Some things you can't escape: If you're going to have a shoot-out in the American West, it had better be wild, pardner, no matter that John Wayne is dead, Circle K is a convenience store and the closest most dudes get to the ranch these days is when they're putting dressing on their salads. Sure, the Western Athletic Conference's two powers have spent the season claiming that their ragged, shoot-'em-up days are done, but, really, could it have been any other way when undefeated Utah and undefeated Colorado State met last Saturday in Fort Collins? After a sloppy, exhilarating, backsliding showdown at Horsetooth Rock, the last one standing surveyed the wreckage like some football Shane, repenting and stunned by the damage done.
"I thought that stuff was behind us." said Utah quarterback Mike McCoy. "But it was something that just...came up and happened."
This is a conference, after all, long devoted to high-scoring, momentum-trading free-for-alls, 'it's the WAC," says Utah defensive tackle Luther Elliss. "Weird things happen." So what if the 18th-ranked Utes, led by coach of the year dark horse Ron McBride, came into the biggest game in league history with a 6-0 record and a defense ranked fourth in the nation? So what if Colorado State miracle man Sonny Lubick, in just his second year, had led the Rams to an unlikely 7-0 start and a No. 12 ranking by preaching discipline and stingy D? So what if Ram quarterback Anthoney Hill had thrown just two interceptions in the previous five games? That old WAC magic had to kick in sometime. Utah finally pulled off the upset, 45-31, but the weird things rained down on winner and loser alike.
"I like to be in control; I don't like to sit over there with the wheels all falling off, and you don't know," McBride says. "So I was back to all that nervous energy. I'm completely drained. The fourth quarter took everything I had out of me."
October 31, 1994
The game began as billed: a defensive affair, 9-7 at halftime. But by the time it was over, Colorado State had piled up 470 total yards to the Utes' 295. Utah had caused a safety and three fumbles and blocked a punt, a point after and a field goal. Colorado State blocked two punts and forced four fumbles. Hill threw four interceptions. At key moments—and for the first time this season—Colorado State ran the quarterback option, catching Utah flat-footed. Colorado State was twice bamboozled by Utah's goal line tactic of shifting six men wide left. "We were just caught in a trance," says Ram defensive end Sean Moran. "Like, What the hell is going on?"
It was the question of the day. And yet there was no answer until the game's final 44 seconds, when an ex-Ute quarterback named Harold Lusk read Hill's mind and blazed a memorable trail under the broad, chilling sky. With Utah leading 38-31 and 3:46 remaining, Colorado State began driving downfield, reaching the Ute eight-yard line, where it faced fourth down. With the WAC title, a Holiday Bowl berth and an unblemished dream season on the line, Hill drifted back to pass. But Lusk, a sophomore free safety from Seaside, Calif., had something more personal at stake.
A week before this season began, Harold's older brother and teammate, Henry, broke his left shoulder blade during a scrimmage. That quickly, Henry Lusk, last year's Freedom Bowl MVP and Utah's No. 1 kickoff and punt returner, saw his senior year—and perhaps his shot at an NFL career—go to ashes. Harold, a sophomore who was converted from quarterback to defensive back last season, visited his brother in the emergency room. He told him, "Bro, I'm going to wear your jersey. I want you represented on the field for Utah." Harold switched from number 8 to Henry's number 9. A few days later Harold came across some sweatbands his brother used to wear, and something snapped. "I just started crying," Harold says, "because I realized my brother wasn't going to be with me this year."
He was with him Saturday. At halftime Harold came into the locker room, still stinging from a dressing-down given him by Utah defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham during the second quarter. Whittingham didn't think Harold was playing to his potential. In the locker room Henry, in street clothes, told Harold the same thing. "You've got to get more interceptions," Henry said. "Guarantee me one more." So Harold did.
But until Hill rolled left on that fourth-down play just eight yards from a possible victory, Harold hadn't delivered. Three receivers, including target Matt Phillips, were stampeding in his direction, but Lusk, who ran the option at Monterey (Calif.) High, somehow sensed where the ball was going before it left Hill's hand. He gambled and cut in front of the green jerseys.
