Pigskin Classic

The 1990 season saw the birth of the preseason game known as the “Pigskin Classic”. Played in Anaheim, California, home to the Freedom Bowl and Mickey Mouse, the organizers of the game (officially the “Disneyland Pigskin Classic”) did not want to disappoint their audience, and went out to secure a game bound to attract national attention. In securing two teams which had completed the previous season with 11-1 records, they did just that.

The 1989 rise of the Colorado Buffaloes was well documented. Not receiving as much attention was the solid season put together in 1989 by Tennessee. Johnny Majors’ squad had won 16 of its last 17 games overall, with only a mid-season 47-30 loss to Alabama keeping the Volunteers from contending for the national title in 1989. Nine starters on offense and eight starters on defense returned, giving Tennessee faithful reason for optimism. “We liked what we did last year,” said quarterback Andy Kelly of the Volunteers’ 5th-place final ranking. “We want to get back to the level we were at last year, or better.”

It was safe to say that the two teams were unfamiliar with one another, as this would be the first meeting between the two schools. In fact, Colorado had only faced three members of the SEC (LSU, Alabama, and Auburn) in its history, and only LSU during the regular season. Tennessee had a history with only three Big Eight teams, having played Kansas, Iowa State, and Oklahoma. Still, Tennessee head coach Johnny Majors did have a history with Colorado, having gone 0-5 against the Buffs while the head coach at Iowa State (1968-72).

While the players had never met on the field, Colorado head coach Bill McCartney had spent the summer worrying about the Volunteers’ lineup. “Tennessee might be the best team we’re going to play,” said McCartney. “They’ve won 16-of-17 playing in what is generally thought to be the toughest conference in college football today, and they have 17 starters back.”

For Colorado, the pressure was evident. “This game has big stakes,” noted McCartney of the August match-up. “The winner will be in great shape nationally. The loser will have to pick up the pieces.” The Buffs said they were ready to play – ready to put behind them the last game of the 1989 season, which had concluded ended with a distasteful loss.

August 26th – Pigskin Classic – Anaheim, California            No. 5 Colorado 31, No. 8 Tennessee 31

Colorado and Tennessee utilized contrasting styles in posting 31 points each as the 5th-ranked Buffs and the 8th-ranked Volunteers fought to a 31-31 draw in the opening game of the 1990 season. Colorado overcame five turnovers to put together 368 yards rushing, while Tennessee twice overcame two touchdown deficits in the fourth quarter to salvage the tie. Colorado’s Mike Pritchard, subbing for the suspended Eric Bieniemy, rushed 20 times for 217 yards, the sixth best rushing day in Colorado history, and the best opening day effort ever.

The Buffs committed three first quarter turnovers, including a Pritchard fumble on Colorado’s first play, yet trailed only 7-0. A methodical 19-play, 97-yard drive put the Buffs back in the game, culminated with a one-yard scoring plunge by senior fullback George Hemingway. The teams were knotted 10-10 at halftime.

Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan, intercepted just four times in all of 1989, was intercepted three times in the first half by Tennessee. “I just don’t know what happened,” said Hagan. “I messed up a lot of reads, and I just didn’t throw well.”

In the second half, the offenses heated up.

Early in the third quarter, Mike Pritchard scored on a 55-yard run to give the Buffs a 17-10 lead. Senior cornerback Dave McCloughan returned a punt a like distance of 55 yards for a score early in the final quarter to give Colorado a 24-10 lead with 9:34 to play. It took Tennessee less than a minute to respond, though, as quarterback Andy Kelly hit wingback Alvin Harper for 24 yards and a touchdown. Kelly hit on four-of-six passes on the drive, on his way to hitting 33-of-55 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns on the day.

24-17, with 8:53 still to play.

The ball was back in Colorado’s court, and the Buffs had an answer. After an interception by safety Tim James, the Buffs scored quickly. Hagan dashed out to the right on an option, and, just when it appeared that he was going down, managed to shovel a left-handed lateral back to tailback Mike Pritchard. The Buff speedster then raced 78 yards for the Buffs’ final points of the day.

With the scoring coming fast and furious early in the fourth quarter, Colorado was again up by two touchdowns, 31-17. 7:11 remained.

It was time for the Colorado defense to make a stand.

But the Buffs, able to handle all comers during the 1989 regular season campaign, were not able, in the first game of 1990, to hold the lead. Led by quarterback Andy Kelly, the Volunteers scored twice in the last six minutes to pull even with Colorado, 31-31. In the waning seconds it was Tennessee, not Colorado, which had a chance to pull out the win, with a final play run by tailback Chuck Webb finally coming to an end on the Buffs’ 16-yard line as time expired.

The tie was the first for Colorado since 1982, and was not all the Buffs had hoped for. “This was a game of opportunities and missed opportunities,” said Bill McCartney. “Tennessee has a tremendous offense. As the game wore on, we couldn’t get pressure on the quarterback. We usually are able to pressure the opposing quarterback, but we got tired late in the game.”

“We’ll look back with a lot of frustration because we were in a position to win,” said McCartney after the contest. “I’m sure both teams are disappointed.”

The disappointment was evidient in the post-game player quotes.

“We shouldn’t have tied the game,” said wingback Michael Simmons. “It doesn’t feel like a loss, but I’m disappointed we didn’t win.” Echoed linebacker Chad Brown, “A tie is frustrating … We allowed 21 fourth quarter points, and it could easily have been 28. When you give up that many points, you can’t expect to win.”

