January 1st – at Miami – Orange Bowl           No. 1 Colorado 10, No. 5 Notre Dame 9

In a game largely devoid of offensive highlights, the Colorado Buffaloes overcame the loss of two key starters to defeat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, 10-9. The hard-fought win enabled Colorado to stake a claim to the Buffs’ first-ever national football championship. An Eric Bieniemy one-yard touchdown run tied the score midway through the third quarter, with Jim Harper’s extra point providing the margin of victory.

Neither the Buffs nor the Irish could dominate their opponent. In the end, the game would come down to the final minute – and one last controversy for Colorado.

First Half

In practice the week before the Orange Bowl, All-Big Eight wide receiver Mike Pritchard broke a bone in his left hand. Pritchard would play, but the air cast he was forced to wear eliminated him from kick returning duties. So for the opening kickoff of the 1991 Orange Bowl, cornerback Dave McCloughan took the field to return the Notre Dame kick. McCloughan was far from a drop-off in terms of kick-returning. In 1990, McCloughan was responsible for 80% of Colorado’s punt returns, leading the Buffs to 14.9/return average, best in the Big Eight and fourth in the nation. McCloughan served Colorado well on this night, returning the opening kickoff to the Colorado 35-yard line.

Belying the game’s final score, the first few minutes were a flurry of action.

On the game’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Darian Hagan took the ball and ran left. Instead of continuing with the option, though, Hagan pitched the ball to an on-coming Pritchard, who ran the reverse to midfield. The play was similar to the Hatcher-to-Campbell pitch reverse which had resulted in Campbell racing 39 yards for the first score of the 1986 Colorado/Nebraska game. Advantage, Colorado.

Three plays later the Buffs were forced to punt. Tom Rouen, though, did not get off the kick. Fumbling the snap, Rouen fell on the ball near midfield. Advantage, Notre Dame. “It just hit my fingers and bounced off,” said Rouen after the game. “I guess you could call it a big-time wake up call. Luckily, it didn’t hurt us.”

On the first play of scrimmage for the Irish, quarterback Rick Mirer was intercepted by junior free safety Greg Thomas on a pass tipped by outside linebacker Kanavis McGhee. Thomas returned the pick back into Notre Dame territory, setting up the Buffs at the Irish 49 yard line. Advantage, Colorado.

On the very next play, the Buffs dusted off the Statue of Liberty pass, with Hagan lofting the ball deep to tight end Rico Smith. The pass fell incomplete, but Bill McCartney had served notice that there would be no holds barred in his effort to lead the Buffs to the national title.

Less than three minutes of game clock had expired. No points had been scored. But there was excitement equal to the tension felt by coaches, players, and fans alike.

The kicking game made most of the news for the remainder of the first half. Notre Dame attempted a 50-yard field goal late in the first quarter, but it hit the right upright and bounced harmlessly away. “They had missed on a couple of opportunities, no doubt about that,” said Mike Pritchard. “We were fortunate that it was 0-0 at that point.”

Colorado’s Jim Harper drew first blood, connecting on a 22-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Notre Dame responded, though, with a nine-play, 62-yard drive. Running back Ricky Watters finished off the drive with a run from two yards out. Notre Dame had its first lead of the contest, 6-3. The score held at 6-3, however, when Colorado sophomore cornerback Ronnie Bradford blocked the extra point try of Irish kicker Craig Hentrich. The score remained 6-3 as the teams went to half. “That was the biggest play I’ve made at Colorado,” said Bradford of his first blocked kick at Colorado. “Coach (Brian) Cabral told me, ‘Ronnie, one day, you’re going to get one of these kicks.’ The sound of it, the thump, was magical.”

Still within a field goal of the lead, the Buffs were hit with two injuries late in the first half. Quarterback Darian Hagan went down with a knee injury and outside linebacker Kanavis McGhee was lost to a shoulder injury. Neither of the first-team All-Big Eight performers would return to the game.

Hagan’s injury meant that Colorado’s hopes were back in the hands of Charles S. Johnson. Johnson had seen action during the season, and was the quarterback who snuck over for the fifth-down win over Missouri. But he was not Hagan. Now Johnson was faced not only with a tough Notre Dame defense which had surrendered only a field goal to the Buffs in the first half, but also with the daunting task of leading the Buffs from behind if the Buffs were to secure the national championship.