"When Anthoney Hill released the ball, I heard the crowd yelling. They knew it was a touchdown," Lusk says, "it seemed like nobody knew I was coming." Still in the end zone, Lusk plucked the ball. He began to move, cut left. The fans nearest the end zone, the only ones with a clear view, went dead. The game was over. All Lusk had to do was fall down.
"I couldn't see it from where I was," McBride said later. "Then I hear, "Harold has it.' The first thing I said was, 'Harold, just go down any place.' But then I see him running by me, and I'm saying, 'Harold...no...just fall down!' "
Understand: McBride was anxious. How could he not be? In this, his fifth year at Utah, the 55-year-old McBride had dramatically risen above his perfectly average record of 24-24. A longtime assistant at places like Arizona, Wisconsin and Utah, he had always wanted to coach in Salt Lake City. And now here he was, on the verge of going 7-0 and in the driver's seat, too—just so long as Harold doesn't fumble or get caught or lose the damn ball somehow.... Harold, just fall down.
But Lusk had no intention of doing that. "As soon as I got it, I wanted a touchdown," Lusk says. "As soon as that ball touched my hands, I said, 'You have to score. There's no doubt. There's no way you're going to down the ball. You're going to score.' It was the greatest feeling of my life." He raced down the sideline, past his own bench, the 30-yard line, 40, 50. He felt these strange vibrations going from him to his teammates and Henry along the sideline and back again: They know I'm going to score too.
On the other side of the field, Lubick had just one thought: It's over. It had been exactly one year since the last time his Colorado State team had lost—and that was to Utah too. He thought this time would be different. Lubick has been here only two years, and the upset of sixth-ranked Arizona in Tucson two weeks earlier had made him believe that, finally, things would be different for Colorado State. The Rams have had a history of pathetic football, and even their lone recent success—a 9-4 campaign in 1990—is stained by its connection with the volatile and abusive reign of coach Earle Bruce.
"Hearts have been broken so many times in this community," says Lubick, who was the Colorado State offensive coordinator from 1982 to '84 before leaving to become the defensive coordinator at Miami. "They always found a way to lose."
Hill's pass, then, was perhaps nothing more than a case of reverting to form. The senior quarterback had had a rough Saturday, but he'd thrown for 243 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 71 more with another score. He didn't give up—even now. Lusk held the game in his hands, and he was streaking. Hill tried chasing for 30 yards. "But he was way on the other side of the field," Hill said afterward. "Not enough wheels. I wanted to catch him because I really wanted to give him one. But I couldn't."
At the 40-yard line Lusk realized he was home free. He began thinking about his idol, San Francisco 49er cornerback Deion Sanders, and how he wanted to run just like him. He shifted the ball in his hands, loaf like, so he could swing his elbows like Deion. At the 15 he began to lope. "Everybody at home was watching me, everybody: All my friends, my fiancèe, my best friend." Lusk says. "And high-step: I had to high-step. It was national TV. I had to. That's not an opportunity given too often to a WAC football team. It docs not happen."
Never mind that the game was only televised regionally: Lusk was not far off. The showdown between two Top 20 unbeatens was the biggest game in the history of either program—both of them long overshadowed by their states' premier football schools, Colorado and BYU—and the best advertisement the WAC has ever gotten. Yes, Utah's Mike McCoy had a great passing day, but the meeting of two teams built on defense gives the WAC, and a game like this, a weight it hasn't had before.
"It feels different," Lusk said afterward. "It feels like Florida State playing Miami. The feeling in this game was that humongous."
Especially for Lusk, especially on his big play. He was ready when his brother hugged him after the game and yelled, "Bro, helluva job." But this he didn't expect: As Lusk ran, his cleats chewing the 100-plus yards, he heard the wind coursing past his ears and the 39,000 or so Colorado State fans falling silent; it was as if he pulled the noise right out of each section he passed. "The farther I went, the quieter it got," Lusk says. He hit the end zone with 22 seconds left. "The quieter it got, the more I went into my own world. My head went numb. I couldn't hear anybody." Then came the extra point and a kickoff and Colorado State running three final, hopeless plays, and the silence still echoing.