-- BOULDER, Colo. -- It is tempting to paint a portrait of No. 10 Colorado as everything we love about sports. A team that no one has taken seriously for a decade has clinched a tie for the Pac-12 South title and can nail down a place in the league championship game by defeating No. 12 Utah next week. The Buffaloes won their fifth consecutive game, dominating No. 22 Washington State in the second half on their way to a 38-24 victory.
They are a team without stars, yet they are 9-2 (7-1 Pac-12). NFL scouts come to Buffalo practices and check to make sure they are on the right campus. This is the team that leads the Pac-12 South? Really?
Colorado is a testament to hard work and belief and love amongst teammates and all those qualities that makes us escape to college football. But the Buffaloes demonstrated at Folsom Field on Saturday that they check all the fairy tale boxes and they are a seasoned, efficient team.
In an era when stars leave for the NFL after three seasons, and graduates with eligibility shop for better opportunities, coach Mike MacIntyre has built a program of veterans who have stuck together through a lot of thin, hoping someday for some thick.
The thick arrived Saturday at Folsom Field, with Colorado's first victory over a ranked team in seven years. The Buffaloes?did it before 48,658 fans roaring as they did a quarter-century ago, when Colorado perennially stood prominently in the national picture.
"It's a lot different than our freshman year," said senior quarterback Sefo Liufau, the spiritual and offensive leader of this team, in order of importance.
There hasn't been a lot to root for lately. Senior corner Chidobe Awuzie, whose seven tackles led the Buffs against the Cougars, meant it as praise for the fans when he recalled how great it was his sophomore year, when they stayed for the whole game when they lost in double overtime.
The only time any Colorado fans left their seats Saturday was to run onto the field after the game. They had a lot to celebrate.
Colorado gained 603 yards of total offense. Liufau threw for 345 yards and rushed 23 times for 108 yards and three touchdowns, despite playing with a painful left hip pointer that he suffered last week at Arizona. The injury forced him off the field this game for three plays in the fourth quarter.
Tailback Phillip Lindsay, who runs as if a DNA test would reveal a strain of Tasmanian Devil, rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 31 carries. He scored the final, game-clinching touchdown with 4:18 to play from 11 yards out. Lindsay, listed at 5-foot-8 and 190, collided with Cougars safety Charleston White, who has Lindsay by 4 inches and 13 pounds. Lindsay, legs churning, moved White out of the way and pistoned into the end zone.
The Buffs won the turnover battle, two to one, and they won third downs. Washington State, which came into the game converting more than half its third downs (50.7 percent), moved the chains on only 4 of 15 attempts.
The momentum of the game turned early in the fourth quarter, with Colorado leading 28-24. Washington State faced a fourth-and-4 at the Colorado 18, and coach Mike Leach left his inconsistent kicker, Erik Powell, on the sideline. Earlier in the game, Leach tried to convert a fourth-and-7 from the Colorado 26 and failed.
This time, quarterback Luke Falk had time to throw but liked nothing downfield. He dumped the ball off to Kyle Sweet, near the line of scrimmage. Safety Nick Fisher never left Sweet get near the first-down marker, taking him down well behind the 15-yard-line.
"One of them, I probably should've kicked a field goal," Leach said, "but in the end it really wouldn't have mattered."
Here's what makes Fisher's play so special: he is a sophomore second-teamer, forced into action because starter Afolabi Laguda was ejected on a targeting foul in the first quarter and Laguda's replacement,? Ryan Moeller, suffered a concussion shortly after. Fisher finished with six tackles -- four on third down and one on fourth -- and a pass breakup against one of the most prolific passing offenses in the nation.
"I play special teams," Fisher said. "Coach always talks about starring in your role. Tonight, my team needed me to step up. I tried to do that for them. I love my teammates. I want to win. I'm playing for 9-2. I'm playing for Sefo, this guy right here. There's just so much love in that locker room. You don't want to let anyone down."
Fisher stepped up, as did a walk-on defensive back named Lucas Cooper, who stepped in on special teams for Mueller, and on and on. This team may not have a lot of stars, but on Saturday they starred in their roles.
There's something else MacIntyre has been saying lately: "We do not blink. And that means you keep looking and you keep fighting and you keep swinging. You don't worry about anything else."
He first brought up the Buffs' refusal to blink four weeks ago after an ugly 10-5 win at Stanford. The Buffs almost skipped off the field that day, bathing in the delight of being bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007.
You may not recall that Independence Bowl, in which the 6-6 Buffs lost to 6-6 Alabama. Talk about going in different directions: in the next eight seasons, Alabama won four national championships and 101 games; Colorado won 27.
No one is saying that Colorado is ready to play No. 1 Alabama again. But becoming bowl-eligible seems like such an afterthought. The Buffs are on the doorstep of playing the winner of the Apple Cup for the Pac-12 championship. If you are looking for a team that will remind you why you love sports, you may end up cheering for Ralphie the Buffalo to run.
These days, Colorado is more than a cool mascot.