By Arnie Stapleton, AP sports writer
BOULDER — Steven Montez bounced back from a benching a week earlier and threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns in Colorado’s 44-28 win over California on Saturday when the school retired the jersey of the late Rashaan Salaam, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner.
The Buffaloes (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) capped their homecoming win with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by junior free safety Nick Fisher with 2:34 remaining that made it 44-21.
Fisher caught Ross Bowers’ pass nine yards deep in the north end zone for his first career interception and sidestepped a couple of Golden Bears near the goal line and avoided another tackler at about the Bears 30-yard line before cruising down the dejected California sideline for the school’s fourth 100-yard pick-6.
Montez, who completed 20 of 26 passes, also ran for a score and Phillip Lindsay ran for 161 yards as the Buffaloes kept alive their hopes of reaching back-to-back bowls for the first time in more than a decade.
The Golden Bears (4-5, 1-5) saw their postseason hopes fade despite a three-TD day by Bowers, who was 29-of-52 for 359 yards.
Montez was briefly knocked from the game after a late helmet-to-helmet hit from linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk on Colorado’s first drive of the second half. Sam Noyer, who replaced Montez for the second half of the Buffs’ 28-0 loss at Washington State last week, came in and fumbled away the snap on fourth-and-inches from midfield.
Montez returned on Colorado’s next drive and later threw a 23-yard pass to Jay MacIntyre to make it 34-14.
Montez threw for 242 yards and a pair of TDs in the first half as Colorado raced to a 27-14 halftime lead. He connected with Devin Ross from 22 yards out and with Shay Fields from 65 yards.
His 65-yarder capped a 96-yard drive for a 21-7 lead and it included a 21-yard dart to Ross on third-and-11 from his own 3.
California converted just 1 of 5 third downs before going on a 17-play, 79-yard touchdown drive in which the Golden Bears converted four third downs in five chances and followed their one failure with a fourth-down conversion.
The payoff came on Bowers’ 27-yard touchdown toss to Kanawai Noa into double coverage on third-and-14. That got the Golden Bears to within 10 points.
Noa also caught a 15-yard TD pass from fellow receiver Vic Wharton III.
REMEMBERING RASHAAN: The Buffs retired Salaam’s No. 19 jersey between the first and second quarters. The 1994 Heisman Trophy winner took his life in 2016 at a park two miles from the stadium where he carved his name into the school’s record books as one of the greatest players in the program’s history.
The Chicago Bears made him a first-round draft pick in 1995, and he rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns in winning NFC Rookie of the Year honors. Injuries cut short his career, however, as he scored three rushing TDs in the next two years in Chicago and played his last NFL game with the Cleveland Browns in 1999.
California: The Golden Bears fell flat in their first visit to Boulder since 2013, which began a stretch in which they’ll play three of four games on the road. They were hoping for a better showing coming off a game in which they scored 44 points and had 31 first downs.
Colorado: The Buffaloes set themselves up nicely for the stretch run with the confidence-building win. They get three chances for a sixth win that would send them to back-to-back bowls for the first time since 2004-05.
California: The Golden Bears host Oregon State in their final home game.
Colorado: The Buffaloes travel to Arizona State in search of their bowl-clinching sixth win.
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