The Nebraska Cornhuskers had just as tough of a tuneup for the Big 12 championship game as No. 3 Texas did one day earlier.
Nebraska struggled on offense but thanks to touchdowns on a punt return and an interception, the Cornhuskers held off the Buffaloes 28-20 on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon at Folsom Field.
Up next is the conference championship against Texas, which had its hands full against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving before winning 49-39 to keep its national championship hopes alive.
The Cornhuskers (9-3, 6-2) already had secured the Big 12 North title, but coach Bo Pelini forbade his staff and players from even mentioning the looming game against the Longhorns in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 5 _ and for good reason.
One day after learning their embattled coach would return next season, the Buffaloes (3-9, 2-6) put up a good fight but finally fizzled in their finale of one of the most disappointing seasons in the program's history.
Dan Hawkins, who was informed on Thanksgiving that he'd be back in Boulder for a fifth year, is 16-33 with four losing seasons, a 2-20 road record and a 10-22 mark in conference play since bolting Boise State in 2006 to clean up a program tarnished during Gary Barnett's regime.
Although he's succeeded in that regard, he has lost games and fans by the bunches.
In the offseason, Hawkins talked a big game, suggesting his team should get "10 wins, no excuses."
Many alumni and fans figured the failure to come anywhere close to that would cost the coach his job. But athletic director Mike Bohn decided to give him another year rather than a pink slip and a $3.1 million buyout, and he informed the players after their walkthrough on Thanksgiving Day.
If the timing was meant in any way to inspire the Buffs, it sure worked.
But despite a tenacious defense, Colorado couldn't keep the Huskers out of the end zone.
Niles Paul's 59-yard punt return TD straight up the middle of the field put Nebraska ahead 7-0 and triggered the release of hundreds of red and white balloons by their fans that made Folsom Field look and sound more like Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
Zac Lee made it 14-0 when he hit tight end Ben Cotton with a 24-yard touchdown toss on the first play of the second quarter.
The Buffs cut the deficit in half with their sole impressive drive of the first half, a 67-yarder that ended with Tyler Hansen's 2-yard TD strike to fullback Jake Behrens.
But on the Buffaloes' next drive, Hansen was picked off by safety Matt O'Hanlon, who scooted 30 yards for the score and Nebraska took a 21-7 lead into halftime.
The Buffs were driving for the tying score late in the third quarter when Nebraska nose tackle Ndamukong Suh, the anchor of the Huskers' defense, pressured Hansen into an intentional grounding call on third-and-2 from the 18.
The penalty backed the Buffs up to the 35-yard line and Aric Goodman missed a 52-yard field goal.
Goodman missed again, this time from 37 yards, after defensive tackle Eugene Goree recovered a fumble by Nebraska running back Roy Helu Jr., at midfield early in the fourth quarter.
After that, the Huskers put together their best drive of the day, a 13-play, 80-yard march that culminated with Rex Burkhead's 7-yard TD run with 6:43 left that made it 28-14.
Hansen threw a 56-yard TD pass to Scotty McKnight on the final play of the game. The Buffs didn't attempt the extra point.