November 4th – Boulder No. 2 Colorado 27, No. 3 Nebraska 21
Jim Nantz, the play-by-play announcer for CBS, introduced the Colorado/Nebraska game to the nation as follows: “Quite simply, there has never been a bigger game in Colorado’s 100-year history than this game today.” After falling behind early, the Colorado Buffaloes played like champions, prevailing over Nebraska, 27-21, taking control of the Big Eight race to the Orange Bowl, and taking dead aim at a national championship.
The game began ominously for the Buffs. In each of Colorado’s five previous games at Folsom Field in 1989, the Buffs had scored on the first drive of the game. In the opening series against the Cornhuskers, though, quarterback Darian Hagan threw an interception, only his fourth of the season. Nebraska took over at the its own 49-yard line, and quickly took the lead. On the Cornhuskers’ first play from scrimmage, quarterback Gerry Gdowski, taking advantage of the over pursuit of a pumped-up Colorado defense, threw a screen pass to Bryan Carpenter, who raced 51 yards for a score.
7-0, Nebraska, just 1:30 into the contest.
A few minutes earlier, 52,877 fans were making as much noise as twice their number. Now, with the exception of the northwest corner of the stadium where the red-clad Husker fans were dancing with glee, Folsom Field went silent. The home crowd, which had waited for decades for this moment, was stunned. All the hype, all the promise. Yet there was the score: 7-0, Nebraska, less than two minutes into the game. This couldn’t be happening!
While fear crept through the stands, confidence reigned on the Colorado bench. “After they scored on the first play,” said wide receiver Jeff Campbell after the game, “everybody kind of looked at each other like, ‘All right, Here we go.’ And from there it just snowballed.”
One series later, all was right with the world again.
Taking over at the 30-yard line, Darian Hagan electrified the crowd with a play which was becoming his trademark. Running left on the option, Hagan found room to run. Racing downfield, Hagan ran toward the only remaining obstacle in his path, a Cornhusker cornerback Jeff Campbell was trying to screen for his quarterback. At the Nebraska 40-yard line, 30 yards from the line of scrimmage, Hagan pitched the ball to tailback J.J. Flannigan, who had continued to trail Hagan downfield. Flannigan carried the ball the remaining 40 yards untouched, and Colorado was back in the game, 7-7.
Here is a YouTube video of the play:
Now the defense and special teams would rise to the occasion. After Flannigan’s touchdown, the Colorado defense quickly forced a punt. Jeff Campbell (with the aid of two blocks which could have been called illegal blocks behind the back) returned the Nebraska punt 47 yards deep into Cornhusker territory. Three plays later, Darian Hagan scored from a yard out, and Colorado had its first lead, 14-7, with 5:04 to play in the first quarter.
The remainder of the first half was largely a defensive struggle. Nebraska knotted the score at 14-all early in the second quarter, but the Buffs received a lift from kicker Ken Culbertson, who connected from 49 yards out just before half to give the Buffs a 17-14 halftime edge.
The third quarter was a slugfest, with the Buffs’ special teams again making the difference. After forcing a punt midway through the quarter, senior Jeff Campbell, who had scored on a dramatic end-around in the 1986 game against Nebraska, worked his magic against the Cornhuskers one last time. Aided by blocks which again could have brought the play back, Campbell returned a Nebraska punt 57 yards to the Cornhusker 19-yard line. Colorado pushed the ball inside the Cornhusker ten, only to then be aided by a little Folsom Field magic.
Eric Bieniemy, who had been sidelined for the previous two weeks, came into the game for his first and only appearance. A noted bulldog around the goalline, many in the crowd anticipated a Bieniemy run. Instead, the halfback took the Hagan pitch and lofted the ball towards the left goalline. The pass was intercepted right in front of the Husker faithful, but the interception was nullified by a pass interference penalty. Instead of a turnover, the Buffs had new life. A two-yard touchdown run by J.J. Flannigan immediately thereafter gave Colorado a 24-14 lead.
Late in the third, Nebraska quarterback Gerry Gdowski connected on his second scoring pass of the day, this time with Chris Garrett from 26 yards out, to pull the Cornhuskers to within three points, 24-21. The fourth quarter began with the same score, which was actually a good sign for the Buffs. Colorado came into the Nebraska game with a streak of 28 consecutive wins when leading at the end of three quarters. When the Buffs drove the length of the field and had a first-and-goal at the Nebraska two-yard line with less than ten minutes to play, Colorado seemed poised to raise the streak to 29 consecutive wins.
A penalty and two plays for losses netted the Buffs a 28-yard field goal, though, and Nebraska was still within striking range at 27-21. In a drive Jim Nantz of CBS dubbed “the drive for the national championship”, Nebraska took the ball over and methodically drove downfield. The Cornhuskers ate up the clock, and were at the Colorado 24-yard line with a third-and-four with just over four minutes to play.
