September 15th – @ Illinois #21 Illinois 23, #9 Colorado 22
Howard Griffith scored from a yard out with 1:18 to play to give the Fighting Illini a 23-22 win over Colorado. 21st-ranked Illinois exacted a measure of revenge for the 38-7 pasting the Buffs had put on the Illini in 1989, pulling out the win on a 10-play, 63-yard drive to erase a 22-17 deficit. Quarterback Jason Verduzco did what his famed predecessor, Jeff George, could not – he out-performed the Colorado defense. Verduzco completed 23-of-29 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns in leveling Illinois’ record at 1-1.
Colorado jumped out to a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. After spotting Illinois a 3-0 lead, Darian Hagan led the Buffs on a nine-play, 80-yard drive, finished off by a two-yard touchdown run by fullback George Hemingway. An interception by safety Tim James led to a 54-yard field goal by junior Jim Harper raised the lead to 10-3. Less than two minutes later, after a 42-yard punt return by Dave McCloughan, Hagan hit wingback Michael Simmons for a 32- yard touchdown pass to give the Buffs a 17-3 cushion.
A touchdown drive late in the second quarter by the Illini changed the course of the game. What was maddening for the Buffs after the game is that the score shouldn’t have come to pass. A third-and-nine pass was bobbled by linebacker Chad Brown, allowing running back Wagner Lester to grab the ball for an 11-yard gain. “It wasn’t a strong pass,” said Brown after the game. “I just couldn’t bring it down.” Still, things looked good for Colorado, as the defense later forced a fourth-and-15 at the Colorado 36-yard line. Illinois head coach John Mackovic decided to go for it. “I wanted them to go for it,” Bill McCartney said later. Unfortunately for the Buffs, the Illini completed a 17-yard pass, then scored on an eight yard pass from Verduzco to Elbert Turner with 28 seconds left before halftime.
17-10, Colorado, at the break.
After a 43-yard field goal attempt midway through the third quarter was blocked, Illinois tied the game with a five play, 64-yard drive. The Buffs regained the lead, though, just a few minutes later. Linebacker Greg Biekert, who would go on to post 19 solo tackles on the afternoon, tackled Howard Griffith in the Illinois endzone to give Colorado a 19-17 lead at the end of the third quarter. Jim Harper connected from 26 yards out to give the Buffs a 22-17 lead before Illinois’ final drive gave the Illini the win.
“Offensively, we’re not converting like we did a year ago,” McCartney said. “Our defense is solid, but we’re not taking advantage of it. Our defense played well enough to win. We just didn’t have enough offense.”
The Colorado Buffaloes, touted as national championship contenders in all of the preseason college football magazines, were now 1-1-1 on the year. Midway through the month of September, and Colorado was all but out of the title chase. No team had finished #1 with a loss and a tie since 1965, when Alabama won the national championship with a 9-1-1 record.
Realistically, the national championship was no longer to be the Buffs’ primary focus. “This loss takes us out of contention,” said Bill McCartney, “and I’m sure it will drop us in the rankings.”
The loss to Illinois dropped the Buffs to 20th in the next poll. A date with 22nd-ranked Texas in Austin was up next. Colorado had defeated the Longhorns, 27-6, in Boulder to open the 1989 campaign, but this was not 1989. Texas was 1-0 in 1990, having defeated Penn State, 17-13, in its season-opener. What was more, Colorado had traveled to Austin only twice in school history, and had limped home to Boulder 0-2, with the combined points total being: Texas 115; Colorado 7.
All signs pointed to a Colorado loss and a 1-2-1 record.
Fortunately for Colorado, the prediction of the downfall of the Buffs was as inaccurate as the preseason hype had appeared three weeks into the 1990 campaign.
Game Notes -
- The game was only the second-ever between the Colorado and Illinois, completing the home-and-home contract which began with the 1989 game in Boulder.
- Linebacker Greg Biekert’s 20-tackle game (19 solo) earned him Big Eight Defensive Player-of-the-Week honors. The 19 solo tackles by Biekert set a new school record, besting the old record of 17 set by Rodney Rodgers in the 1985 game against Oklahoma.
- The Colorado offense, used to converting around 60% of third-and-eight or less opportunities, were 0-for-9 against Illinois. Overall, the Buffs were three-of-14 on third down, the worst mark for the Buffs since going two-of-12 against Oklahoma in 1988.
- Illinois held the ball for over 34 minutes, allowing the defense to keep the Buffs’ offense from putting together a consistent attack. The time of possession for the Buffs (25:54) was the lowest since the 17-14 loss to Oklahoma in 1988, when the Buffs only held the ball for 24:05 of playing time. On the afternoon, Colorado was held under 200 yards rushing (178) and 100 yards passing (95) for the first time since the 1988 Nebraska game.
- Junior kicker Jim Harper had the longest field goal of his career, 54 yards, against Illinios. Harper, who would go on to hit on 14-of-22 field goal attempts in 1990, was voted by the Big Eight coaches as the Offensive Newcomer of the Year at the conclusion of the season.
- Illinois, which had lost its season-opener to Arizona, 28-16, used the win over 9th-ranked Colorado to jump to 15th in the national polls. A six game winning streak got the Illini as high as No. 5, but back-to-back losses to No. 13 Iowa and No. 19 Michigan ended hopes for a Rose Bowl bid. After a 30-0 loss to Clemson in the Hall of Fame Bowl, an 8-4 Illinois team finished 1990 ranked 25th in the nation.