The 1991 Season – Buffs Three-peat as Big Eight champions

As college football remains in limbo, we’ll continue to take a look back at some of the best seasons in the CU at the Game Archives.

Previously posted

Here is a look back at the 1991 Season. The Buffs managed a three-peat as Big Eight champions, finishing in a tie with Nebraska both in the standings and on the field (after an epic 19-19 tie in freezing conditions). Tough non-conference losses to Baylor and Stanford kept CU out of the national championship race, but a 6-0-1 run in the Big Eight gave the Buffs a 20-0-1 three-year run in the conference, and a bowl game in Miami against Alabama, where Bill McCartney scrapped the I-Bone in favor of “Air Bill”.

The 1991 Season … 

Preseason 1991 – Conference realignment begins 

The old saying “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard” applied equally to the conferences themselves after a series of announced realignments nationwide.

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) adopted Arkansas from the Southwest Conference and independent South Carolina to form a 12-team conference, effective in 1992. The Big Ten Conference readied itself to welcome its eleventh member, Penn State, with the new conference schedule to be in place by 1993.

Florida State, meanwhile, opted out of its independent status, hooking up with the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC, heretofore known as a basketball-only conference, was more than happy to take in the top-ranked Seminoles. Finally, another conference name usually associated only with basketball, the Big East, created a football conference consisting of Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Rutgers, Temple, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College. The new conference would not have a full slate of conference games until 1993, but insisted it would crown champions in 1991 and 1992 nonetheless.

The Big Eight and Pac-10 were unaffected by the latest round of changes, but the rumors continued to circulate. There was talk of Nebraska joining the Big 10, of Texas and/or Texas A&M joining the Big Eight or the Pac-10, and of the merger between the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference.

Above it all was Notre Dame, with its exclusive deal with NBC to broadcast its home games.

Why share television revenue with eight or nine other schools, the reasoning went, when you can keep it all for yourself? Of course, the revenue stream would depend on Notre Dame being successful on the field, something which independents such as Temple and Rutgers could not depend upon. The safety of shared revenue made sense to more and more independents, and the conference maps of college football were re-written as a result.

Scouting the Nation

To open the 1991 season, Florida State was the near consensus pre-season choice to replace Colorado and the Seminoles’ ACC rival, Georgia Tech, as the nation’s No. 1 team. Coming off of a 10-2 campaign in 1990, the Seminoles featured a potential All-American backfield with quarterback Casey Weldon, running back Amp Lee, and fullback Edgar Bennett.

Michigan, with quarterback Elvis Grbac and wide receiver Desmond Howard, also figured to challenge. A showdown of the two top-ranked teams was scheduled for Ann Arbor on September 28th.

When the pre-season poll was announced, Florida State received 49 of the 60 first place votes. Michigan, with five votes, came in 2nd. Other schools receiving first place votes included No. 3 Miami (2), No. 4 Washington (1), No. 5 Florida (1), No. 9 Clemson (1), and No. 12 Houston (1).

Noticeably out of the mix were defending co-national champions from 1990, Georgia Tech and Colorado. In the first poll of the 1991 campaign, the Yellow Jackets were ranked eighth; the Buffaloes thirteenth.

In the Big Eight, if the Associated Press pre-season poll was to be an indicator, it was time for the Oklahoma Sooners to return to prominence. NCAA-inflicted probation removed, the Sooners, coming off of an 8-3 season in 1990, were ranked No. 10. Colorado, at No. 13, was just ahead of Nebraska, which opened 1991 ranked 15th.

No other Big Eight school was considered close to meriting national attention.

Out of the Limelight – Preseason outlook for the defending national champions

In 1990, the Colorado Buffaloes had faced the nation’s most difficult schedule, with six of their 13 opponents playing on New Year’s Day. The same could not be said for the 1991 schedule. Colorado’s preseason opponents for 1991 included Wyoming (9-4 in 1990); Baylor (6-4-1); Minnesota (6-5) and Stanford (5-6). Decent teams all, but not the caliber of the slate which included Tennessee, Illinois, Washington, and Texas the year before.

The dilution of the schedule was welcome, though, as the 1991 Buffs would have to overcome a tremendous loss of talent. No fewer than nine Buffs from the 1990 team were taken in the NFL draft, including two first-rounder picks (Mike Pritchard and Alfred Williams) and two second-rounders (Eric Bieniemy and Kanavis McGhee).

Head coach Bill McCartney, though, remained optimistic. “This team has big shoes to fill, because we’ve graduated several celebrated players” said McCartney, “but I wouldn’t classify it as a rebuilding year. We have to answer that challenge by being hungry, disciplined, and by displaying a great work ethic.”

