CU at Its Best – No. 13         December 25, 1998 – Aloha Bowl          Colorado 51, Oregon 43

Note … This is the eighth in a series of the best CU games of the past 35 seasons. We will be counting down the top 20 games, with a new game each weekend leading up to the season opener against Hawai’i.

Previous submissions:

CU at Its Best No. 14 – September 14, 1985         Colorado 21, Oregon 17

CU at Its Best No. 15 – November 18, 1995          No. 9 Colorado 27, No. 7 Kansas State 17

CU at Its Best No. 16 – September 29, 2007        Colorado 27, No. 3 Oklahoma 24

CU at Its Best No. 17 –  August 30, 2003              Colorado 42, No. 23 Colorado State 35

CU at Its Best No. 18 – September 16, 1989         No. 8 Colorado 38, No. 10 Illinois 7

CU at Its Best No. 19 – December 31, 1999           Colorado 62, No. 25 Boston College 28 ( Bowl)

CU at Its Best No. 20 – September 2, 1995           No. 14 Colorado 43, No. 21 Wisconsin 7


Duck Soup

A match-up against the 6-5 Washington Huskies seemed the most likely scenario for the Buffs as championship games were being contested in other conferences.

Amongst the title games being played in early December, though, was a make-up game between Miami and UCLA. The game, originally scheduled for September 26th, had been re-scheduled to December 5th due to fears that a hurricane would hit the Miami area the last weekend in September. For UCLA, playing the game in December proved disastrous, as the 3rd-ranked Bruins fell to the Hurricanes, 49-45. The loss eliminated UCLA from consideration for the National Championship game (once beaten Florida State being chosen to face undefeated and top-ranked Tennessee), with the Rose Bowl being the Bruins’ consolation prize.

UCLA being selected to host the Rose Bowl set off a chain reaction, as Arizona, which had hoped to head to Pasadena for the first time in school history, was now relegated to the Holiday Bowl and a match-up with Nebraska. Oregon, in turn, which had anticipated a trip to San Diego to face the Cornhuskers, was now in line for a Christmas Day bowl game, the Aloha Bowl, with Colorado.

Oregon’s loss was Colorado’s gain, as the Buffs were now facing a ranked (21st) opponent with an 8-3 record rather than a 6-5 unranked opponent.

There should have been little reason for animosity between the two schools.

The teams had only met 13 times, with Colorado maintaining a 7-6 edge. In fact, there had been a bond between the schools since 1984, when tight end Ed Reinhardt nearly lost his life playing against the Ducks in Eugene. Reinhardt suffered a near fatal head injury during the game, but was saved with the quick aide of Oregon doctors. Head coach Bill McCartney made a special point after Reinhardt’s recovery to thank the people of Eugene and the University of Oregon.

That was in 1984, however. This was 1998.

In the teams’ most recent meeting, in the 1996 Cotton Bowl, the Oregon coaching staff and some players left the game with a bad taste in their mouths. Colorado won the game, 38-6, but it was the final touchdown which irked head coach Mike Bellotti. The score, a five-yard run by Ayyub Abdul-Rahmaan, came as a direct result of a fake punt run by the Buffs with only a few minutes left on the clock and the game well in hand. Bellotti had first stated “no comment” after the game when asked about the play, later sarcastically calling the play “good coaching”.

Neuheisel, for his part, apologized after the Cotton Bowl about the play, explaining that he was simply trying to avoid Colorado’s sixth blocked punt of the season. The animus was hard to miss though, as many pre-game stories in the media centered on the controversial call. Neuheisel continued to apologize, but acknowledged that the play, along with the final score, would probably be used as a motivational tool by the Oregon coaching staff.

At the conclusion of the Aloha Bowl, though, the coaches for both teams were not in need of motivational tools – they needed oxygen.

December 25th – Aloha Bowl          Colorado 51, No. 21 Oregon 43

It was indeed Christmas for Colorado at the 1998 Aloha Bowl, as the Buffs converted six turnovers from charitable Oregon into 23 points on the way to defeating the Ducks in a record-setting game, 51-43.

Quarterback Mike Moschetti threw for 213 yards and four touchdowns, while Jeremy Aldrich kicked three field goals. It almost wasn’t enough, however, as Oregon posted 22 fourth quarter points to almost pull off the greatest comeback in Division 1-A bowl history.

