Colorado v. Alabama – 1991 Blockbuster Bowl

The 1991 season was a mixed bag for Colorado and its fans. An 8-2-1 regular season record, along with a share of a third consecutive Big Eight title, were certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Still, after posting an 11-1 record in 1989 and an 11-1-1 record in 1990, an eight win season seemed like a letdown to many in the Buff Nation.

Still, there were some memorable games in 1991, including a big 34-17 win over Oklahoma in Norman (when the Buffs were ranked 22nd and the Sooners ranked 12th), and the epic Ice Bowl 19-19 tie with Nebraska in Boulder which earned the Buffs a share of the Big Eight title.

After a 2-2 start, Colorado had gone 6-0-1 in conference play. The Buffs were far from dominant down the stretch, though, defeating unranked Oklahoma State, Kansas, and Iowa State by a combined 13 points.

The Buffs finished the regular season ranked 15th in the nation, earning a trip to Miami for the 2nd-annual Blockbuster Bowl. The opponent would be 8th-ranked and SEC runner-up Alabama, looking for its own measure of national recognition.

What followed was a memorable game which came down to the last minute of play …

Off to Miami

Thanksgiving weekend involved several traditional matchups of national significance. No. 3 Florida State traveled to No. 5 Florida. No. 8 Alabama hosted Auburn, while No. 11 Nebraska played host to No. 19 Oklahoma. The 8-1-1 Cornhuskers were looking to return to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1988. Oklahoma was shut out of the Big Eight race, but the Sooners, at 8-2, were looking for national and conference redemption after facing NCAA-imposed probation. The Sooners held tough against the Cornhuskers, but finally succumbed, 19-14. The win gave Nebraska a trip to Miami to face the No. 1 ranked Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl.

The Cornhuskers and Buffs each finished conference play 6-0-1, giving the Orange Bowl committee the option of choosing Miami’s opponent. No. 11 Nebraska was more attractive than No. 15 Colorado, so the Buffs were invited to play in Miami, but against a lesser opponent (Alabama) in a lesser bowl (Blockbuster).

Considering how the Buffs had played the last three weeks of the season, a game against No. 8 Alabama rather than No. 1 Miami was perhaps for the best.

Introducing Air Bill

While not in the national spotlight of the Orange Bowl, the second annual Blockbuster had a marquee matchup.

The Buffs were defending national champions, and Alabama was no pushover. The Crimson Tide, led by quarterback Jay Barker and all-everything David Palmer, were 10-1 and ranked 8th in the nation. After being shut out, 35-0, by Florida in the season’s second week, Alabama had run off ten straight wins.

It was clear that if the Buffs were to have any chance of posting a top ten finish, a convincing win over Alabama would be required. Logic required that it was time for the Buffs to go with their strengths – including a punishing rushing attack which had led the Buffs to a 20-0-1 Big Eight conference record (and a 30-4-1 overall record) over the previous three seasons.

Unless, of course, you are Bill McCartney.

Despite the undeniable success of the “I-bone”, Colorado head coach Bill McCartney decided that, if the Buffs were going to compete on the national stage in the 1990’s, the offense had to be upgraded. As a result, McCartney took advantage of the preparation time allowed for the bowl game to prepare for the 1992 season; not for Alabama bowl game. McCartney installed a new one-back, pass-oriented offense to replace the I-bone.

New offenses are normally installed during spring practice, when there is more time to focus on detail, with fall camp giving the offense the opportunity to fine tune the offense before the season opening game. But Coach Mac saw things differently. Why not start in December? With only one game to prepare for, the Buffs could get a head start on a successful 1992.

The only problem was that Alabama was still looking to finish off a successful 1991.

Blockbuster II

The Colorado/Alabama game would be a game of contrasts.

Alabama represented the tradition and history of college football; Colorado was a relative newcomer on the national stage. Colorado’s quarterback, Darian Hagan, would be playing his last game in a Colorado uniform, having led the Buffs to more wins than any other quarterback in Colorado history.

The quarterback for Alabama, conversely, was starting only his fourth game. Jay Barker, a redshirt freshman, started the final three games of the regular season for the Crimson Tide after senior quarterback Danny Woodson was suspended for breaking team rules.

There were similarities, however. Both teams had struggled in the last four games of the season. With Barker at the controls, the Tide had won all of four contests, but had scored only three offensive touchdowns over that span. The Buffs, meanwhile, had a tie with Nebraska and three uninspired close wins over inferior Big Eight competition.

With Colorado bringing a new offense to Miami, and Alabama sluggish with a freshman quarterback, the second Blockbuster Bowl had all the makings of a game dominated by the defenses.

Some 55 points later, opinions had changed.

