The stakes for the 1990 clash between 9th-ranked Colorado and 3rd-ranked Nebraska could not have been higher.
For the winner, the Big Eight championship, a spot in the Orange Bowl, and a shot at the national championship awaited.
For the loser, a second place finish and a second tier bowl would have to be the consolation.
Nebraska was 8-0 and playing at home; Colorado was 7-1-1 and had hopes of a shot at redemption in the Orange Bowl.
Against that backdrop, a national television audience witnessed one of the best fourth quarters in Colorado history.
November 3rd – @ Nebraska #9 Colorado 27, #3 Nebraska 12
For three quarters, the Nebraska Cornhuskers kept the Colorado offense at bay. For three quarters, Nebraska looked to be national championship contenders. For three quarters, Eric Bieniemy, the nation’s leading rusher, played so poorly it appeared he would be the goat of the game.
Unfortunately for the Cornhusker faithful, the fourth quarter was played.
At the end of the third quarter, the scoreboard read: Nebraska 12, Colorado 0. The Buffs were on the verge of being shutout for the first time since Nebraska turned the trick two years earlier in Lincoln. Eric Bieniemy had fumbled four times, losing three on the cold and rainy afternoon. “I was frustrated, disgusted, you name it,” said Bieniemy. “It was just basically a lack of concentration.”
With the start of the final quarter, though, the Buffs had the wind at their backs; the season on the line.
Down 12-0 after Nebraska scored late in the third quarter on a 46-yard pass from Mickey Joseph to Johnny Mitchell, the Buffs took off on their first extended drive of the game. Marching 71 yards, Bieniemy scored from a yard out to cut the Nebraska lead to 12-7. Biemiemy’s run was just the second rushing touchdown allowed by the Cornhuskers all season. “It all came down to this play,” said Bill McCartney. “The offense created a new line of scrimmage, and Bieniemy went over.”
But Bieniemy was just getting started.
After the Colorado defense forced a Nebraska punt, the Buffs drove down the field again, keyed by a 34-yard pass from Darian Hagan to Mike Pritchard. Facing a fourth down at the Nebraska two-yard line, Bieniemy again did the honors. The senior tailback’s second touchdown of the quarter gave the Buffs a 13-12 lead with 8:37 to play (a two-point conversion pass failed).
The Colorado defense, which had held the Cornhuskers at bay while waiting for the Colorado offense to come to life, now smelled blood. On Nebraska’s next possession, the Buff defense forced a three-and-out once again. The Cornhuskers now faced a fourth-and-four from their own 31-yard line. The game then turned for good when Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne, known as a conservative coach, went for a fake punt. Senior linebacker Rob Hutchins stayed at home, though, stopping the Nebraska runner a yard short of a first down. Taking over at the Nebraska 30, the Buffs took only five plays to score, capped by Bieniemy’s third score of the quarter, this time from three yards out.
Colorado had now put up 20 points in one quarter against a defense which had allowed only 22 second half points to its first eight opponents of the 1990 season combined. The Buffs were not out of the woods yet, though, as Nebraska trailed by only one score, 20-12, with 4:35 remaining. The Buff defense, though, again rose to the occasion, as linebacker Alfred Williams sacked Joseph back at the Nebraska ten-yard line on fourth down. The celebration could now begin. Bieniemy’s fourth touchdown of the quarter, this time from five yards out with 1:31 to play, was the icing on the cake.
Bieniemy’s four fourth quarter scores tied a school record for the most rushing touchdowns in a game. The 27 points tallied by the Buffs represented the most the Cornhuskers had ever given up in a single quarter in the 45 years the school had been keeping such records.
Nebraska “probably played well enough for three quarters to put it away,” coach Osborne lamented. “At the end of the third quarter and in the fourth quarter they got some things going.”
Penthouse to Outhouse to Penthouse
Eric Bieniemy came into the Nebraska game leading the nation in rushing, averaging 153 yards per game. His 1,228 total yards was in sight of the school record of 1,386 yards set by Charlie Davis in 1971. Bieniemy already had the most rushing touchdowns in school history, and he had already set several other school standards.
For three quarters against Nebraska, though, he did not play like the nation’s leading rusher. Three fumbles almost cost the Buffs any chance of a comeback, and Bieniemy knew who to blame. “It’s my fault”, Bieniemy said of the fumbles. “I’m just glad I had the opportunity to make up for it.” Did McCartney consider other options after Bieniemy’s errors? Not a chance, said the Buffs’ head coach. “I told him nobody felt worse than he did,” said McCartney, “and that he’s got to go in and cover the ball better, and he did.”
He certainly did.
Bieniemy’s fourth quarter heroics gave Colorado its first win in Lincoln since 1967, and its first consecutive wins over the Cornhuskers since 1960-61. The 5′ 7″ senior running back ran around the Cornhuskers for 137 yards on the afternoon. Four of Bieniemy’s 38 carries had resulted in fumbles; four others resulted in touchdowns. To the delight of thousands of Colorado fans, the touchdowns turned out to be more important.