All-Big 12 cornerback and kick returner Ben Kelly opened the game with a 93-yard kickoff return for a Colorado touchdown. The fireworks, though, were just beginning. In its first two possessions, Oregon fumbled each time, netting Colorado a career-best 48-yard field goal by Jeremy Aldrich and a five-yard touchdown catch by Javon Green. The Buffs in the first quarter had only two first downs (with one coming by way of penalty), but had built a 17-0 lead.

And so it went the remainder of the game.

Oregon, behind co-Pac-10 player of the year (with UCLA quarterback Cade McNown) in quarterback Akili Smith, refused to go quietly. Smith, who had passed for 30 touchdowns on the year, completed 24-of-46 passes for 456 yards and two touchdowns as the Ducks continuously battled back.

Colorado held a halftime lead of 37-14, augmented to 44-14 after junior cornerback Damen Wheeler raced 52 yards with an interception to give the Buffs a seemingly insurmountable lead early in the third quarter. Still, despite all of the points on the scoreboard, the Buffs were having trouble sustaining drives (two of Moschetti’s touchdown passes went for over 50 yards – 58 yards to Marcus Stiggers; 72 yards to Darrin Chiaverini). Quick scores would normally be a nice problem to have, but with the heat and humidity on the floor of Aloha Stadium beginning to take its toll on the Colorado defense, Oregon clawed its way back. A 42-yard touchdown pass with 5:55 remaining brought the Ducks to within one score at 51-43.

Facing a fourth-and-nine near midfield with just over three minutes to play, Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel called for a fake punt. With much more on the line than had been the case in the 1996 Cotton Bowl, a pass from up-back Cortlen Johnson to Marcus Washington netted only eight yards, and Oregon was again in business.

But the Buff defense, which had surrendered four Oregon second-half touchdowns, made one last stand. Three incompletions and a sack later, Colorado was finally able to run out the clock and post the win.

“We talked about being able to control the line of scrimmage as one of our goals. The other was to get back in the big play business,” said Neuheisel after the contest. No one could doubt that Colorado had made big plays, and no one could alter the final score. Colorado finished the 1998 season with an 8-4 record, about where many had predicted. In the preseason polls, the Buffs were ranked 30th by the Associated Press; 28th by the USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll. When the final polls were released, Colorado stood at 26th in the AP; 28th in the coaches’ poll.

Here is the YouTube video of the game, in two parts, courtesy of CU at the Gamer Paul:



1000 – a nice round number

The 1998 Aloha Bowl represented Colorado’s 1000th game in school history.

With the win, Colorado’s record stood at 601-363-36. The bowl win represented the school’s 10th overall, and fifth consecutive. The Buffs’ under Rick Neuheisel were now 33-14 after four seasons. Many young players had been forced into the breach during 1998, and the win over Oregon to the Buff coaches, players, and fans, was not seen so much as the last win of 1998, but as the first win of 1999.

Not so fast.

In 1994, after witnessing Rashaan Salaam’s touchdown run put him over the 2,000-yard mark and put Iowa State away, I went to the store with my wife, Lee. When I returned, there was an anxious message on my machine from a college roommate, Charlie. “What is McCartney doing?” Charlie incredulously asked on the tape. It was then I learned for the first time that Bill McCartney had stepped down as head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes.

Fast forward to January 9, 1999.

The 1998 college football season had come to an exciting end, culminated a few days earlier with Tennessee’s Fiesta Bowl win to claim its first national title since the Truman administration. Colorado was still basking in the glow of its Aloha Bowl win a few weeks earlier. Most college football fans had moved on to other pursuits, with only the die-hard fans focused on the national letter of intent signing day the first week of February.

Other than reading up on verbal commitments from high school seniors, there was little excitement in the air.

Not so fast.

Returning home on a Saturday night after going to the movies with Lee, we noted the answering machine was blinking. It was Charlie. I flashed back to 1994 as I heard Charlie inquire of the machine: “What is Neuheisel doing? What is this about Washington?”

I instructed Lee to turn on ESPNnews while I took the dogs out. “Washington?”, I thought, as I stepped out into the January darkness. It didn’t make sense. Colorado was 8-4, with an abundance of talent returning for the 1999 season, whereas the 6-6 Huskies were losing their star quarterback, Brock Huard. The Washington Redskins? Perhaps. I hadn’t heard that Norv Turner had been fired by the NFL squad, but a move to the NFL by Neuheisel made more sense than a lateral move in college football.