December 28th – Blockbuster Bowl          No. 8 Alabama 30, No. 15 Colorado 25

Alabama completed its best season since 1979 with its best offensive output in two months. Behind three long scoring drives, the 11-1 Crimson Tide held off the Buffs, 30-25.

Jay Barker threw three touchdown passes and David Palmer contributed two scores to lead Alabama to the win. Colorado was led by Darian Hagan, who passed for 210 yards and two scores.

The game was a tossup in the first half, with David Palmer putting Alabama on top 7-0 with a 52-yard punt return for a score in the first quarter. A Ronnie Woolfork blocked punt set up a  one yard touchdown run by sophomore fullback Scott Phillips to tie the score. Early in the second quarter, linebacker Ted Johnson tackled Martin Houston in the endzone for a safety and a 9-7 Colorado lead. Both teams managed field goals before the break, with Jim Harper’s effort for the Buffs going through from 33 yards out.

At the half, the Buffs were up, 12-10. The first half scoring was aided by a blocked punt, an interception, and a fumble. The longest scoring “drive” of the half by either team was three yards.

The Buffs’ new offense, which had a total of 31 yards of production at half, added quickly to the total with a 62-yard pass and catch for a score early in the third. Darian Hagan hit wide receiver Michael Westbrook over middle on a short pass which Westbrook turned into the longest scoring pass in Colorado bowl history. Meanwhile, Barker put the Alabama offense in gear, marching the Crimson Tide on 90, 75, and 71 yard drives in the second half. The third drive culminated with a five-yard pass to David Palmer with 8:10 left to put Alabama up 30-19.

Down two scores, the Buffs were still not done. Darian Hagan hit Charles E. Johnson on a 13-yard strike to pull the Buffs to within 30-25 with 3:30 left. The Buffs had one last opportunity, taking over with 1:49 to play. Any hopes of a comeback ended, however, when James Hill was stopped short on fourth-and-one at the Alabama 33-yard line with 45 seconds to play.

The new one-back, pass oriented offense had resulted in 210 passing yards, but the debut could not be called a success. Hagan completed only 11 of 30 passes, while the rushing game came to a complete halt. For the day, the Buffs ran the ball 30 times, with the total output being -11 yards.

The loss gave the defending national champions an overall record of 8-3-1. When the final polls were released, the Buffs fell to 20th. The 1991 season had given the Buffs a third straight Big Eight title, but there was no feeling of fulfillment. Three losses after two seasons with only one loss each seemed a step down.

The Buffs would lose Hagan and other major contributors like center Jay Leeuwenburg, a unanimous first team All-America selection. Also lost were long time starters in nose tackle Joel Steed and safety Greg Thomas. Still, the talent remained for a run at a four-peat as Big Eight champions.

If only the Buffs could get the taste of the 8-3-1 season out of their mouths.

Game Notes –

– The 62-yard touchdown pass from Darian Hagan to Michael Westbrook was the longest in Colorado bowl history. The previous best came on a trick play, from punter Barry Helton to tight end (and future CU head coach) Jon Embree, which went for 31 yards and a score against Washington in the 1985 Freedom Bowl.

– The passing yardage total of 210 surpassed the 204 yards passing managed by the Buffs in the 1972 Gator Bowl against Auburn. Darian Hagan’s total bowl output of 304 yards passing (in four games) set a new standard, passing the 220 yards passing Ken Johnson had in two bowl games.

– Mitch Berger had 12 punts against Alabama, setting a bowl record. The previous mark was set by Byron “Whizzer” White, who had nine punts against Rice in the 1938 Cotton Bowl.

– Center Jay Leeuwenberg was a unanimous All-American selection in 1991. The only other Buff to earn All-American honors was defensive tackle Joel Steed, who was a first-team Walter Camp All-American. Leeuwenberg was a finalist for the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy, with Joel Steed also a finalist for the Lombardi Award.

– Colorado had five first-team All-Big Eight players in 1991, led by Leeuwenberg and Steed. Also named to the first team were linebacker Greg Biekert, safety Eric Hamilton, and defensive tackle Leonard Renfro.

– The 1991 season concluded with a split national championship for the second consecutive season. No. 1 Miami took out No. 11 Nebraska, 22-0, in the Orange Bowl, while No. 2 Washington handled No. 4 Michigan, in the Rose Bowl. Miami won the Associated Press poll, while Washington won the UPI coaches’ poll.

– In the Big Eight, three teams finished ranked in the final polls. Nebraska, at 9-2-1, finished 15th; Oklahoma, which defeated No. 19 Virginia, 48-14, in the Gator Bowl, finished at 9-3 and ranked 16th; while Colorado, at 8-3-1, finished with a No. 20 final ranking.


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