And respond he did.

Second Half

The third quarter began ominously for the Buffs. Not only was their leader on the sideline in street clothes, but now the Colorado defense could not stop the Notre Dame offense. The Irish took the third quarter kickoff and marched smartly down the field. Visions of the 1989 second half domination by Notre Dame flashed across the minds of the Colorado faithful.

Notre Dame made it to the Colorado five-yard line before the Buffs stiffened. Three plays after a first-and-goal from the five, Lou Holtz’ squad was forced to settle for a 24-yard field goal. The first two plays from inside the ten were made by senior linebacker Paul Rose, playing for injured starter Kanavis McGhee. “I guess they wanted to test my side,” said Rose of his two stops for losses on the critical series. “I’m not the biggest guy in the world (Rose played at 6’2, 215), so I guess they figured they could run over me.” Notre Dame apparently figured wrong.

The Buffs were only down 9-3, but after Notre Dame forced Johnson and the Colorado off the field after only three plays on the Buffs’ next possession, the Irish seemed poised to take control of the game. Instead, on the first play from scrimmage after the Colorado punt, sophomore linebacker Chad Brown forced Ricky Watters to fumble. The ball was recovered by none other than Paul Rose. “He could easily have been MVP,” said Alfred Williams of his fellow linebacker. “He was a maniac, a mad man out there, and he did it all.”

After the fumble recovery, Johnson led the Buffs on a 40-yard, eight-play drive, culminated with a one-yard run by Eric Bieniemy. Harper’s kick was true, and Colorado had its second lead of the game. 10-9, Colorado.

Johnson more than held up his end during the drive, completing three key passes, including a nine yard pass to junior tight end Jon Boman on a third-and-one play. The completion set the Buffs up with a first-and-goal at the Notre Dame four yard line. Two plays later, Bieniemy scored.

Darian Hagan had the experience and was a better runner, but Johnson had managed in his second drive to accomplish what Hagan had only accomplished once in six quarters of Orange Bowl competition – he led the Buffs to the end zone.

The remainder of the game was left to the Colorado defense. In the 1990 Orange Bowl, the Irish had held the ball for nine minutes of the fourth quarter in a game-clinching touchdown drive. In the 1991 game, though, the Buff defense rose to the occasion. Notre Dame would hold the ball for only four minutes of the remaining game clock, and the Colorado defense would hold the Irish to a mere 35 yards of total offense the rest of the contest. The four Irish drives after Colorado took the lead went as follows:

1st drive – two plays – fumble

2nd drive – one play – interception

3rd drive – three plays – punt

4th drive – three plays – punt

The Colorado offense, while not scoring, did do its part. On one drive, a 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Another drive into Irish territory concluded with a punt only after Johnson was twice sacked for losses.

Still, the game was very much in doubt when Colorado took the ball over with 6:28 to play. Over the course of the next 11 plays, the Buffs took 5:23 off of the fourth quarter clock. It was not the stake-in-the-heart drive Notre Dame had put to Colorado a year earlier, but it seemed that it would be sufficient to preserve the win. Only 1:05 remained in the game. Notre Dame was out of time outs. All the Colorado defense had to do was continue its second half domination for Colorado to claim its national championship.

Fourth down. Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail stood back at the Irish ten yard line. Earlier in the day, on ESPN’s GameDay broadcast, Colorado head coach Bill McCartney was asked about Ismail, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting (BYU’s Ty Detmer won the award; Eric Bieniemy finished third) and who was regarded as one of the premier players in college football. When asked if he would kick to Ismail with the game on the line, McCartney responded jokingly: “Don’t look for us to kick to him unless there’s a strong wind back there.”

There was no strong wind. Punter Tom Rouen, who had responded well after his first quarter muff, punted the ball to Ismail around the Irish ten yard line. After seemingly being surrounded by Buffs at the 20, The Rocket took off to his right. Just past the 30, Ismail broke into the clear, racing down the right sideline for an apparent winning touchdown.

But wait ….

Back near the Notre Dame 30 yard line, there was a flag. Clipping, Notre Dame. Irish strong safety Greg Davis had clipped his Colorado counterpart, Tim James. Said James, “It was definitely a clip, he hit me from behind. I was in position to make the play, and all of the sudden I was crashing to the ground. The only part of Rocket I touched was his calf. I was hoping the refs saw it.”

