CU Buffs lose LB Nate Landman, showdown with Utah, 38-21

BOULDER — Nate Landman was the heart and soul one of the best defenses, and best narratives, of this abbreviated Pac-12 season.

With Landman knocked out of the game, both that CU defense and that Buffs’ Cinderella tale turned into a horror story.

The 21st-ranked Buffs gave up 28 unanswered points in the second half on a snowy, bitterly cold Saturday and fell to Utah, 38-21, in the earliest daytime kickoff ever at Folsom Field.

The loss was CU’s first after a 4-0 start. It also eliminated the Buffs (4-1, 3-1 Pac-12) from representing the South Division in the Pac-12 football championship next week.

Because of COVID-related scheduling quirks and cancellations, CU would’ve had to win and USC would’ve had to lose against UCLA on Saturday evening for the Buffs to play in the title game.

Utah, behind 147 rushing yards from freshman tailback Ty Jordan and two passing touchdowns by quarterback Jake Bentley, made the division tiebreakers moot.

It was the Utes’ fourth straight win the series and Utah’s eighth in the 10 meetings with CU since both began Pac-12 play in 2011. The Buffs’ loss was the first by a CU team that came into the Buffs-Utes game nationally ranked since 1961.

CU as of early Saturday afternoon was expected next weekend to play a Pac-12 opponent to be determined from the North division. The foe, site and kickoff time will be announced soon, a Buffs athletic department official said.

CU has already clinched a winning record in the regular season with one game to play and is expected to accept a bowl bid if one is offered and that postseason contest is, in fact, being played.

Saturday, especially in the second half, was a snapshot of the Buffs at their worst: CU gave up 145 rushing yards to the Utes, combined, in the third and fourth quarters; committed three turnovers to Utah’s one; and got whistled for four penalties while the Utes weren’t flagged once.

First-year coach Karl Dorrell said that his locker room was “disappointed” after the game but refuted the idea of the Buffs succumbing to pregame or game-week hype. The game was moved to Saturday morning to accommodate Fox’s noon eastern national broadcast window, a window vacated when Michigan-Ohio State was cancelled this past Tuesday.

“I don’t talk about the hype,” Dorrell said. “I think you guys (in the media) do it more than we do. We had to just do the things we were capable of doing for ourselves. A lot of it was self-inflicted today.”

Dorrell also praised the Utes’ toughness in the frigid conditions, while the Buffs paid a heavy price on the health front. CU left tackle William Sherman was helped off the field during CU’s first drive of the fourth quarter. Signal-caller Sam Noyer was dinged up on the second drive, only to return after backup Tyler Lytle quarterbacked the Buffs into Utah territory with six minutes left in the contest.

Noyer threw six straight incompletions after coming back into the game and endured his toughest statistical day with the Buffs: 16 completions on 34 attempts with two touchdowns and two giveaways — a first-half fumble and a second-half interception.

Missed tackles were an unfortunate narrative in the first quarter. They became a devastating one in the third.

With CU up 21-10 after a 61-yard Brenden Rice touchdown to open the second half, the Utes (2-2) went on a 14-0 run, ripping off large chunks on the ground and taking advantage of a defense that was without Landman, the senior middle linebacker, who appeared to injure his right ankle with about three minutes left in the first half and never returned.

Buffs coach Karl Dorrell said after the game that Landman was slated to have an MRI on Sunday and isn’t expected to return for the regular-season finale next week.

Fellow linebacker Akil Jones also left the game after the third quarter.

The Buffs sent pressure at Bentley, but the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder bounced off CU defenders in the second half to either give himself more time to throw or take off and turn a broken play into a solid gainer. The Utes wound up outscorinig CU 14-7 in the third quarter and 14-0 in the fourth.

The outcome spoiled a historic day for the freshman Rice, son of NFL legend Jerry Rice. The 6-3 wideout out of Chandler, Ariz., accounted for 179 all-purpose yards on the day.

The last three minutes of the first half, during which Rice played a crucial role, proved to be an emotional roller-coaster for Buffs faithful.

The smattering of CU fans in attendance — and thousands more at home — had their collective hearts in their throats during a Utah drive with 2:35 left in the first half. Landman, the heart and soul of a salty Buffs defense, appeared to twist his right ankle while chasing a short Utes pass. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker, who came in ranked third in the Pac-12 in tackles per game (9.5), collapsed at midfield in pain and was helped off by two CU medical staffers, hopping back to the sidelines, unable to put any weight on his right leg.

But the Buffs’ defense held, followed by a momentum swing — and mood swing — in the complete opposite direction.

Rice took the ensuing Utes punt at his own 19-yard line along the right hashmark, then exploded into a hole through the middle of the Utah coverage unit and into open space, with punter Ben London waiting for him, 1-on-1. The freshman cut left, zipped past London and ran untouched into the end zone to give the hosts their first lead of the morning.

The 81-yard score was the first Buffs punt return for a touchdown since Laviska Shenault did it against Texas State in 2017.

CU forced another Utah punt and got the ball back at its own 23. But the Buffs gave the ball back two plays later when the normally sure-handed Jarek Broussard fumbled the rock away at the CU 40. The Utes took advantage, tacking on a 42-yard field goal as the first half clock expired to cut the hosts’ lead to 14-10 at the break.

Which made for a promising finish to the opening 30 minutes after an inauspicious start. In the first half, the Buffs fumbled the rock away to the Utes twice and dropped at least four passes. Utah dominated field possession early; the Utes’ first four drives started, on average, at their own 36. The Buffs, conversely, began at their own 10, 5, 20 and 10 to open the contest. Utah had yet to allow a 100-yard rusher coming into the weekend, and kept Broussard from hitting the century mark for a fifth consecutive game.

Saturday’s tussle was the earliest kickoff ever for a CU game at Folsom Field — 10:05 in the morning, besting a 10:09 kick vs. Nebraska here in November 2007. And a temperature of 23 degrees at the start of the game, with a wind-chill of 19 degrees, made it the sixth-coldest tilt ever at Folsom Field and the 10th-coldest start-time temp in Buffs football history.

“It definitely hurts, for sure,” said senior safety Derrion Rakestraw, who finished with seven tackles. “We were controlling our own destiny (in the Pac-12) and we didn’t get it done.”

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