September 16th – Boulder      No. 8 Colorado 38,  No. 10 Illinois 7

The University of Colorado served notice to the football world that the 1989 Buffs were for real, dominating No. 10 Illinois, 38-7.

For the third straight game, the Buffs scored on their first possession.  A 74-yard pass from Darian Hagan to wideout Jeff Campbell set up a one-yard scoring run by Eric Bieniemy to give Colorado the early lead, 7-0.  After the Illini tied the score on a two-yard run by Howard Griffith, Colorado took the lead for good as Bieniemy took a pitchout from Hagan, then lofted a halfback pass to a wide-open M.J. Nelson for a 48-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead.  Later in the first quarter, halfback J.J. Flannigan celebrated his 21st birthday with a 45-yard run to put the Buffs up 21-7.  Colorado never looked back after that, posting its first win over a top ten team since the 1986 upset of Nebraska.

The Colorado defense completely negated quarterback Jeff George and the Illinois’ offense. After the Illini tied the score at 7-7 on an 80-yard drive, the Buffs did not allow Illinois to cross midfield again until midway through the fourth quarter.  George was sacked four times and intercepted twice, with both picks leading to Colorado touchdowns. The second half was more of the same for the Buffs, as a 45-yard field goal by Ken Culbertson was supplemented by touchdown runs of nine yards (by J.J. Flannigan) and four yards (by Bieniemy).

On the afternoon, Colorado out-gained Illinois 475 yards to 193, completely dominating both sides of the ball.  In a radio interview earlier in the week, quarterback Jeff George had made the mistake of calling the Buffs “an average team” and perhaps overrated.  “I think for an ‘average’ team, we did pretty good – even by his standards,” said outside linebacker Alfred Williams after the game.

It was now proper to consider Colorado as a national championship contender.  “We proved to the nation we’re for real,” said tailback Eric Bieniemy.  “It’s fun.  Top 10 and moving up.  You can’t beat that.”

The Buffs were now 3-0, and had a bye week before facing Washington in Seattle.  Colorado was now attracting nationwide believers.  In his column for USA Today, Steve Wieberg began his column:  “About those great expectations for Colorado this season:  Maybe they weren’t great enough.” Weiberg even went so far as to speculate about an Orange Bowl between an undefeated Colorado team and top-ranked Notre Dame (a 24-19 winner over Michigan in the most recent “Game of the Century”).  “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” cautioned Colorado  head coach Bill McCartney.  “Washington should tell us a lot.”

Colorado was now the No. 6 team in the nation, leap-frogging over Clemson and Arkansas.  Washington had risen to No. 11 in the AP poll after upsetting Texas A&M and handling Purdue.  The Huskies, though, would fall the next week to 21st after losing 20-17 to 23rd-rated Arizona in Tucson.  That same week, an idle one for the Buffs, would see Colorado rise to No. 5, trading places with Michigan after the Wolverines needed a last-second field goal to defeat UCLA.

But the week was anything but an idle one on the University of Colorado campus.


Farewell to Sal

On Saturday, September 23rd, shortly after 9:00 p.m., Sal Aunese died.

The 21-year old honorary captain of the 1989 Colorado Buffaloes finally succumbed to the cancer which had been diagnosed in March.  Although not unexpected, the announcement hit the team hard.  “He was the heart and soul of this team,” said senior wide receiver Jeff Campbell.  “He meant a lot to us”, said defensive co-captain Michael Jones, a senior linebacker.  “God, it hurts, just to see him go like this … I just can’t imagine him being gone.”

Aunese had attended each of the Buffs’ first three games, watching from a private box high above Folsom Field.  Colorado players had saluted him before the Illinois game, and Jeff Campbell saluted Aunese after his 74-yard catch on the game’s first series.  It would become the signal for the remainder of the year that the Buffs were thinking and remembering their fallen leader.  An emotional memorial service was held the next Monday, a service wherein Bill McCartney spoke not only as a coach, but also as the grandfather to Aunese’s child.

While the Buffs were saying the right things about preparing for Washington “I know Sal would want us to win this one (against Washington),” said Michael Jones, “so there’s no reason to lay down now” – it could only be speculated that the distraction would take its toll on the Buffs.  Colorado was playing after a bye week, were playing for the first time on the road, and were up against a quality opponent.  But the Buff players had a secret weapon –  a twelfth man – in Aunese.  Aunese dictated a letter to the team before his death.  Each Colorado player was given a copy before the Washington game:

Dear Brothers and the family whom I hold so close ….”  it began.

Aunese closed the letter:

Hold me close to your hearts as you know I do you.  Strive only for victory each time you play and trust in the Lord for He truly is the way.  I love you all. ‘Go get ‘em’ – and bring home the Orange Bowl.

