Oregon was on the doorstep as Colorado clung to a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Ducks quarterback Dakota Prukop sent a pass into the end zone for the go-ahead score, but Ahkello Witherspoon jumped the route for a game-saving interception.
The takeaway secured Colorado's 3-1 start in a year where the program returned to relevance on the college football landscape.
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"That was the signature play since I've been here," said Mike McIntyre, who's been the Buffaloes head coach since 2013.
Colorado went on to enjoy a 10-2 campaign as the Pac-12 South Champions. Witherspoon led the nation with 19 pass breakups, went on to stand out during the pre-draft process and was ultimately taken in the third round (66th pick) by the San Francisco 49ers.
McIntyre has known the 6-foot-3 cornerback since he was a junior in high school. At that time, Witherspoon was only 5-foot-9 and a meager 150 pounds. McIntyre, then the coach at San Jose State, passed on Witherspoon and the corner stayed in his hometown at Sacramento City College for freshman year. A growth spurt put Witherspoon back on McIntyre's radar, and he eventually signed with the Buffaloes in 2014.
McIntyre called his former defensive back a "late bloomer," but noted that Witherspoon's size and footwork are a rare combination.
"He has the quickness that he had when he was 5-foot-9 – being able to bend his hips, flip his hips, bend his body – so he's a tall guy who can really rip and move," McIntyre said in his scouting report. "It's very unusual. He has a long, long reach and can really track a ball. He has great ball skills."
The knock on Witherspoon coming out of college was his lack of physicality. A few things contribute to that, McIntyre said. For starters, Witherspoon has only played football since high school. He was a multi-sport star at Christian Brothers High School. Secondly, he's still filling out his wiry frame. The coach told 49ers fans to give the corner 18 months to work with the team's strength and conditioning staff.
Then Witherspoon will have the strength to match his skillset as a cover corner.
"He has a lot of confidence when he's out there covering," McIntyre said. "He enjoys that battle. Some guys are afraid of it; he wants quarterbacks to throw it his way. And if he gets beat, he'll bounce right back. He's not going to shy away, which I think is a critical factor."
John Lynch referenced his conversations with McIntrye after the 49ers selected Witherspoon on Day 2 of the 2017 NFL Draft. San Francisco's GM said that McIntyre's insight proved to be very helpful in the 49ers evaluation process.
"He wanted to know where I think he's headed," McIntyre said. "He wanted to find out about his work ethic. He wanted to find out about his football intelligence. He wanted to know what his tool set was.
"Every team is looking for the tall corner who can bend and move."
Witherspoon will be a player to watch in order to see how he develops under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley.