1986 – Colorado v. Nebraska - Preface
In September 1989, almost three years after the Colorado/Nebraska game of 1986, Brad and I traveled to Seattle, Washington for the Colorado/Washington game. Colorado was in the midst of the most tumultuous season in its 100-year history, entering the game undefeated, but also on the heels of the loss of quarterback Sal Aunese, who had succumbed to cancer the week before. The game story will be retold in the appropriate chapter, but the relevance of that game to 1986 came just after the 1989 Washington game had ended.
It had rained for much of the second half, so, by the end of the game, the sellout crowd had thinned to a thousand or so Buff fans, soaked but jubilant over the Buffs’ 45-28 victory, separated only by a few pockets of the true Husky faithful. Walking through the parking lot after the game, Brad and I encountered a group of young Buff fans gathered around a van. They warmly greeted the sight of the black and gold we were wearing, and Brad and I in turn hailed the meeting of fellow travelers. In our brief conversation, Brad and I learned that this group of five or six were all pledges from the same CU fraternity; freshman who had driven all night from Boulder just to attend the game.
Walking away, Brad and I chuckled to ourselves as to the exuberance of the “youth” we had encountered. Then it hit us: These Buff fans had begun their college careers in 1989, and had never seen the Buffs lose.
Deep breath. They had never seen the Buffs lose.
For two fans who had endured the depths of pathetic 1-10 seasons, this was unfathomable.
Living through those tough times, though, was what made the 1986 upset win over Nebraska so special. For most of the next 15 seasons, there would be very few games which the Buffs were not favored to win, and hardly any games in which Colorado was not given at least a reasonable chance at victory.
This was not the case on October 25, 1986.
October 25, 1986 – Intro
The Buffs entered the 1986 game against Nebraska 2-4. Wins against Missouri and Iowa State had Colorado 2-0 in Big Eight play, but this was as much due to scheduling as to any improvement by the Buffs. Nebraska, ranked third in the nation, was not impressed by Colorado’s unblemished conference record. The Cornhuskers were also 2-0 in conference, but were 6-0 overall, having won their first six games by an average score of 41-16. If that wasn’t daunting enough, the Buffs were faced with the fact that no Nebraska squad had lost to Colorado since 1967. The last win by the Buffs in Boulder had come way back on October 22, 1960, when David Eisenhower was still President.
I had been in Boulder for six of those losses. Now a third year law school student, I was not confident that this would be the year that things would change.
Nor was the media. With improvement and national rankings came more media attention, and now, with television contracts, Colorado is a fixture on television. Even blow-out games are televised, at least regionally. Such was not the case in 1986. Far from the public eye, the game was not on television anywhere. Not in Denver, Lincoln, or anywhere else. (ABC was showing the game between 6th-ranked Penn State and 2nd-ranked Alabama).
No one foresaw the history which was to unfold.
As gametime neared on the afternoon of Saturday, October 25th, 1986, Brad and I, along with a few other stalwarts from the law school, took our place in the Senior Section. We did not arrive in time for the pre-game pep rally, which included music and discount coupons for concessions. Colorado Governor Richard Lamm had even gotten into the act, putting out an Executive Order proclaiming October 25, 1986, as “Gold Rush Saturday”.
We had excellent seats – just past the 40-yard line, about 10 rows up, right behind the Colorado bench. A crowd of 52,440, seventh-largest crowd ever at Folsom to that time, crammed into the stadium on a warm October afternoon to see how long Colorado could stay with the mighty Cornhuskers.
October 25, 1986 – The game
Colorado received the opening kickoff, and the Buffs’ wishbone had some early success. Colorado recorded a first down and moved the ball out to the CU 40-yard line before being forced to punt. Colorado’s All-American candidate, punter Barry Helton, pinned the Cornhuskers back on their 11-yard line for their first possession. After picking up a first down and a total of 20 yards, Nebraska was also forced to punt. A poor punt by Husker John Kroeker and a good return by Colorado’s Drew Ferrando gave the Buffs great field position – 1st-and-ten at the Cornhusker 48 yard line.
The Buffs could not capitalize, however, and punted again after gaining only seven yards. The Colorado defense, as it would all day against the vaunted Nebraska attack, stopped quarterback Steve Taylor and the Husker option without a first down. In his second attempt, Husker punter Kroeker was even less successful, shanking a fifteen yard punt into the Nebraska sideline. Buff fans went nuts, as Colorado again started a drive in Husker territory, this time taking the first snap from the NU 47-yard line.
This time the Buffs would capitalize, though not without help from the visitors. Not once, but twice in succession, the Cornhuskers were drawn offsides. First-and-ten, now from the 37. On Colorado’s next play, junior quarterback Mark Hatcher ran the triple option left, pitching the ball to freshman halfback O.C. Oliver as Oliver reached the sidelines. Loss of two; second-and-12 from the 39.
In the stands, the grumbling began. Ever the pessimist, I feared that we were wasting another golden opportunity. Twice inside Cornhusker territory, but four plays from scrimmage over two drives had netted five yards. Can’t waste chances to score, I remember mumbling to myself.
The Buffs did not. On the next snap, Hatcher again ran the option, this time to the right sideline. As two Huskers were dragging him down five yards behind the line of scrimmage, Hatcher pitched the ball to …. JEFF CAMPBELL! REVERSE! Campbell, the walk-on freshman split end, raced down the left sideline with a convoy of blockers in front. Twenty yard line, fifteen, ten, five …. Campbell leaped for the goalline as he was being tackled …. TOUCHDOWN! TOUCHDOWN, COLORADO!
In the stands, we could not yell loud enough or jump high enough. The scoreboard read 7-0 Colorado, with 4:39 left in the first quarter. True, we had gone up 7-0 in the first quarter in Lincoln the year before (only to finally succumb 17-7), but any lead, any time, over the hated Cornhuskers was special. No one in the stands was so overcome with emotion as to boast that the Buffs had obtained a lead they would never surrender, but no one at the time knew how memorable this day would become.
Back on offense, Nebraska lined up after the kickoff, determined to restore order. But it was the Colorado defense which set the tone, forcing a fumbled pitch on third down. Nebraska recovered, but was three-and-out for Nebraska for the second consecutive drive.
Break No. 1: No team of Colorado’s caliber and lineage could have upset an undefeated team like Nebraska without a few major breaks along the way. Colorado’s first huge break came on the ensuing Nebraska punt. Kroeker got off a good punt this time, and Jeff Campbell, the hero of moments ago, almost became the goat. Campbell caught the punt, but promptly fumbled the ball. Replays showed that it was indeed a fumble, but the linesman called Campbell down, and Colorado retained possession.
The Buffs could not capitalize on their new found fortunes, and in the span of three plays lost two yards. After a Helton punt, Nebraska started on its own 35 yard line, and this time would not come off the field in three plays. On second down, quarterback Steve Taylor raced for 17 yards to the Colorado 48-yard line. Add 15 yards for a late hit, and suddenly the Huskers were 1st-and-ten at the Buffs’ 33-yard line. The quarter came to an end with Nebraska 2nd-and-eight at the Colorado 31.
It had been a fun quarter, but now reality was setting in. The powerful Nebraska offense, averaging over ten points per quarter for the season, could not long be denied.
Or could it?
Time for a reality check. Colorado was up 7-0 against Nebraska? Couldn’t last, we thought.
First play of the second quarter, Taylor dropped back and threw to the left flat downfield …. INTERCEPTED! Senior right cornerback Solomon Wilcots caught the errant pass at the Buffs’ 20 and returned the ball to the 25 yard line.
Ten rows up in the Senior Section, a few true believers began to emerge. Perhaps fate had played a hand this day. Perhaps it was Colorado’s day to exorcise the demons. As for me, I was elated by Wilcots’ pick, but there were almost 45 minutes to go. Far from celebration time.
Pessimism seemed well founded after the Buffs again went three plays and out. A good Helton punt pushed the Cornhuskers back to their 20-yard line, but the cheers and exhortations yelled out to the Buff defense as they took the field now sounded more like wishful pleas.
The Cornhuskers’ next play from scrimmage is memorable … for what did not happen. Nebraska ran a reverse of their own, with wingback Dana Brinson running for seven yards. The play went for only seven yards because junior safety Mickey Pruitt stayed home, fought off a blocker, and held up Brinson until help could arrive. What could have been a long gainer resulted only in second-and-three at the Nebraska 27 yard line.
The Buffs defense again answered the call. The next two plays netted a loss of two yards, and Nebraska was forced to punt for the fourth time in the game. Colorado went nowhere with its drive, and Helton’s punt was returned by Dana Brinson some twenty yards to the Nebraska 38. A fifteen yard late hit gave Nebraska the ball at the Colorado 47 yard line.
Up in the press box, KOA radio announcer Larry Zimmer noted to his listening audience: “Nebraska is at the Colorado 47 to start the drive“. The emphasis was on the last phrase, with the tone one of impending doom.
We knew it had been too good to last.
Nebraska garnered a first down on a pass from Taylor to I-back Keith Jones. After no gain of first down, the Huskers faced second-and-ten from the Colorado 32. Taylor again went back to pass. This time, Taylor was pressured by blitzing Mickey Pruitt. Spinning away, the quarterback was then hit by freshman defensive lineman Arthur Walker …. FUMBLE! Curt Koch finally fell on the ball all the way back on the Nebraska 45 yard line.
Break No. 2 The Nebraska fumble, coming after gaining great field position, had not only stymied a Cornhusker drive, it set up the Colorado offense in enemy territory.
Coach Bill McCartney was criticized often over the course of his career by many (myself included) for being too conservative on offense. A wishbone attack lends itself to ball control, but if ever there was an opportunity to go for the jugular, this was it – Crowd in a frenzy; Nebraska punch drunk and reeling; and the ball on the Cornhusker side of the field.
But Bill was Bill. Three runs up the middle, two by fullback Anthony Weatherspoon (a.k.a. “Spooooon” to the crowd), netted only five yards. Fourth-and-five at the Nebraska forty. Out trotted junior kicker Dave DeLine to attempt a 57-yard field goal. DeLine had been successful on only four of ten attempts coming into the game, and had been on the verge of replacement before connecting on a 47-yarder against Iowa State.
Moans from the crowd. An opportunity lost for the Buffs.
This was the Buffs’ day, however. DeLine booted the 57 yard kick though the uprights, to the amazement and joy of the evermore voluminous Colorado faithful. 10-0! A ten point lead, with only 4:33 remaining in the first half! Even Colorado couldn’t blow a lead of ten points before half. If we could just hold on, the day would be memorable. If nothing else, the band at least would be receiving its most raucous applause in years (Author’s note: if you haven’t ever noticed, the attention and reception the band receives at halftime of most college football games is almost directly proportional to the success of the home team in the first half).
Nebraska was forced to start its next drive at its own 16, thanks to fine downfield coverage on the kickoff. On first down, a halfback option pass fell incomplete. Not much in the video replay to watch, but to me it was a turning point in the game. My memory of this play was a little voice in my head screaming: “Ohmigod. OH-MI-GOD! A halfback option?!? From Nebraska?!? They don’t know what to run against our defense!”. Mighty Nebraska, undefeated and scoring at will against its first six opponents, was here in Boulder, with only a few minutes remaining in the second quarter of a game against a 2-4 team, and the Cornhuskers were resorting to gadget plays. That Coloirado was using trick plays was to be expected; for Nebraska to be using them in a 10-0 game was a sign: Colorado’s game plan had the Cornhuskers confused.
A small swell of confidence began to grow.
Two more plays netted only one yard. Nebraska was again forced to punt. This was the fifth punt of the first half for a team averaging fewer than four punts per game coming in. A long punt put the Buffs at their own 33 yard line. Just run out the clock, we thought. 10-0 at half is more than we could have ever hoped for.
The demons which had led to eighteen straight defeats to Nebraska would not go quietly, however. On first down, quarterback Mark Hatcher pitched the ball to O.C. Oliver. Oliver took one step …. FUMBLE! In the broadcast booth, the lament of Larry Zimmer spoke for us all: “that’s the one thing the Buffaloes didn’t want to do!!”
Nebraska ball. First-and-ten at the Colorado 27 yard line. A wave of pessimism fell over the stadium. ”I knew it was too good to last.” “Why can’t we beat these guys?”
Fortunately, the Buffs’ defense was not within earshot.
First down. Keith Jones stopped for a loss of three by linebackers Darin Schubeck and David Tate. Second down. Taylor’s pass knocked down at the five yard line. Third down. Taylor pass into the endzone was long and out of everyone’s reach.
Three plays. Minus three yards. The Buffs had held!! When kicker Dale Klein’s kick went wide right, it was almost too much to believe. A turnover deep in Colorado territory, and the Buffs had not surrendered a point.
The Buffs ran out the remaining minute or so on the clock, and there it was: Halftime. Colorado 10, Nebraska 0.
Nebraska’s halftime statistics looked like misprints: Taylor, eight carries for 9 yards; Brinson, two carries for 2 yards; and Jones, eight carries for -3 yards. This from a Nebraska offense averaging 335.2 yards and 5.5 yards per carry coming into the contest. In the stands, we all knew that Bill was often out-coached at halftime, and Nebraska would get the ball to start the second half. All we could do was hold our breath and pray.
At the start of the third quarter, though, it looked as if it was Colorado which had come up with the adjustments, not Nebraska. The Cornhuskers could only muster one first down before being stopped at their 40 yard line. The crowd, excited before, was now really into it. The Buffs’ offense, for its part, put together its first sustained drive of the game. From its own 35 yard line, Colorado marched: Oliver for 13 yards to the 48; “Spoon” up the middle for four; Oliver for four more; Hatcher for more yards to the Cornhusker 40, first down! A pass interference call on a short pass to tight end Jon Embree provided a new set of downs from the Cornhusker 38 yard line. Oliver then took a pitch down to the 32. After a gain of a yard to the 31, the Buffs faced a third-and-two. “Spoon” up the middle again, this time for three yards and a first down at the 27.
I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was usually the other way around to start the second half: Colorado struggling on offense; the opposition marching down the field against the mismanaged Buffs’ defense. This was the best of both worlds. Not only had the Cornhuskers failed to restore order to the game, the Buffs were driving for another score, and taking time off of the clock to boot!
First-and-ten at the 27 of Nebraska. A Hatcher keeper was stopped for no gain, but a facemask penalty gave the Buffs a first-and-five from the 22. Weatherspoon carry through the middle, down to the 18. Second-and-one.
Nothing could stop us now!
With second and short, Coach Bill defied his own reputation. A halfback pass from Michael Marquez to Jon Embree was broken up in the end zone. Even “conservative” Bill was mixing it up. On third down, normalcy was restored, with Weatherspoon going up the gut for two yards and a first down at the Nebraska 16 yard line. The drive had been sustained by a third consecutive conversion on third down, and the clock to continued to roll …
Then it happened. The demons arose from their slumber. Weatherspoon was given a handoff by Hatcher. A hit in the line popped the ball into the air … fumble. Recovered by Nebraska. The drive that seemed destined to result in a Colorado touchdown had been thwarted. The Cornhuskers had been given new life.
The defense, though, had not come this far to be denied. After moving the ball out to their 27, the Huskers resorted to another trick play, a double reverse to wingback Dana Brinson. It started as a big gain, as Brinson came around to the right, towards the Colorado sideline. Brinson seemed like he was heading right for us up in the stands at the 40 yard line when he was hit at the 35 by free safety Rodney Rodgers. The football squirted loose and rolled free near the 40. The play unfolding right in front of us and the Colorado bench, thousands screamed in unison “BALL!!!!” (as if our pointing and yells would be of some value to the players on the field).
With or without our assistance, Mickey Pruitt fell on the ball at the Nebraska 40 yard line. With the play directly in front of us, those of us in the Senior Section were the closest witnesses to the Buffs’ good fortune. HERE WE GO! Nebraska had been stuffed. It was time to go in for the kill.
First down from the 40. Oliver slashes left for eight to the 32 – flag! Late hit! The referee marched off 15 more yards. First-and-ten from the Nebraska 18. Back inside the Cornhuskers’ 20 with a first down for a second time in the third quarter. The Buffs would not denied this time, would they?
Well, yes they would.
This time, though, it was not a turnover. On first down, Hatcher attempted to run right, but was pushed back for a loss of ten. Two more plays on got the Buffs only as far as the 25 yard line. From there, DeLine missed a 42-yard field goal attempt. Opportunity lost.
Still the score was unchanged: 10-0, Colorado, and the third quarter was running out.
Nebraska’s offense, though, still could not figure out the Buffs’ defense. After a twelve yard completion for a first down, the Huskers could only muster a fouryard run and two incomplete passes before being stopped. The Colorado defense left the field to a well deserved standing ovation.
Colorado started it’s next drive at it’s own 24 yard line, and the situation deteriorated from the outset. After gaining no yards on a pitch to Oliver, the Buffs were slapped with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, taking Colorado back to the 12 yard line. From there, Oliver was stuffed for a loss of two yards. On the next play, Hatcher kept the ball, running off of left tackle. Apparently stopped after a gain of three, Hatcher was stripped of the ball …. FUMBLE! The Cornhuskers swarmed to the ball and recovered. Coach McCartney and tight end Jon Embree protested vehemently that Hatcher was down, but to no avail.
First down, Cornhuskers, at the Buff 14 yard line.
What had been elation, as the Buffs had flirted with scores inside the Nebraska 20 yard line just a few moments before, was now depression. Even the spirited Buff defense could not be expected to hold the Huskers from scoring so close to the goalline. The Colorado fans cheered on the defense as they ran onto the field, but it was the multitudes of Nebraska fans in attendance who were more vocal. The fact that the thousands of red-clad Husker faithful were being heard for the first time in the game was of little consolation.
It took only three plays for Nebraska to break through, as quarterback Steve Taylor scored on two yard run to make the score 10-7. With the touchdown, red and white balloons were released by the fans of Nebraska in celebration of their team’s first points. This led to some derisive comments from the Senior Section. “Took you long enough!”, “We’re still ahead!”, but these jeers were just whistles in the graveyard. We knew what had seemed a victory which had seemed so obtainable a few minutes before was slipping away.
One minute left to play in the third quarter, and it was 1984 and 1985 all over again. Close, but not enough.
Or so it seemed. Freshman halfback M.J. Nelson gave the Buffs an immediate lift by returning the Nebraska kickoff out to the Colorado 38 yard line. On first down, Hatcher kept the ball, running left for ten. First down at the Colorado 48 as the third quarter came to a close.
Colorado 10, Nebraska 7, after 45 minutes. Could the Buffs hang on?
“Conservative” Bill McCartney started the fourth stanza by going for broke. On a pitch right to O.C. Oliver, the halfback pulled up …. an option pass! Oliver lofted the ball downfield to the 25 yard line, where junior split end Lance Carl was waiting. The beaten Nebraska safety leaped in desperation to try and deflect the pass, but it fell instead to Carl, in stride. Carl danced into the endzone …. TOUCHDOWN, COLORADO! Eight seconds into the fourth quarter, and the Buffs were back in front by ten, 17-7. 14:52 left in the game, and every Buff fan was to become a clockwatcher for the rest of the game.
The YouTube video of the play …
Dana Brinson brought the ensuing kickoff back to the Husker 30 yard line. “DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!” exhorted the crowd, but the Nebraska offense had tasted success and was determined to score. After a 24-yard run by Taylor, fullback Tyreese Knox rumbled for 31 more yards down to the Buffs’ 25 yard line. Taylor again, down to the 15. Just like that, Nebraska had rolled down the field. The high octane offense which had been stuffed by the Buffs for three quarters seemingly had it in gear for the stretch run.
Break No. 3. This was crucial. On the next play, quarterback Taylor rolled right and threw to the end zone. There he found tight end Todd Millikan, who, fortunately for the Buffs, did his best Jackie Smith imitation. (Jackie Smith, as many football fans know, was a Hall of Fame caliber tight end, who played most of his career for the St. Louis Cardinals. Sadly, though, he is most often remembered for a play in the Super Bowl when we was a member of the Dallas Cowboys. Late in the game, Smith was open in the end zone. Roger Staubach’s pass was on target, but bounced off of Smith’s chest. The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal, and went on to lose the Super Bowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
Millikan had the ball in his chest in the end zone, but the ball squirted out. Instead of being a 17-14 game with eons of time left, the Huskers had to re-set at second-and-ten. After a two yard pass to Knox, the Huskers faced a key play. Third-and-eight from the Buffs’ 12 yard line. Taylor set up in the pocket to pass, but was quickly swarmed under. Hit by Mickey Pruitt, the ball came loose, but it was ruled an incomplete pass. Fourth down! Dale Kline made the 29 yard field goal, but the major bullet had been averted.
After a touchback on the kickoff, the Colorado offense took the field with one task in mind: Ball control, resulting in a score to push the advantage back beyond a touchdown. Seemed easy enough on paper; the trick was to pull it off against the Nebraska defense. Hatcher for six; then “Spoon” bulled his way across the thirty for a first down. On the next play, Hatcher dropped back to pass. Pressured, he lofted the ball up the middle. Just over the fingertips of two Cornhusker defenders, the ball floated into the waiting arms of tight end Jon Embree. Twenty five yards to the Husker 45-yard line. First down! A drive, but it was still a one score game, and there were still 11 minutes to go.
Hatcher then carried for three yards, and it was Jeff Campbell time again. End around, from almost the exact same spot on the field as the first quarter touchdown. This time, Campbell was pushed out of bounds at the Husker 25 after picking up 15 crucial yards.
Three plays later, it was fourth-and-nine from the nineteen. Steve DeLine stepped onto the field to attempt a 36 yard field goal. Everyone in the stadium held their breath as DeLine, now successful on only five-of-11 kicks on the season, stepped into the ball. The kick was true, and the lead was back to ten. 20-10, with 7:44 left in the game.
A ten point lead was much better than seven, but no one was leaving.
The kickoff return after the Buffs’ field goal had a little bit of everything. Dana Brinson took the ball deep, seemed to be stopped near the 15 yard line, got away, ran up the sideline, and, as he was pushed out of bounds, fumbled the ball into the air. Perhaps still high on the adrenaline of kicking the field goal, Steve DeLine came out of nowhere to attempt to bat the ball back into the field of play. DeLine was unsuccessful, but in the melee, Nebraska was called for a penalty, and was forced to start the drive from their own eight yard line.
Now we have got them!, or so we thought. On first down, Taylor passed to Brinson coming across the middle. Brinson raced toward the sideline, being stopped only after he had reached the Nebrasks 45 yard line. ”Aarrgh!” went the cry in the stands. “This is too easy, guys!”. “C’mon, defense!” we screamed.
The Buffs responded. After an incomplete pass, the Huskers gained five to midfield. Third-and-five. Taylor faded back, but could fine no teammate open. Pressured, Taylor finally succumbed to defensive tackles Curt Koch and Jim Smith. SACK! FOURTH DOWN! The defense had held, and precious time had been taken off of the clock.
With the punt, the Buffs took over at their 16 yard line. The Buffs went conservative, but this time no one disagreed with Coach Bill’s tactics. Three plays gained six yards, and the Helton punt went out of bounds at the Nebraska 44 yard line.
The Cornhuskers were out of options. Down ten points with less than five minutes to go, it was score or go home a loser. Taylor immediately completed a pass down to the Colorado 45 yard line. Eleven yards and a first down. Forced out of the pocket on the next play, Taylor was forced to run for no gain. Clock running. There were now under four minutes left. Another completion down to the Buff 34 yard line. Still time to pull out a dramatic comeback. After all, Nebraska was Nebraska, and Colorado was, well, Colorado.
Taylor back to pass. Looking across the middle. Pass on it’s way, down to the 23 …. but linebacker Barry Remington steps in front of the receiver …. INTERCEPTED! BUFFS’ BALL! Only 3:14 remaining.
In the stands, there was no more reason for pessimism, no more grumbling or assumptions of the worst. It had happened! The unthinkable! Colorado over Nebraska! David had beaten Goliath, and all was right with the world. Under such circumstances, one can be forgiven for forgetting oneself. As Remington intercepted the pass, the sound was incredible. The feeling was unforgettable. I jumped high into the air, placing myself and others at high risk of injury. (In the student section, you stand for the entire game. From a position of standing on a seat, jumping up is hazardous, for if you do not come down square on your seat, you could quite easily fall). At that moment, though, I didn’t care. Everyone else around me was jumping up and down, high-fiving and hugging.
While the party had begun in the stands, there was still some work to be done on the field. Colorado took some time and time-outs away from the Cornhuskers in running three plays before punting. Nebraska took over at it’s 35 yard line, but now the Cornhuskers were without any time outs, and were still down ten points. Chris Blakeman came in at quarterback for Nebraska, but had no more success than Taylor had had. After passing for a first down to the Husker 47, Blakeman was sacked way back at the Husker 33 yard line by defensive lineman Arthur Walker.
What happened next would not have happened in a bowl game or a “Game of the Year”.
With the sack, the lack of time-outs, and general disregard for that which was going on, confusion reigned. After a short completion and an incomplete pass, Blakeman completed a pass out in the flat. With less than a minute to go, the receiver ran out of bounds in order to stop the clock. One problem. It was fourth down, and the receiver stepped out of bounds short of the first down. No one immediately caught this simple fact. The bowl behind the south endzone was filled with Colorado students, primed to storm the field.