Hall of Famer Alfred Williams remembers
In 2010, Colorado linebacker Alfred Williams was selected to become a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. When asked about his favorite memories about being a Buff, Williams told CUBuffs.com about his memories of Bieniemy and the fourth quarter comeback against Nebraska:
“I sat next to him on the bench at Nebraska after he had fumbled three or four times,” Williams recalled. “We had the ball, but it was one of those rare times he wasn’t in the game. He didn’t want to hear much and kind of wanted to be left alone, his head hanging a bit, but there was a moment where he looked me in the eye, and I told him we’ll get you the ball back for the offense and for him to go out there and do his thing. He scored four times in the fourth quarter, and after the first score, we met at the 25-yard line and high fived each other.”
Brief highlights of Bieniemy’s four touchdown runs, courtesy of CU at the Gamer Paul:
Orange Bowl … and more? Buffs back from the Brink
With the win, Colorado vaulted back into the national spotlight. Almost certain of returning to the Orange Bowl as the Big Eight champions (all the Buffs had left were home games against 3-6 Oklahoma State and 5-4 Kansas State), Colorado was ranked No. 4 in the next poll. Five voters even tabbed the Buffs as the No. 1 team in the nation, despite the loss and the tie.
The race for the Orange Bowl seemingly had been decided on a cold and rainy field in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was now up to the fates and a little luck for Colorado to have a chance at a national title.
At 1-1-1 after the Illinois loss, the Colorado season was on the brink. Ranked 20th and facing two ranked teams over the next two weeks, the glitter of the 1989 season had seemingly all worn off. There was the very real possibility that Colorado would, in late 1990, being playing just for a winning season and a bowl bid. But after the Illinois loss, the 1990 Buffs refused to lose.
“I think what we’re talking about here is a group of guys who won’t be beat, can’t be beat,” said McCartney after the Nebraska win. Down 12-0, facing a tough Nebraska defense and adverse weather conditions (37-degree day, with rain turning to snow in winds which gusted up to 25 mph), the Buffs still prevailed.
And just as the Cornhuskers were seemingly punished for their light schedule by the pollsters, the Buffs were now seemingly being rewarded for their tough slate of games. A No. 4 ranking positioned the Buffs for a late season title run, but again other teams were helping to make it possible. While Colorado was coming back to defeat Nebraska, No. 1 Virginia fell out of the top ten after losing, 41-38, to No. 16 Georgia Tech. No. 4 Auburn finally was beaten, being blasted by No.15 Florida, 48-7. 5th-ranekd Illinois, which had handed the Buffs their only loss on the year, was crushed by No. 13 Iowa, 54-28.
All that stood now between the Buffs and a No.1 ranking was the new No.1 team in the nation, Notre Dame (7-1), No.2 Washington (8-1, with its only loss to Colorado), and No.3 Houston (8-0), the sole remaining unbeaten and untied team in the national rankings. The only other team without a loss was Georgia Tech, 7-0-1 after knocking off Virginia to move from No.16 to No. 7 in the polls.
Watching the Nebraska game, then waiting until the next morning for the polls to come out, a number of different scenarios were being discussed by Colorado fans. The most likely for Colorado was a rematch with Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. This was predicated on Notre Dame defeating No. 9 Tennessee the next week. If the Irish lost to the Volunteers, or merely wanted to avoid giving Colorado a chance to avenge Colorado’s 21-6 loss from a year ago, they could opt for the Cotton Bowl. This would probably mean a matchup for the Buffs against fifth-ranked Miami on their home field.
And what about Houston? The undefeated Cougars could lay claim for a national title by winning out. But Houston still had 14th-ranked Texas to play, and the Cougars were on probation and not allowed to play in any bowl game. As a result, few were giving No. 3 Houston much chance of garnering enough support to be declared #1 January 2nd.
Georgia Tech? The Yellow Jackets only had a 13-13 tie with North Carolina to mar its record, and the three remaining opponents had a combined record of 13-15. Still, the ACC was considered a weak conference, and even though Georgia Tech had jumped nine spots to No. 7 in the latest poll, there didn’t seem to be much of a chance for the Ramblin’ Wreck to lay claim to a national title.
At least, that’s what we thought.
Game Notes -
- Colorado head coach certainly did not shy away from giving the ball to Eric Bieniemy against Nebraska. Despite his four fumbles, Bieniemy carried the ball more times (36) and had more offensive plays (38) against Nebraska than any Buff had the entire 1990 season.
- Linebacker Alfred Williams led the defensive stand against the Cornhuskers. Williams did not lead the team in tackles (Greg Biekert did, with 14), but Williams did have season-highs for tackles for loss (four) and sacks (two). It was junior nose tackle Joel Steed, though, who earned Big Eight Defensive Player-of-the-Week honors. Against Nebraska, Steed had 11 tackles (seven solo) and had 1.5 sacks.
- Bieniemy’s four rushing touchdowns marked the ninth time in Colorado history that a Buff had four such scores in a game, but the first time since James Mayberry turned the trick against Northwestern in 1978. (Only one other player to that time had four touchdowns in a game which included something other than rushing touchdowns. Richard Johnson, against Kansas in 1982, also had four touchdowns, but three of Richardson’s four touchdowns came by way of pass receptions).
- Overall, the Colorado defense held Nebraska to season bests in fewest first downs allowed (nine), fewest pass attempts (12), fewest pass completions (two), and fewest passing yards (69). On the day, the Buffs out-gained the Cornhuskers, 309-232, but in the decisive fourth quarter, the margin was 122 yards of total offense for Colorado; Nebraska – minus-four yards of total offense.
Associated Press Poll – November 5, 1990
1. Notre Dame
7. Georgia Tech