The controversial ending no one could see coming – and few got to watch

On October 6, 1990, the 12th-ranked Colorado Buffaloes traveled to Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri, to face the Missouri Tigers.

A top five team in the 1990 preseason poll, the Buffs had completed the non-conference portion of their schedule 3-1-1. Colorado tied No. 5 Tennessee to open the season, beat Stanford at home, and fell on the road to No. 21 Illinois before rebounding to defeat No. 22 Texas in Austin and No. 12 Washington in Boulder (yes, that’s right. Four ranked teams in five non-conference games – and the lone unranked opponent, Stanford, went on to upset No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend a few weeks after falling to Colorado – see below).

Missouri, under third year head coach Bob Stull, entered the contest with a 2-2 record. The Tigers had defeated Utah State and Arizona State, but had fallen to TCU and Indiana. The Tigers and 46,856 faithful fans were anxious to play the 12th-ranked Buffs. Missouri had owned the Buffs for many years, building a 33-13-1 series edge through 1984. Colorado, however, had run off five straight wins in the series heading into the 1990 game.

The big games of the day pitted No. 9 Miami against No. 2 Florida State (a 31-22 Miami victory) and No. 13 Illinois against No. 20 Ohio State (a 31-20 win for the Illini). Two undefeated top ten teams lost that Saturday, with No. 1 Notre Dame falling to Stanford, 36-31, and No. 7 Oklahoma falling to Texas, 14-13.

With such a big day in college football nationwide, there was no national or even regional television coverage of the Colorado/Missouri game. The game was televised locally in Denver on KCNC, though, preserving for posterity one of the most controversial endings in college football history.

October 6th – at Missouri           No. 12 Colorado 33, Missouri 31

Eric Bieniemy rushed for 217 yards against Missouri to become Colorado’s all-time leading ground gainer, but his accomplishment went completely unnoticed as Colorado scored on the last play of the game to pull out a controversial 33-31 win. Soon after the game ended it was confirmed that Charles Johnson’s score from a yard out to give Colorado the victory had actually come on a fifth down play.

The five play sequence went as follows:

1st-down-and-goal – Missouri three-yard line (:31 remaining in the game): quarterback Charles Johnson spikes the ball to stop the clock;

2nd-and-goal – Missouri three-yard line (:28 remaining): running back Eric Bieniemy up the middle for a gain of two yards (final time out, Colorado);

3rd-and-goal – Missouri one-yard line (:18 remaining): Bieniemy up the middle for no gain – referee stops the clock as players unpile;

4th-and-goal – Missouri one-yard line (:08 remaining): Johnson spikes the ball to stop the clock; and

5th-and-goal – Missouri one-yard line (:02 remaining): Johnson sneaks in around right end for the game-winning touchdown.

The game’s final play overshadowed not only Bieniemy’s record performance, but also the efforts of wideout Mike Pritchard, who scored on a 68-yard reverse and a 70-yard pass from Johnson, as well as those of Charles Johnson himself. Johnson, a junior, starting for the first time in his career, completed 10-of-18 passes for 151 yards, and led the Buffs to the fateful touchdown to cap a 15-play, 88-yard drive after Missouri had retaken the lead, 31-27, with only 2:32 to play in the game.

The game should have been remembered as a tight game with multiple momentum swings. The game was tied three times (7-7; 14-14; and 24-24), with the lead changing hands five times. The Buffs’ final drive (shown in its entirety in the video, above) had an 18-yard scramble by Johnson, a 22-yard completion from Johnson to tight end Rico Smith on a third-and-ten, and a 15-yard run by Bieniemy. The drive also shows a number of slips by Colorado players when they were in the open field, including the completion down to the three yard line to set up the final five-play sequence.

After the game, no one was interested in Colorado’s 4-1-1 record. All that was up for discussion was the fifth down play. Colorado head coach Bill McCartney did not help matters when he deflected questions as to forfeiting the game, instead focusing on the condition of Faurot Field. “The biggest story is that the field is not playable,” said McCartney. “No one should have to play on that field. You can’t even make a cut on that dang field … We slipped and slid all day, or we would have put more points on the board; I’ll tell you that.” In response, Missouri head coach Bob Stull ranted, “They get five downs and he’s crying? We should have stopped them on fifth down.”

Asked about a reversal of the outcome, McCartney stated: “My reaction to that would be that it would be unfair because the field was treacherous; it was not a playable field.”

As to the final plays, McCartney said: “We all thought we had scored on fourth down. We had set our strategy based on the yard marker and what we saw on the scoreboard clock. Had I known it was third down, then our strategy with the timeout would have been to pass on third down …. And then run on fourth down.”