The greatest potential weakness on the offensive side of the ball was on the line. Only one starter, center Jay Leeuwenburg, returned. “They’re young and inexperienced”, said McCartney of his new front five, “but I’m confident that someone will rise to the occasion.” Quarterback Darian Hagan returned, but was coming off of knee surgery. If Hagan could not go, the job would be left for sophomore Vance Joseph, who had completed all of five-of-seven passes in his collegiate career.

The positions of running back and wide receiver were left wide open with the departure of record-setters Eric Bieniemy and Mike Pritchard. Red-shirt freshman Kent Kahl was given the task of replacing the Buffs’ all-time leading rusher, to be backed up by sophomores Chuck Snowden and Dennis Collier. At the wide out position, the Buffs remained stocked, with potential stars returning in the form of seniors Rico Smith and Mark Henry to be backed by sophomore Charles Johnson and red-shirt freshman Erik Mitchell.

While the offense had questions, the Buff defense had answers.

The defensive line would be anchored by junior Joel Steed, along with returning starter Leonard Renfro and junior Marcellous Elder. The linebacking corps was a tale of contrasts. On the inside of Colorado’s 3-4 alignment were two potential All-Big Eight performers in Chad Brown and Greg Biekert, while on the outside the Buffs would struggle to replace All-American performers in Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee. The secondary would be an area of strength, featuring returning starters in safety Greg Thomas and cornerback Deon Figures.

“I look for our team to be hungry, aggressive and enthusiastic,” said their head coach. “I expect our team to fiercely defend our title in the Big Eight.”

For McCartney to put his young team in a position to defend, a non-conference slate of mid-level teams had to be overcome. Stanford and Baylor were being given some pre-season votes in the polls, and Wyoming had strung together a nine-game winning streak the previous year. “I think our schedule is very challenging,” said McCartney, going on to add, “I see the Big Eight as being improved from top to bottom. There won’t be any easy games, for anyone, the way the conference is shaping up.”

Whether McCartney’s words were to be prophetic or merely pre-season coach-speak would be tested soon enough. The defending co-national champions would open the season with three straight home games, commencing with a night game against Wyoming on September 7th.

Game One …

September 7th – Boulder           No. 12 Colorado 30, Wyoming 13

The Colorado Buffaloes opened the defense of their national championship at home with a satisfying 30-13 win over Wyoming.

Darian Hagan, showing no ill effects from his off-season surgery, demonstrated his talents before a national ESPN audience in rushing for 42 yards, passing for 151, and returning punts for 79 more.

The final score was more lopsided than the game itself.

Colorado opened the scoring with a three-yard Hagan run and a 40-yard Jim Harper field goal to post a 10-0 first quarter lead. The next two scores belonged to the Cowboys, however, as Wyoming knotted the score at 10-10 early in the third. Sophomore fullback James Hill put the Buffs on top to stay minutes later with a one-yard plunge. The point after was blocked, however, leaving the score at 16-10, Colorado.

The blocked PAT and subsequent Wyoming field goal gave the Buffs a precarious 16-13 lead heading into the final quarter.

Only after a 17-yard scoring pass from Hagan to Mark Henry and a five-yard touchdown run by Kent Kahl were the Buff faithful allowed to enjoy the final few minutes.

Colorado’s defense surrendered 13 points to Wyoming, but little else. The Cowboys were limited to 67 yards rushing on 35 carries, and the Buff defense sacked Wyoming quarterbacks nine times. “Our defense was tremendous”, said McCartney, “That’s some of the best defense we’ve played here.”

… Continue reading story here …

Game Two … 

September 14th – Boulder                          No. 23 Baylor 16, No. 12 Colorado 14

Baylor kicker Jeff Ireland’s 35-yard field goal with 0:51 remaining gave the Baylor Bears an unlikely 16-14 win over the Colorado Buffaloes.

Ireland’s third field goal of the game came about as a direct result of a blocked field goal attempt by Colorado kicker Jim Harper.  Up 14-13 with just over three minutes to play, the Buffs lined up for a 24-yard field goal to give the Buffs a 17-13 lead.  Instead, Satana Dotson blocked the kick, with the ball eventually recovered by the Bears on the Buffs’ 30-yard line, some 65 yards downfield.  Three plays later, Ireland sent the Buffs and a stunned crowd of 50,754 home with the Buffs first loss at home in fifteen games.

Baylor owned the first half of the game in every category, including a remarkable 20:50-9:10 edge in time of possession.  Still, the halftime score was 7-3, Colorado, as the Buffs posted the only touchdown of the half, a 26-yard pass from Darian Hagan to senior tight end Sean Brown.  Baylor, though, responded in the second half, scoring ten unanswered points in the third quarter to pull ahead, 13-7, going into the final fifteen minutes. Colorado finally regained the lead, 14-13, on the first play of the final stanza, on a Kent Kahl’s 10-yard scoring run.