A touchdown by Nebraska would send the Cornhuskers to the national title game against Notre Dame; a defensive stop would do the same for the Buffaloes.
On third down, Gdowski tried to run left, only to be hunted down by sophomore nose tackle Joel Steed. Loss of two. Fourth down, six yards to go from the Colorado 26. 3:31 remained on the game clock. The running game had not been producing for the Cornhuskers, so, after a time out, Nebraska turned to the pass. Gdowski’s pass to the left flat, though, fell harmlessly to the turf, and Colorado took over on downs. Celebrations began in the Colorado student section.
But it wasn’t over yet.
Needing only one first down to seal the win, Colorado could not produce. Needing one more big play from special teams, All-American punter Tom Rouen came through. Rouen booted a 62-yard punt into the wind, finally coming to rest at the Nebraska 12-yard line.
Time left for one last effort by Nebraska. Overcoming a fourth-and-long deep in its own territory, the Cornhuskers managed to milk the clock for nine plays, winding up at the Colorado 42-yard line with six seconds to play. One last heave by Gdowski was all that Nebraska had to try, and Gdowski did just that. Crossing over the line of scrimmage (a penalty, though no flag was ever seen), Gdowski hurled the ball into the end zone, where the pass was broken up by junior cornerback Dave McCloughan.
Game over. Colorado 27; Nebraska 21.
The goalposts were quickly torn down, as thousands of joyous Colorado fans stormed the field. Nearly crushed by the celebration, Colorado head coach Bill McCartney was able to get out a few words for the cameras as the nation looked on. “This is as sweet as it gets,” said McCartney, echoing the words he told his team after the 1986 win over Nebraska. Later, a more reflective McCartney, who with the win had finally managed to even his career record (44-44-1 with the win), noted: “This is the greatest win I’ve ever been a part of. It’s been a struggle for us. This makes it all worthwhile.”
The scoreboard said it all: “Colorado 27, Nebraska 21. Things Have Changed.”
A New Set of Goals
Colorado was now 9-0, 5-0 in Big Eight play. A win over either Oklahoma State (4-5) or Kansas State (1-8) would send Colorado to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1977. Two wins would give the Colorado its first undisputed Big Eight title since 1961. Two wins would also guarantee a chance at the national championship.
“Our dream is right in front of us now,” said quarterback Darian Hagan, whose exploits were now creating talk of a Heisman trophy. The nation was beginning to notice that this was more than a team fed by emotion; the talent was there. When the post-season honors were announced, three Buffs were named consensus All-Americans – guard Joe Garten, punter Tom Rouen, and linebacker Alfred Williams. No fewer than ten Buffs were placed on the All-Big Eight team, the most ever by any Colorado squad.
Colorado, despite its emotional two week run against Oklahoma and Nebraska, was not done yet. No. 2 in the polls, the Buffs were one of only four undefeated teams in the nation (#1 Notre Dame, #4 Alabama, and #24 Fresno State being the other three). Four AP writers gave Colorado the nod as the best team in the nation (the remaining 56 writers staying with Notre Dame). Holding serve against Oklahoma State and Kansas State would set up an Orange Bowl clash for the national title. Bill McCartney knew the Buffs could not afford to look ahead. “Oklahoma State has killed us the last couple of years (42-17 and 41-21),” McCartney noted, “and they’re coming on, it seems like. We’re going to have to regroup.”
Still, even McCartney had his eye on the bigger prize. “I’m sure the Orange Bowl wants us 11-0,” said the Buffs’ coach, “and we sure want to go there 11-0″.
Here is a YouTube video of the game’s final minutes. Thanks to CU at the Gamer Paul for finding this gem …
Game Notes -
- On the afternoon, J.J. Flannigan had 96 yards on 18 carries (with two touchdowns), while Darian Hagan had 86 yards on 25 carries and one score.
- Senior linebacker Michael Jones had 15 tackles (eight solo), the most tackles by any Colorado player all season.
- Through the air, Hagan completed only two passes in ten attempts, for 22 yards and an interception. Against Oklahoma and Nebraska, Hagan’s passing totals were inauspicious: four-of-16, 52 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions … but two victories.
- For his two long – and game-changing – punt returns, senior wide receiver Jeff Campbell was named the Big Eight “Defensive” Player-of-the-Week.
- Colorado now had two victories over Nebraska in four years. The last time the Buffs could make that claim was 1961, after Colorado won three of four between 1958-61.
- The win over Nebraska gave Colorado its first 9-0 record since 1923. The crowd of 52,877, surprisingly, was only the 8th-largest in CU history to that date. The Buffs did, however, issue a record 603 media credentials for the game.
- The game statistics favored Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had 19 first downs to the Buffs’ 13; had 397 yards to Colorado’s 227; and held the ball for 31:12 of game clock.
AP Poll – November 6, 1989
1. Notre Dame (56)
2. Colorado (4)
5. Florida State