Here is a video of the punt return. You can judge/see for yourself whether there was a penalty on the play (thanks to CU at the Gamer Paul for the find):


They did. The ball was brought back to the Irish 20. Four plays later, Deon Figures intercepted Mirer, dodging would-be Notre Dame tacklers until the game clock had expired.

Game over. 10-9, Colorado.

Rather than being able to savor the win, Colorado coaches and players were put on the defensive even before they had the chance to leave the field. Would the one-point win, marred at the end by a game-saving penalty, be enough to bring the title to Boulder? McCartney was quick to point out that no #1 team had ever played in a bowl game, won, and been denied a national title. Yet the debate was on. Colorado had a loss and a tie; Georgia Tech only a tie. Georgia Tech had played in lightly-regarded Atlantic Coast Conference, while Colorado had played six teams which played on New Year’s Day. Colorado was a stronger overall team, but had the “Fifth Down” game for detractors to resurrect. Now “The Clip” cast doubt on CU’s claim to be the nation’s best team.

Colorado had its bowl victory. It was the first bowl win for Bill McCartney in five tries; the first bowl win for the program in eight games, dating back to 1971.

Would it be enough for CU to win its first-ever football national championship?

Here is the YouTube video of the second half …

Or, if you prefer, here is a seven-minute highlight package of the entire game …


Pins and Needles

Earlier in 1990, after three years of office sharing with another attorney, I took off on my own to set up my own legal practice. The move was an expensive proposition, and weighed heavily in my decision not to travel to Miami for the 1991 Orange Bowl. As much as I wanted to be there, the monetary considerations outweighed the emotional. I would be relegated along with millions of others to watching the game on television. (A second consideration was my track record at bowl games with the Buffs. I had traveled faithfully to watch the Buffs in Houston in 1986, Los Angeles in 1988, and Miami in 1989, only to watch Colorado lose. Perhaps, I reasoned, the Buffs chances would improve without me there).

When Bob Costas opened NBC’s New Year’s Night coverage with: “If they (the Buffs) win tonight, the national championship is theirs”, the statement brought shivers. I had spent the day watching the bowl picture unfold. I was actually cheering for the Cornhuskers as they played Georgia Tech in the Florida Citrus Bowl. Of course, Nebraska tanked the game, losing 45-21 (the most points ever given up by a Nebraska squad in a bowl game). I also witnessed Miami’s dismantling of Texas, 46-3. Too little, too late for the Hurricanes, but the title was there for the Yellow Jackets if Colorado stumbled.

I had a few friends over for the game. They were not exactly rabid Buff fans, but they were supportive enough of my cause not to leave me alone for what would prove to be a tense evening. Neither team was ever as much as a touchdown in the lead, which meant that every single play was huge.

My night swayed with the fortunes of the game. When Notre Dame’s first quarter field goal attempt hit the upright and bounced away, I had a feeling it was our night. When Hagan and McGhee went down, though, my attitude grew black, convinced that there was someone out there to get us, someone who didn’t want to see Colorado fulfill its destiny.

My most vivid memory of the game, as it is for thousands of Colorado fans, is one of “The Clip”. I remember seeing Ismail being surrounded, escape, and make a run for daylight. Out of the corner of the screen, Tim James was taking an angle to try and stop The Rocket. In an instant, James was out of the picture, and Ismail was off, taking off down the sideline in front of the Colorado bench.

But there it was. As Ismail raced by, a sideline official flung a yellow flag to the ground. “FLAG! FLAG!!!!” I screamed at the television, pointing. My non-fanatic friends stared not at the screen, but at me, wondering what it was that I was screaming about. The television screen showed only a Notre Dame celebration, as Irish players mobbed Ismail in the end zone.

After a few seconds (it seemed like an eternity) the screen finally flashed back to the referee, who was seeking the compatriot who had witnessed a transgression. The call came quickly and was shown to the millions watching on television. Clipping, Notre Dame. Touchdown negated. Colorado’s chances of preserving the national title in tact.

Just a few minutes later, Deon Figures picked off Mirer to end the game. My friends were expecting jumps and cheers from their odd-acting fanatic, but there was nothing forthcoming from me.

Perhaps it was the emotion of the moment. Perhaps it was the energy spent viewing such a tight game from such a great distance. But there was no celebration. No shouts. Nothing like the Nebraska game two months earlier, when Colorado had rallied from a 12-0 deficit to win, 27-12.