At least one player on the field thought that the down markers were wrong. Center Jay Leeuwenburg, in the sideline huddle after Colorado had called its final timeout, took issue with the Buffs’ strategy, which called for a run on second (actually third) down, then to spike the ball on third (fourth) down. “I said to coach Mac, ‘You can’t do that. It will be fourth down,’ ” recalled Leeuwenburg. “And I distinctly remember him looking at me and saying, ‘You’re the player and you’re job is to play. And my job as coach is to coach. And this is what we’re doing.’ So, I thought I was wrong. I thought that somehow in the heat of the moment I must have miscounted.”

Coach McCartney actually called referee J.C. Louderback over to the sideline to tell him the plays Colorado was going to run. Only 18 seconds remained, and Colorado was out of time outs. So, if Bieniemy’s run up the middle on second (third) down was unsuccessful, McCartney didn’t want Missouri players holding Colorado players down while the clock was running, preventing Colorado from spiking the ball on third (fourth) down.

Colorado coaches and players have long noted that the Buffs certainly would not have spiked the ball on fourth down, had they known that was the case. “In five downs, we spiked the ball twice,” said McCartney. “No one’s ever done that. If the referee had said to me, ‘Coach, it’s not second down, it’s third down. Those things are wrong and you only have two downs’, we would have had a different strategy. We would have thrown the ball on third down, and went ahead with the play we ran on fourth down that we scored on.”

After the game was over, both teams started to leave the field, amidst a chorus of boos from the Faurot Field crowd – some who were aware of the referee’s gaffe; some who felt that Johnson had not scored on the game’s final play; and some who were angry about both. Fifteen minutes later, the teams were summoned back onto the field … so that Colorado could attempt its extra point. The only chance Colorado had of losing at that point was if an extra point attempt was blocked and returned for a two-point conversion, so Charles Johnson simply took a snap and knelt down, and the game was finally over.

Here is the YouTube video of the final drive (not how many times CU ball carriers slip on this drive alone) …

Big Eight Conference commissioner Carl James announced after the game that the conference, through its officiating supervisor John McClintock, would review and “fully cover the extra scrimmage play that evidently was allowed.” The net result was a brief suspension of the officiating crew, but no reversal of the outcome of the game. What about the NCAA? Dave Nelson, NCAA rules book secretary and editor, was succinct. “There are two rules that cover that. The team with the greater number of points at the conclusion of the game is the winner. And the game is over when the officials say it’s over.”

The lead official for the game was J.C. Louderback, a calculus teacher by trade. Louderback received the bulk of the blame for allowing the fifth down, but no one else in the officiating crew or the chain gang came to Louderback’s rescue. “It’s on the second down, I go to coach McCartney to let him know it’s his last timeout,” recalled Louderback. “So they take their timeout, and they have their little discussion of what’s going on and go back and get ready to play the next down. And that’s when the down marker never changed.”

It’s worthy of note that spiking the ball to stop the clock, a common occurrence in the modern game, was only first permitted in the 1990 season. As a result, the officials and chain gang might be forgiven for overlooking the Buffs’ “non-play” on first-and-goal. “There’s no doubt in my mind is that Colorado’s very first down, where they stopped the clock and downed it,” said Louderback, “that mentally left everybody’s mind.”

The Colorado players, as innocent as the Missouri players as to what had transpired on the field, were nonetheless made to pay a price. In the next poll, the 4-1-1 Buffs were dropped to #14, down two spots despite the victory. Colorado and its fans could take heart, however, in the new #1 team, Michigan. Losses by #1 Notre Dame (36-31 to Stanford) and #2 Florida State (31-22 to Miami) allowed #3 Michigan to vault into first place. The Wolverines ranking represented the first time in the 54-year history of the Associated Press poll that a team with one loss had been ranked #1 this early in the season (Michigan was 3-1, having lost its opening game to Notre Dame, 28-24). As a result, despite there being eight undefeated and untied teams in the poll, a team with a blemish was still ranked #1.

Was it possible for a team with two blemishes to still compete for the national title?

Only if the Buffs ran the table in the Big Eight.

And if everyone would stop talking about the “Fifth Down Game”.

Tempest in a Teapot

While the NCAA made it clear that it had no authority to reverse the outcome of the Colorado/Missouri game, and while Bill McCartney made it clear he had no intention of forfeiting the game, there was precedent for a forfeit. In 1940, Cornell trailed Dartmouth, 3-0, late in the game. A mixup similar to the one in Columbia, Missouri, allowed the Big Red to score late and extend its unbeaten streak to 19 games with a 7-3 win. Later, when films confirmed that Cornell had scored on a fifth down play, Cornell yielded its claim to victory, proclaiming Dartmouth a 3-0 victor.

Would McCartney and Colorado do the same?