I returned to the house convinced that Charlie had just heard a rumor.

But it was true.

Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel was leaving Colorado to coach the Washington Huskies. The prime motivation? Money. Neuheisel was receiving approximately $650,000.00/year to coach the Buffs. In Seattle, Neuheisel would earn over $1 million per year.

“I’m not motivated by money,” said Neuheisel after the announcement, “although I know that sounds a little funny right now.”

Real funny.

Neuheisel was just as disingenuous with his players, returning for a talk with his players two days after accepting the Washington job. “He just read from notes …. just like that”, said cornerback Ben Kelly of Neuheisel’s five minute speech to the team. “I think we expected a little bit more from him.” Linebacker Ty Gregorak perhaps best summed up the feelings of the team when he shouted after Neuheisel: “We’ll see you on September 25th”, a reference to Colorado’s upcoming 1999 game against Washington in Seattle.

Reaction was swift and brutal. Few understood the motivation of Neuheisel; many felt betrayed. Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post was harsher than most. In his January 10th column, Kiszla opened the column with: “The Colorado Buffaloes have no football coach this morning, which is an improvement over their position 24 hours earlier.”

Neuheisel left with potential members of the 1999 Colorado recruiting class on campus for a visit. Signing day was less than a month away, and if the Buffs were to salvage a decent recruiting season, Athletic Director Dick Tharp and his quickly assembled nominating committee would have to act fast.

The Search is on

The next week was a whirlwind of activity. Almost immediately, Northwestern head coach Gary Barnett became the frontrunner for the Colorado post. Barnett, an assistant to Bill McCartney at Colorado from 1984-91, seemed to be a good fit. At perennial doormat Northwestern, Barnett had fashioned unlikely back-to-back Big Ten titles for the Wildcats in 1995 and 1996, and had strong ties to Boulder and Colorado. Still, the details could not apparently be worked out, and Barnett, whose teams had fallen to 5-6 and 3-9 records in 1997 and 1998, fell out of the race.

Other names mentioned included Oklahoma State coach Bob Simmons and LSU coach Gerry DiNardo, both former Colorado assistant coaches. Also discussed were Purdue coach Joe Tiller, Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick, and Texas Christian coach Dennis Franchione. Other names were offered, some drifting towards the extreme, including local sports announcer (and former Colorado Buff and Denver Bronco) Dave Logan, Bill McCartney, and even Tom Osborne.

By the end of the week, though, the choice was Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Kubiak had been the back-up quarterback behind John Elway for almost ten years. After returning to his alma mater, Texas A&M, for a few years as an assistant coach, Kubiak returned to the Broncos to help coach the Broncos to their first-ever Super Bowl win after the 1997 season. The 1998 Broncos were well on their way to returning to the championship game, preparing to host the AFC Championship game against the New York Jets. One week after Neuheisel had announced he was leaving, the Buffs were poised to name their new head coach.

But Kubiak already had a job, and after the AFC Championship game win over the Jets, Kubiak decided to stay with the Broncos. Colorado officials, who had discontinued the search a few days earlier as Kubiak seemed to be a sure bet, were stunned. Neuheisel had now been gone nine days, and there was no coach immediately on the Buffs’ horizon. Precious recruiting time had been lost as Gary Kubiak waffled.

Two days later the University of Colorado finally was able to announce the hiring of its 22nd head coach.

It was Northwestern head coach Gary Barnett.

Aloha Bowl Game Notes –

– Mike Moschetti set a school record for a bowl game with four touchdown passes. The four scores also tied the career record for CU players in bowl games.

– Jeremy Aldrich hit on three field goals against the Ducks, a bowl game record. Aldrich’s five career field goals in bowl games set a new school record.

– Running back Dwayne Cherrington had a 59-run against Oregon, setting a new standard for non-scoring runs by a Buff in a bowl game.

– Punter Nick Pietsch, who tied Mitch Berger for the longest bowl game punt, at 62 yards, also set a new standard for punting average in a game, at 51.5 (six punts for 309 yards).

– Prior to Ben Kelly’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the longest kickoff return by a Buff in a bowl game was 91 yards, by Rick Engel (v. Alabama, 1969 Liberty Bowl, also going for a touchdown).



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