“The game’s over”, I explained to my non-comprehending companions. “The worrying is just beginning.”

 Split Decision

The next day was one of celebration for both Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta, Georgia. The two major polls, the Associated Press poll of the nation’s sportswriters and the United Press International poll of college coaches, were split. The AP poll gave the national championship to Colorado; the UPI poll gave the nod to Georgia Tech.

The Associated Press poll was the fifth tightest in the 55-year history of the poll. Colorado received 39 of the 60 first place votes, while Georgia Tech received 20 and Miami one. Overall, CU received a total of 1475 poll points; Georgia Tech 1441. In the United Press International poll, the margin was even slimmer. Georgia Tech received 30 first place votes to 27 for Colorado (and two for Miami). In the point totals, though, the Yellow Jackets just edged out the Buffs, 847-846. It was widely reported that the last coach to vote came in at 5:15 Eastern Time on January 2nd. At the time, the vote was dead even. Nebraska’s Tom Osborne refused comment as to whether his vote denied Colorado the consensus national title, but Missouri head coach Bob Stull, whose team had been victimized by the “Fifth Down” controversy, indicated that he had in fact voted for Colorado.

“We would like to have won it (unanimously)”, said Colorado head coach Bill McCartney upon returning home to Colorado, concluding that coming out on top of the majority of all of the polls was “good enough for us”. In all, Colorado finished first in the Associated Press poll, the USA Today/CNN poll, the National poll, and the Scripps Howard power rankings. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, bested the Buffs in the UPI poll and the Scripps Howard writers poll.

“It’s a dream come true”, said McCartney when the AP poll was announced. “I accept this on behalf of all our coaches. They really coached this team. It’s really a gratifying reward for me to be a part of it.” Still, McCartney needed to defend his Buffs. “No one should expect us to defeat (Notre Dame) decisively. They’re just too good; they’re too talented. Just to beat them is enough. That ought to be evidence enough that you should hang on to your ranking.”

The Buffs had claimed their first national sports championship in any sport other than skiing. A split vote quieted the celebration – but only slightly.


Like many Colorado fans, the night after the Orange Bowl for me was a restless one. Unlike my fellow fanatics celebrating in Boulder and Miami, though, mine was a night of worry. Would the one point win be enough? Would the “Fifth Down” game or “The Clip” sway voters away from the Buffs? Colorado had posted the best record in college football over the past two seasons, 22-2-1, and yet was left to defend itself for “just barely” winning the Orange Bowl.

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 2nd, I got up to see if ESPN or CNN was reporting anything. Like the Buffs, I had to wait. Finally, before the morning shows had moved onto other events of the day, the AP poll was announced. Now it was time to celebrate, but only with moderation, as the UPI poll still had not come out. I went to work, not really concentrating on the day. My only consolation was that on the day after New Year’s no one else seemed interested in concentrating on work, either. I left early to catch the 4:30 p.m. edition of EPSN’s Sportscenter. When the broadcast began, there was Bill McCartney, before thousands of appreciative fans in the Coors Events Center in Boulder. It was McCartney who let the celebrants know that the UPI had given the national title to Georgia Tech by one point.

You could see it in McCartney’s face. All that he had worked for his entire professional life had just been given to him, then taken away just a few hours later. McCartney was diplomatic, and expressed his great appreciation for the AP title, but you knew that he was bitterly disappointed.

As were many Colorado fans, myself included. The UPI vote left a very large void in the celebration. Without the unanimous verdict, the championship was somehow tarnished.

Mark Wolf, a sports columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, summed up the results properly. “We shouldn’t make too much of sports championships,” Wolf wrote in his January 3rd column, “but neither should we make too little of them.” Going on to write:

“What transpired on the first day of 1991 won’t put a roof over a single homeless person’s head, won’t put a dent into the cost of the savings and loan bailout, and won’t make a stubble-cheeked soldier in the Persian Gulf feel any more secure.

“At its best, sports gives us a communion of the physical senses at a time when communal experiences are dwindling; when home video is eating into the experience of sharing a motion picture with a couple of hundred strangers in a large darkened room.

“If Broncos losses in Super Bowls can numb us, it certainly follows that CU’s national championship can enhance us. And it will fade too quickly.”