“It’s a once in a lifetime situation and I wish it hadn’t ended this way,” said McCartney. “It (the playing field) was not a fair test for our team. For us to forfeit under all these circumstances is absurd. If I felt like Missouri had outplayed us under fair conditions and we were inadvertently given an extra play at the end, I’d have met with my coaches and really search my heart to consider if we shouldn’t forfeit the game. But I don’t feel like that.” Neither the Big Eight nor the NCAA had any authority to tell Colorado otherwise, and the final score stood.

In Bozeman, I took my share of grief from those who knew I was a Buff supporter. Most of the comments were along the lines of: “Didn’t they teach you how to count when you were in Boulder?” My redemption came in an editorial in the Billings Gazette later that week. Rich Underwood, in his “Sports Commentary” column, penned: “As scandals go, it’s a tempest in a teapot.” Underwood went on to note that, while he was a Missouri graduate himself, there was no need to belabor the outcome. “Send flowers and condolences to Missouri,” he wrote, “and move on to next week.”

I could not have said it better myself.

Game Notes …

– With his 217 yards against Missouri, Eric Bieniemy became the all-time leading rusher in Colorado history. The previous record, of 2,958 yards, was held by Charlie Davis (1971-73). By the end of the 1990 season, Bieniemy pushed the new all-time mark up to 3,940 yards. Bieniemy would also set the new standards for career attempts (699, surpassing the 568 attempts of Bobby Anderson), and would set the new single season mark of 1,628 yards, besting the 1,386 posted by Charlie Davis in 1971).

– Bieniemy also had the longest non-scoring run of the season against Missouri, a 65-yarders. His 217 yards was a career-high, tying him with Mike Pritchard for 6th on the all-time single game list (Pritchard had his 217 yard game in the 1990 season opener against Tennessee).

– Charles Johnson, who would go on to be the hero of the Orange Bowl, was credited with his first career start against Missouri. His ten completions against Missouri was a career high.

– The Missouri game represented the sixth time in six games in the 1990 season in which the outcome of the Colorado game came down to the final minutes.

– Missouri would not rebound from the loss to Colorado. The Tigers would only defeat the Kansas schools in Big Eight play, settling for a 2-5 conference record; 4-7 overall. The win for the Buffs was their sixth straight in the series, by far the longest streak. The win represented only the sixth victory for Colorado in Columbia in 28 attempts (there were two ties to go with 20 losses).


5 Replies to “Missouri – The “Fifth Down” Game”

  1. I want to say that as you are a Colorado fan, this was an excellent and as objective as possible piece. I saw that game in 2000 when I obtained a copy of the Prime Network coverage that was missing the first seven minutes. It was really sad to see what was an excellent football game on both sides come down to what it is remembered for. I will confess to getting vociferously angry with McCartney; I had been a CU fan in large part due to the Sal Aunese story up until Mac, the good Christian, refused to forfeit. As much as I hated them, I actually pulled for Notre Dame and laugh hysterical when Rocket scored. Kudos on a job well done talking objectively about such a passionate subject.

  2. It’s a shame that this game ended with a fifth-down play, because that fact overshadowed what I think is the true story of this game: The unplayable field. As you can see in the video above of the final few plays, the announcers mention the turf a couple of times, even suggesting that it just be ripped up.

    There was some discussion in the media after the game that apparently Missouri’s field was some sort of weird sand-based turf; if it was heavily watered down, it would be a nice, trackable surface….if it was left dry, it would be like running on an ice-covered lake littered with marbles.

    By all accounts, the turf was dry as a bone….and the Tigers were wearing long, LONG cleats….and our poor Buffaloes were stuck with the inappropriate shoes that they brought with them. Forget the final five plays….it would be fascinating to watch the ENTIRE game and count how many times the Buffs simply slipped on this turf. As we all know, in college football you don’t have to have an opposing player touch you for you to be “down”….how many plays did the Buffs run for negative yardage? How many times did one of the top running backs in the country go for, say, minus three yards, without a Tiger anywhere near him?

    I think McCartney was right to call out Missouri for this field; watching the game live, it really started to feel VERY suspicious, as if Missouri purposely sabotaged their field in order to slow down a powerful offense. It’s a shame the “fifth down” has become the only memory of this game, since Missouri’s potentially unethical management of the field SHOULD be the story, not the controversial (but poetically justified) ending.

  3. Hey MontanaBuff,

    One quick note on the Fifth Down game, it was televised locally in Denver (KCNC with Les Shapiro and Dave Logan calling the game), but there was regional coverage as well on Prime Network (Dave Armstrong and Dave Lapham), kind of a watered down version of FSN in 1990.

    Here is a clip of Prime Network’s coverage of “the aftermath:”

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