay in the two minute drill, running Brian Calhoun off the right side for 31 yards before capping the half with a 45-yard bomb to John Donahoe.

What had been a dour affair had been completely turned on its head.  CU ran into to the locker room with a comfortable 28-14 lead.  As I prepared to take the field at halftime, I couldn't help but smirk at the CSU students hurling obscenities at us band geeks.  The win seemed to be in the bag.

But the Rams showed no quit, and strengthened out of the locker room.  They held the Buffs to four three-and-outs to start the third, and grabbed a quick score to bring it to within a touchdown at 28-21.  With the game now back in doubt, the Buffs needed a moment of brilliance to keep the win from slipping away.  Luckily, that's exactly what they got.

Midway through the third, the threatening heavens had finally started to open up.  Nearly an inch of rain would fall over the next hour, and, with repeated lightning strikes reported in the area, it became a dangerous situation for all involved.  The Buffs, however, were still focused on getting their foot back on the gas, and they turned to a classic Barnett play when they needed it most.

It was play-action post, with WR Derek McCoy set as the primary target.  Off of the stretch fake, Klatt continued his deep drop.  CSU had bit, and bit hard.  Klatt not only had time, but open receivers; it was now simply a matter of reading the play, and making a good throw.
(The play in question starts at the 2:12 mark.  You can clearly see the flash on the tape.) 

Just as the CU QB hit his plant leg, a bolt of lightning shot down south of the stadium.  It looked to me as if the bolt pointed the way to a streaking, wide-open McCoy.  Focused in-spite of the flash and thunder, Klatt threw a beautiful pass that hit McCoy in stride.  The star wideout sprinted down the sideline, untouched, for a 78-yard stunner.  CU was now back on top by two scores, 35-21.

With the CU side of the stadium erupting in celebration, the worsening weather became unavoidable.  The referees finally acquiesced to reality, and called a halt to proceedings.  The players filed back into the locker room, and the fans settled in to sit out the storm.  In the interim, charged by the play we had just seen, the CU marching band played on, holding court in the north stands for all who would put up with the elements to listen.  Of those who wouldn't were the CSU marching band, who fled for cover under the stadium.  It's a shame they weren't brave enough to stay, because we put on a hell of a show.
I'll have you know that marching uniforms suck in the rain.
28-minutes of lightning delay later, the teams finally returned to the field.  The Rams had used the break to re-group, and produced a brilliant drive of their own to bring the score back within seven.  After trading five-straight scoreless drives, CSU found themselves in great field position after a 40-yard punt return from Dexter Wynn. They capitalized, tying the game up with Van Pelt cracking off a 30-yard touchdown pass that nearly drove me to violence.

With less than two minutes remaining in regulation, CU needed a score to stave off overtime.  They engineered a textbook drive with Klatt completing four straight passes to get the Buffs inside the 10-yard line. With under a minute to play, it was now Bobby Purify's turn, and he hammered home the win with a 9-yard scamper.  Van Pelt's final attempts to avoid defeat fell short, and Colorado walked away as rain-soaked winners, 42-35.
The Buffs won a wild one in 2003, the last RMS that meant anything.
The '03 RMS was all about explosive offense. A total of 1,089 combined yards, including 741 through the air, set numerous records for the series. Powered by spectacular days from the two quarterbacks, it was a game of big plays, with a combined 14 (seven touchdowns) going for at least 30 yards.  Klatt came away with his first of three wins over the Rams, throwing for 402 yards and four scores in victory.  Van Pelt, damn him, was almost as good, producing 416 total yards, and finding the endzone five times (three through the air, two on the ground).

However, despite that impressive show, neither team managed to capitalize on the offensive momentum created in the opener.  After sneaking past UCLA the following week, the Buffs would lose six of their next seven, including a humiliating loss at Baylor.  For their part, the Rams would finish a disappointing third in the Mountain West, finishing with a 7-6 record.

The series quickly fell off the rails in the following years.  While it's true that the RMS being played in Folsom disrupted the rhythm of playing in Denver, the decline wasn't a result of the return to campus.  The series declined because the headlining team - the University of Colorado - hit a losing stretch of football not seen since the early 80s.  After the 'scandal' of 2004, the program quickly became a shadow of its former self, and the bar set for CSU to live up to was no longer high enough to lift their program to respectability.  With both programs making a habit of spending bowl season at home, the game simply stopped meaning anything.

In the early 2000s, when both programs were rolling, it was an important game even from a national standpoint.  Coaches Gary Barnett and Sonny Lubick were nationally-renowned figures, true legends of the game, who cast larger-than-life shadows over the proceedings.  It also had great built-in story lines, headlined by captivating villain Bradlee Van Pelt.  No one in the subsequent years has brought the spice to the RMS like he did in '02 and '03.
I'm not saying I miss the douche bag, just that, sometimes, the world needs an expert troll.
If you were to tell me that each year the RMS would be like 2003, with two strong teams playing in front of a packed house and a large national audience, I'd be all for it staying in Denver.  But the series is no longer what it once was.  Far too much has changed in the decade since that game, and it's time to move on.  You may think that's a shame, but it's the truth.

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