Liufau’s tough leadership gives Colorado early edge

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — From the sounds of it, Colorado senior quarterback Sefo Liufau already had a big fan in Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.

And the admiration only went up Saturday, as Liufau staked the Buffaloes to an early and stunning 21-7 lead and even tried to play through a right ankle injury.

“Utmost respect for Sefo and the game he played and the player he is,” Harbaugh said Saturday following No. 4 Michigan’s come-from-behind, 45-28 victory at Michigan Stadium.

Liufau finished 16-for-25 for 246 yards and three touchdowns, none more impressive than the last one.

After Michigan rallied to take a 24-21 lead at halftime, Colorado got the ball to start the second half. Michigan’s defense had gotten its act together in the second quarter, but Liufau sent a stern message to start the third quarter.

Starting at his own 20, Liufau found Devin Ross for a 6-yard gain, and then he rushed for a 4-yard gain and a first down.

On that play, though, Chris Wormley delivered a smashing hit, turning Liufau’s ankle.

How did he respond?

On the next play, he found junior wide receiver Shay Fields for a 70-yard touchdown pass to give Colorado back the lead, 28-24.

On that pass he was hit again, by Ryan Glasgow.

“Ankle injury, looked pretty serious,” Harbaugh said. “He hops up and kind of drifts to his right and throws a post route that is as good a post route as you can possibly throw.”

Said Glasgow: “I was a little more upset with the fact we gave up the touchdown than the fact he was laying on the ground.”

Play was stalled before the PAT, as Liufau — who owns dozens of quarterback records at Colorado — hobbled off the field, and immediately went to get his ankle taped.

After Michigan needed just two plays and 46 seconds to score a touchdown and go back ahead, Liufau went back onto the field.

One incomplete pass later he was down again, after taking another hit.

The next play was an incomplete pass. And on the third play, he was sacked for an 8-yard loss by Glasgow and Mike McCray. And that was the end of his day.

“I know when me and McCray hit him,” Glasgow said, “he let out a little squeal of pain, and then it was over from there.”

Liufau, 21, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder from Tacoma, Washington, said the decision to come out was 50-50 his and the coaching staff’s.

The reality was, he couldn’t push off on his legs, and he couldn’t move.

He said the touchdown pass to Fields was all arms.

Once he left the game, Colorado didn’t score again.

“I think, ‘devastating,’ ” Liufau said, when asked to describe what it was like having to watch the conclusion of the game from the sideline. “It’s a little overdramatic, but I can’t really find another word right now. It just hurts to work really hard in the offseason and kind of have something hold you back, especially when you want to be really competitive and play.

“I guess ‘frustrating’ is a better word, really frustrated I wasn’t able to get out there and play with my teammates.”

It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though.

“I mean, I’m always impressed with Sefo,” said Fields, who caught four passes for 99 yards. “That’s why he’s one of our leaders. If he can go, he can go.

“He’s still going to try, regardless. That’s just him being the heart of a lion.”

After Liufau departed, redshirt freshman Steven Montez took over — and while he has a strong arm in his own right, he wasn’t really unleashed.

His passes were mostly short, quick attempts, and he finished 0-for-7.

Colorado instead turned to a running game that gained 64 yards, the heavy majority of those coming in the first half.

It’s unclear the extent of Liufau’s injury. Tests were scheduled to be conducted upon his return to campus.

“We’ll know how severe it is after he gets through tonight,” said coach Mike MacIntyre, whose Buffaloes fell to 2-1 ahead of next week’s Pac-12 opener against Oregon.

Liufau was sacked twice, and hit several more times.

There also was a hit of note early in the second quarter. On second-and-7 from the Colorado 48, Liufau completed a pass in the backfield to Phillip Lindsay. Liufau was hit as he released the ball, and then again when he was on the ground, prompting the officials to throw a flag for a seemingly late hit.

After discussion, though, the penalty was waved off, Liufau threw an incompletion on the next pass, Colorado botched a punt and two plays later, Michigan’s Jehu Chesson rushed 17 yards for a touchdown to get the Wolverines within 21-14.

That was a frustrating moment in the game, MacIntyre conceded.

“Extremely,” MacIntyre said. “I have no idea why it was picked up. The guy’s on the ground, they hit him on the ground.

“That was a big play that turned out to be a big play for them the next (series). But they picked it up.”