After a conference of officials, someone noted that Nebraska had failed to gain ten yards in the allotted four plays. The football was awarded to Colorado. Turned over on downs.
Sixteen seconds remained on the game clock, but it did not appear that the game would be allowed to finish. After the referee signaled Colorado ball, the students in the bowl flooded the south end zone. Destination: Goalpost! The problem was that there was still time on the clock. After a fifteen yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was assessed to the Buffaloes, Mark Hatcher took the snap, kneeled down, and it was all over. 20-10!
The south goalpost already down, the “security” personnel formed a circle around the north goal post. It was a futile effort. Several Buff players, including David Tate and Conley Smith, assisted with the chore, and the post came down to the cheers of thousands on the field and in the stands.
I went down with Brad after the final gun (I remember yelling at those who ran onto the field early, my ever present pessimism fearful that somehow, someway, some sort of forfeit could be assessed against the Buffs for failing to complete the game ). Walking around on the field after the game, I tried to soak up as much of what was going on around me as I could. We had been down on the field before, as Folsom was a favorite place for touch and frisbee football, but this was quite different. Hoarse from cheering, exhausted from the emotion, all I could do – all any of us could do – was to try and revel in the moment.
In the locker room coach Bill McCartney tried to quiet the troops for some post game wisdom. McCartney, who had four years earlier named Nebraska as Colorado’s rival, to the ridicule and snickering of many, could only get out the following before being drowned out in cheers: “Men, this is as sweet as it gets!”
To the media, McCartney was more restrained. “I’m really happy for the kids. I’m really happy for the people in the community. I’m really happy for those who have suffered so long.”
For the players, it was sweet justice. Beating Nebraska was the ultimate. Linebacker Eric McCarty, who had been one of the in-state heroes who had signed on with Colorado in the dark days of the early 1980′s: “This is why I came here. This was a dream game. We had a sunny day then it clouded up and at the end the sun came poking through after we had won the game.” Tight end Jon Embree, another local star who stayed home to play for the Buffs: “This is the reason I came here, to beat Nebraska. This made up for the last four years I have been here. This is just forever, man. This is it!”
October 25, 1986 – The aftermath
Halloween in Boulder used to be a celebration above and beyond the call of duty. Scaled down in recent years after a number of alcohol-related arrests and a bad reputation, the Mall Crawl associated with Halloween in the 1980′s was a sight to behold. That the game in 1986 was the same weekend as the unofficial kickoff to the Halloween celebration just made a huge party that much more euphoric. Portions of the uprooted goalposts made all of the Greek parties, and the score, “20-10″, was left on the scoreboard in the stadium through the weekend.
After being witness to such a great game, the true fan craves only one thing: to re-live the moment. Sportscenter on ESPN was mandatory watching that Saturday night, as were all of the local news telecasts. The main problem: no one had a tape of the game. No television station had more than sideline shots. How to preserve and savior history?
Entrepreneurs to the rescue.
KOA, a major radio station in Denver, had carried the game. Colorado, of course, had its game films. Soon, a forty-five minute slice of heaven was created. For only $19.95 (and yes, I paid it without hesitation), you could own a patchwork of the game. Most of the game’s action was preserved, with the play-by-play of Larry Zimmer and the commentary of Kent Groshong spliced in over the game film. Some plays were omitted, and the pause between plays was removed entirely. Still, there were occasional replays, and some plays were shown again in slow motion for more dramatic effect (guess which two plays received the most attention).
My favorite parts of the tape were two pieces of commentary by play-by-play man Larry Zimmer. The first came during a lull in the action, where he referred to the Nebraska Cornhuskers as the “Nebraska Bugeaters”, which was one of the first nicknames for the hated Cornhuskers. The second was toward the end of the game, when a camera shot picked up thousands of red-clad Nebraska fans leaving en masse. The commentary:
“They (Colorado players, coaches, and fans) have waited a long time for this. So many times, the red flood has come into Folsom Field, and they have gone back across the border to the north a winner. It won’t be this time.”
(Author’s note: one other statement proved memorable. At one instance, Larry Zimmer refers to the referee as “J.C. Loudermilk”, immediately catching himself and stating correctly: “Louderback”. Why memorable? Four years later, the very same referee was to be the referee in the infamous Colorado/Missouri fifth down game at Columbia.)
While many other games in my decades of watching Colorado football have given me sweet memories, none are greater than the feeling we had on the afternoon of Saturday, October 25, 1986.