It was hard to savor a split national title. The Buffs had faced great adversity over the past two seasons, and yet had emerged with a 22-2-1 record. This from a team which had won a total of 24 games in the seven years I attended school in Boulder. The team which had lost to Drake, twice, and had been routinely humiliated by the likes of Oklahoma and Nebraska, was now at the top of the football world.

How could I, or any Buff fan, really complain about the shared title?

The Colorado Buffaloes were No. 1 !!!!!

How things looked on January 2, 1991

For the first time since 1978, there was a split between the major polls as to the national champion. Colorado, with a final record of 11-1-1, retained its #1 ranking in the Associated Press poll by defeating Notre Dame, 10-9, in the Orange Bowl. At the same time, the Buffs, despite their victory over Notre Dame, fell behind Georgia Tech in the UPI Coaches’ Poll. The Yellow Jackets could claim the nation’s only unbeaten record, going 11-0-1, with the only blemish being a 13-13 tie with North Carolina. Georgia Tech capped off its season with a convincing 45-21 win over an uninspired (and lethargic?) Nebraska squad in the Citrus Bowl. For his efforts, coach Bobby Ross was awarded coach of the year honors. Meanwhile, the Heisman trophy went to Ty Detmer of BYU, with Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail from Notre Dame finishing second and Colorado’s Eric Bieniemy finishing third.

In going through the 1990 Big Eight season undefeated, Colorado completed back-to-back unblemished conference records. No team other than Oklahoma and Nebraska ever accomplished this feat in Big Eight play (Missouri won back to back titles in 1941-42 when the Big Eight was the Big 6). The Buffs started slowly, going 1-1-1, but then ran out ten straight wins, running through the Big Eight by an average score of 38-16. Nebraska finished 9-3, losing to both national co-champions, along with an embarrassing loss to Oklahoma, 45-10. The Cornhuskers finished outside the top 20 in rankings for the first time since 1968, finishing 23rd. Oklahoma, the league’s dominant team of the 1980’s, started the 1990’s on probation, going 8-3 but prohibited from going to bowls. The Sooners finished 17th in the polls, the highest ranking for a Big Eight team other than the Buffs.

Game Notes –

– The bowl win was only the 5th for Colorado in 15 tries, and broke a seven game bowl losing streak, dating back to a 29-17 win over Houston in the 1971 Bluebonnet bowl.

– The 31 pass attempts by Notre Dame quarterback Rick Meier was the most ever by a Colorado opponent in a bowl game, besting the 26 attempts by Washington’s Chris Chandler in the 1985 Freedom bowl. Mirer’s three interceptions were also a high for any opposing quarterback.

– The nine points posted by Notre Dame marked the fewest by any Colorado bowl opponent. The previous best by the Colorado defense was 17 points, given up to Tulane in the 1970 Liberty Bowl and to Houston in the 1971 Bluebonnet Bowl.

– Backup quarterback Charles Johnson was named the Orange bowl Most Valuable Player, despite his overall numbers. Johnson completed five-of-six passes for 80 yards, rushing four times for a minus-25 yards.

– Eric Bieniemy was held to 86 yards on 26 carries, his lowest total of the season. The only other game under 100 yards for Bieniemy in 1990 came against Texas, when the Longhorns held Bieniemy to 99 yards on 26 carries (but Bieniemy did have three touchdowns in the Texas game). Bieniemy finished his Colorado career with the most rushes in Colorado bowl history, 70, but second in rushing yards (296, behind Bobby Anderson’s 362 yards on 52 carries)

Final Associated Press Poll – January 2, 1991

1. Colorado

2. Georgia Tech

3.  Miami

4.  Florida State

5.  Washington (Colorado defeated 20-14)

6. Notre Dame (Colorado defeated 10-9)

7.  Michigan

8.  Tennessee (Colorado tied 31-31)

9.  Clemson (Georgia Tech defeated, 21-19)

10. Houston

Poll Notes –

Colorado also defeated No. 12 Texas, 29-22 and No. 17 Oklahoma 32-23, while losing to No. 25 Illinois, 23-22

Georgia Tech also defeated No. 23 Virginia, 41-38

Both teams defeated No. 24 Nebraska.

Colorado in 1990: 5-1-1 against the final Top 25; 4-0-1 against Top 20.

Georgia Tech in 1990: 3-0 against final Top 25; 1-0 against Top 20.



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