Quarterback Hagan, though, may have summed it up the best. “You can’t say it was almost like a loss,” said Hagan, “because it wasn’t a loss.”

While a tie was disheartening, it was not cataclysmic. The Buffs did lose the support of the four voters in the AP poll which had tabbed Colorado No. 1 in the preseason poll, but overall Colorado only fell one spot, to #6, in the next poll. The tie was a blemish, but it was not a loss, and Colorado’s chances for a repeat opportunity at a national championship remained in place.

Colorado now had ten days to lick its wounds and prepare for Stanford. In another move made for television, the Colorado/Stanford game would be played on a Thursday night. The Cardinal were coming off of a 3-8 campaign in 1989, the worst record of any of the five Colorado non-conference foes in 1990. Plus, the game was the home opener for the Buffs, and would be played at night before a national television audience on ESPN.

Colorado still had the opportunity to demonstrate that it had the “right stuff” to be national champions.

All Stanford had to do was be the sacrificial lamb.

Here is the YouTube video of the game …


Game Notes –

– The game represented the first-ever meeting between the schools in football.

– Dave McCloughan’s 55-yard punt return for a touchdown marked the first such score by a Buff since Walter Stanley turned the trick in the 1981 season opener against Texas Tech. McCloughan would go on to lead the nation in punt returns in 1990, returning 32 kicks for 524 yards and two touchdowns.

– The tie was the first for Colorado since tying Oklahoma State, 25-25, in 1982, and the first tie in an opener since the 1965 squad battled Wisconsin to a 0-0 tie.

– On offense, four players received their first career starts in the 1990 season opener. Junior wide receiver Rico Smith joined junior tight end Jon Boman on the outside, while the line saw two new starters – junior Russell Heasley at right guard and senior Ariel Solomon at left tackle.

– Two defensive linemen had their first career starts against Tennessee. Red-shirt freshman Leonard Renfro started at left defensive tackle, joined by senior right defensive tackle Garry Howe. Sophomore Greg Biekert got his first start at linebacker, while junior Greg Thomas became a regular in the defensive backfield.

– Mike Pritchard’s 217-yard rushing effort, the best by a Buff in a season-opener ever, included the longest scoring run of the 1990 season, 78 yards. The 217-yard total would be matched by another Buff, however, later in the season. Most don’t remember the 217-yard effort put up by Eric Bieniemy, though, because it came in the infamous 5th-down game against Missouri.

– Senior safety Tim James had two interceptions against Tennessee, and would go on to lead the team with six interception in the 1990 season. James’ 13 career interceptions put him third in Colorado history, behind only John Stearns (16, 1970-72) and Dick Anderson (14, 1965-67).

– The 31 points surrendered to Tennessee marked the first time since the middle of the 1988 season in which the Colorado defense had surrendered more than 30 points in a game. It also marked the first time an opponent had more than 500 yards of total offense (503) since Missouri racked up 639 yards during the 1-10 1984 season.

– The Pigskin Classic lasted in Anaheim for five seasons, before  going on the road to home team venues for an additional eight years, with the final Pigskin Classic being played in 2002 between Ohio State and Texas Tech in Columbus, with the home team winning, 45-21 (in fact, all eight Pigskin Classics not played in Anaheim were won by the home teams). Despite having two top ten teams competing in the 1990 inaugural edition, only 33,458 came to see Colorado and Tennessee play.

– Tennessee would go on to finish the 1990 season with a 9-2-2 record. After an early season tie with Auburn, the Volunteers at one point sported a 4-0-2 record. In season losses to Alabama and Notre Dame were not enough to keep Tennessee from representing the SEC in the Sugar Bowl, where the Volunteers defeated Virginia, 23-22. Tennessee finished the 1990 season right where they started – at No. 8 in the final poll.

2 Replies to “No. 8 Tennessee – Buffs tie Volunteers in Pigskin Classic”

  1. I attended the Pigskin Classic in 1990 in Anaheim. It was a beautiful sunny day in southern California. On the field were the CU stars of that team. Dave McCloughan, Mike Pritchard, Eric Bieinemy, Darian Hagan, Tim James, Deon Figures. The Buffs played with a lot of heart that day, and I recall they gave up a few touchdowns in the 4th Quarter but being the top 5 team they were that day, they didn’t allow Tennessee to overcome them.

    The Buffs would go on from that day to beat Stanford in Boulder, lose to Illinois 23-22 to Jeff George, (but they got revenge on George the next year in Boulder) and head down to Texas in Austin. I was at that game too. Final was 29-22 and the Buffs had a great propensity to overcome any deficit that they faced. Hagan and company would simply will their teams to wins. Hagan would finish at CU undefeated as a QB. Thus the Buffs finished the regular season at Nebraska in the rain and sleet, winning 27-12 after overcoming 4 fumbles by Bieniemy as he scored four touchdowns to win in Lincoln.

    The reward for the Buffs for an undefeated season, the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame. I was there for that one too, as Tom Rouen lined up to punt to Rocket Ismail. I was in the opposite end zone and saw the yellow hankie drop to the turf, and said to myself, “They never call a penalty on Notre Dame late in games” I was flabbergasted and happy when it was ND in fact flagged for a penalty invalidating the Rockets TD punt return. After the game, McCartney, revelling in the National Championship, said that the CU Punter was told to punt out of bounds.

    CU was on top of the college football world at last. Donations to the football program were at the highest level ever, and now, with all the players returning to CU to coach, Buff Nation needs to step up and open their wallets.

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