 Love, Sal”

Alfred Williams remembers Sal’s last game

When Alfred Williams was notified that he had been selected to as a member of the 2010 Class to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, he was asked by to select a few memories from his playing days. The 1989 Illinois game was one which stood out to Williams:

“Looking up and seeing Sal (Aunese) in the press box stairwell.  I’ll never forget before the game Sal was standing up with his oxygen tank, pumping his fist, cheering us on”, recalled Williams. “That was the last game he saw before he passed way, so it was a special moment to sack (Illinois quarterback) Jeff George, look up at Sal and give him a fist pump. For me, that was the absolute best moment for me as a player, because how important that game was, how good Illinois was (ranked No. 10), how good Jeff George was and Sal being there, still fighting in what would be the last week of his life.  It was amazing watching Illinois on film and we knew we had a helluva challenge.  We had to get pressure on George, and we got after him pretty good.  We beat them up bad (38-7) and held a really good offense to under 200 yards (193). That game kind of cemented us and got us going, told people we were for real.”

With heavy hearts, the No. 5 Colorado Buffaloes had to prepare to travel to Husky stadium to face Washington the following Saturday.  The weatherman predicted a gray and gloomy day in Seattle.

It was not just the weather forecast.

Game Notes –

– Sal Aunese was the leading passer for the Buffs in both the 1987 and 1988 seasons. His career rushing total of 1,004, accumulated in only two seasons, ranked him 32nd on the all-time list at Colorado at the start of the 1989 season. His 1,526 passing yards ranked him 11th all-time in that category.

– It says something about the Colorado passing game in 1989, but the 48-yard touchdown pass from tailback Eric Bieniemy to wide receiver M.J. Nelson was the longest scoring pass of the season for the Buffs. The longest non-scoring pass of the year also came against Illinois, when Darian Hagan hooked up with wide receiver Jeff Campbell for 74 yards in the first quarter. In all, the Buffs had a season-high 223 yards passing against Illinois, the first time Colorado had over 200 yards passing in a game since 1984 (212 against Oklahoma).

– The 48-yard touchdown was the first of senior M.J. Nelson’s career. His three catches for 109 yards were also career highs. The 109 yards were the most for any Buff receiver since 1984, when Jon Embree (133 yards) and Loy Alexander (118 yards) both went for over 100 yards against Kansas. Nelson was also effective as a kick returner, returning nine kickoffs during the 1989 season for a 24.1 yard average.

– Colorado had nine plays of over 20 yards against 8th-ranked Illinois, holding the Illini without any such plays.

– Eric Bieniemy led the Buffs with 100 yards on 17 carries, but J.J. Flannigan was not far behind, posting 98 yards on just ten carries. Throw in his 48-yard touchdown pass, though, and Bieniemy’s statistics were good enough to earn him Big Eight Offensive Player-of-the-Week honors.

– For the second consecutive game, the Colorado defense had three interceptions, with junior cornerback David Gibbs, freshman cornerback Ronnie Bradford, and junior cornerback Dave McCloughan each getting a pick. Gibbs also led the team in tackles against Illinois, registering ten tackles (seven unassisted).

– The 1989 game represented the first-ever meeting between Colorado and Illinois.

– Illinois, under head coach John Mackovic (who would move on to coach at Texas in 1992) would rebound from the loss to Colorado. The only other blemish on the season was a 24-10 loss to No. 3 Michigan. The Illini would complete a 10-2 1989 season with No. 10 ranking after defeating No. 15 Virginia, 31-21, in the Citrus Bowl.


3 Replies to “No. 10 Illinois – Jeff George falls / A Farewell to Sal”

  1. I remember George whining to the refs that the crowd was too loud and he couldn’t hear and the refs just telling him to suck it up and play and the crowd chanting a part of the female anatomy at him as a result. He showed in that game what the sports world would later learn once he went pro; that he was a spoiled, whiny prima donna. Such a great game to watch him eat his words, get embarrassed on the field and pummel that team.

    1. Jed,
      I fondly remember that game as a senior, standing in the student section, while George was trying to run the O in the horseshoe. The place was so loud it was crazy, and after all the whining by George, we started chanting “George is a pu$$y!” over and over again. It felt like 1/2 the stadium started chanting that.
      What an absolute blast that game was, and I’ll never forget some of those other great games that year. I had a great 4 years of football while I was there, looking forward to seeing things continue to improve over the next few years.
      Would love for some of the current students to be able to experience the same thing that I was able to experience at those games…at least some of the younger students.
      From my freshman year in 1986 when we beat Nebraska 20-10 when they were ranked something like #2 in the country and storming the field, to beating them again in 1989 and going to the Orange Bowl. Some great memories. Thanks CU.

  2. This was the most fun and dominating game of my time in boulder. The team was still proving itself and this was both domination on the field and in the stands. The fans snapped Jeff George’s psyche in two. It was proof that the Buffs were for real and were true championship quality. It was a beautiful fall day in Boulder, memorable because it was perfect in every way imaginable — not as gritty and tough as other battles, but a total domination of a highly ranked opponent. This stands out (along side beating UW) as being the best of my time in Boulder (87-91).

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