BOULDER — At the end of a frigid, frustrating, downcast day, Brenden Rice managed to crack a small smile.
Describing his 81-yard punt return for a touchdown near the end of the first half, the Colorado Buffaloes freshman quipped: “I cut downfield heading towards the (punter). Hopefully, I can slip by him because I know if I get tackled by the (punter) my teammates are going to talk crap to me all the time.”
There’s no danger of that now, not after his electrifying performance Saturday at snow-covered Folsom Field.
Rice, the son of NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, provided a ray of light in the Buffs’ 38-21 loss to Utah. He added a 61-yard reception for a touchdown on the first play of the third quarter, putting CU ahead 21-10.
The last time a Buffs player scored a touchdown in the same game via a pass reception and return? That would be wide receiver Walter Stanley against Texas Tech on Sept. 12, 1981. Stanley caught two TD passes and returned a punt for a score that day.
Adding a bit of spice to Saturday’s history: Stanley’s son, Dimitri, a sophomore wide receiver, threw key blocks to help spring Rice for both his touchdowns.
Despite his milestone performance, Rice was mostly dejected after the No. 21 Buffs lost for the first time this season, falling to 4-1 and missing out on a chance at a Pac-12 conference title.
“I have to say it kind of hurts,” he said. “We were doing so well all season with our drive and passion in the locker room. At the end of the day, you have got to be afraid of losing as much as you want to win.”
First-year coach Karl Dorrell was impressed by Rice, though he made it clear that it’s only the beginning of what he expects from the freshman.
“It was fun to see him get a chance to make a few plays,” Dorrell said. “He’s a good young player; he’s a player that we feel he has a lot of upside. He’s trending up and he’s getting better week after week.”
But, as coaches usually do, Dorrell sees room for improvement.
“I thought he had a dropped pass today though, so I won’t be too high on his bandwagon,” Dorrell said. “But he’s making really good progress. We’re happy he’s getting acclimated into the college level of play. He’ll continue to get better.”
Rice’s 61-yarder was his lone reception of the game. For the season, he has six catches for 120 yards and two TDs.
The freshman has certainly impressed senior wide receiver K.D. Nixon.
“He reminds me of Laviska (Shenault Jr.),” Nixon said, referring to the former Buffs receiver who now plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “He’s big, strong, fast, confident. That’s what I try to tell him every time I talk to him.
“I tell him to believe in himself. That’s all it takes for opportunities to happen, just to believe in yourself. When receivers get opportunities, we step up to the plate. All it is is just believing in yourself, having fun, and having confidence.”
Rice’s 81-yard score was the first return for a TD by CU since Sept. 9, 2017, when Shenault scooped up a fumble and returned it 55 yards vs. Texas Tech. It was the longest TD kick return since Ben Kelly had an 88-yard score against Boston College in the 1999 Insight.com Bowl.