With just over three minutes remaining, the Buffs seemed to have the game under control.  Lining up for a 24-yard chip shot field goal, Jim Harper was in a position to force the Bears to score a touchdown to win.  After Dotson’s block and subsequent scramble for the ball put the ball deep in Colorado territory, though, it was the Baylor kicker who was the hero.

The unexpected loss resulted in a poll free fall for the 1-1 Buffs.  In the AP poll, Colorado dropped from #12 to #19, while Baylor jumped from 23rd to 14th with the win.  Colorado was not only distancing itself from the national title chase, but it also appeared that the Buffs were to be also-rans in the Big Eight.  While the Buffs were stumbling, Oklahoma and Nebraska were both undefeated and in the top ten (Oklahoma 7th; Nebraska 9th).

A year earlier, Colorado was 1-1-1 after a loss to Illinois, falling to 20th in the polls.  The 1990 Buffs responded with ten straight wins and a national title.

The question Colorado fans were left to mumble to themselves as they left with an unexpected defeat: Would the 1991 Buffs fare as well?

Continue reading story, including my essay for the game, “Deja vu”, here

Game Three … 

September 21st – Boulder           No. 19 Colorado 58, Minnesota 0

The Minnesota Golden Gophers came to Boulder 1-0 on the young season, hoping to build on their 6-5 effort from 1990. Instead, it was the Buffs who left Folsom Field with an improved state of mind, as Colorado mauled Minnesota, 58-0. In all, Colorado amassed 612 yards of total offense, surpassing the 600-yard mark for only the eighth time in school history.

Leading the onslaught was quarterback Darian Hagan, who passed for two touchdowns, connecting on 7-of-8 passes for 162 yards. The tone was set early, as Minnesota turned the ball on the first possession of the contest. On the Buffs’ first play, Hagan connected with tight end Rico Smith on a 40-yard touchdown.

In all, the Buffs scored on six of seven first half possessions on their way to a 38-0 halftime lead.

The second half allowed the Buffs to give younger players a chance to give the Folsom Field faithful a glimpse of the future. In all, 72 players saw action. Sophomore quarterback Vance Joseph led the Buffs to three touchdowns, while freshman quarterback Kordell Stewart also played. Stewart led the Buffs in rushing, picking up 73 yards on eight carries, including a four-yard fourth quarter touchdown run.

Another true freshman who Buff fans would come to know well, running back Lamont Warren, scored the first two touchdowns of his career, including a 30-yard run midway through the second quarter.

The rout of Minnesota allowed Colorado to rise up two spots in the next poll, up to No. 17.

The Buffs were now 2-1 on the young season, just one spot below Nebraska, which had fallen, 36-21, at home to No. 4 Washington. A road game against 0-2 Stanford and a home game against a mediocre Missouri squad were all that stood between the Buffs and a shot, albeit on the road, against undefeated and 6th-ranked Oklahoma.

A rout of Minnesota in the books, a third consecutive run for the national title once again seemed plausible.

Continue reading story here

Game Four …

September 28th – at Stanford           Stanford 28, No. 17 Colorado 21

“Touchdown” Tommy Vardell lived up to his nickname, scoring three touchdowns in leading Stanford to a 28-21 upset of 17th-ranked Colorado. Vardell rushed for 114 yards, also contributing 97 yards receiving, in posting almost as many total yards as the entire Buff offense. On the day, Stanford out-gained Colorado, 485-270, holding the Buffs to their lowest offensive output in two years.

Stanford took a 7-0 lead on the game’s first drive on a Vardell one-yard run. In the second quarter, however, the Buffs responded with 14 points of their own. Red-shirt freshman cornerback Chris Hudson returned an interception 40 yards for one score, with Darian Hagan connecting with red-shirt freshman wide receiver Michael Westbrook from 20 yards out to give Colorado a 14-7 halftime lead.

The remainder of the game was left to the Stanford offense, with Vardell scoring twice in the fourth quarter.

Vardell’s third score on the day gave Stanford a 28-14 lead with only 6:37 to play. A ten-yard touchdown run by Lamont Warren pulled the Buffs to within seven a few minutes later, but the Buffs would not see the ball the remainder of the afternoon.

Colorado was now 2-2 on the season, and defense of its national title was over … before conference play even began.

The next poll saw Colorado clinging to the final poll spot, at No. 25. The Big Eight championship was still a possibility, and a three-peat as conference champions was plenty of incentive.

Still, Buff fans had to be realistic. If Colorado could be handled by a Stanford squad which had come into the contest 0-2, how could the Buffs be expected to handle the likes of Oklahoma and Nebraska?

The Buffs had two weeks to think about that, having a bye week before facing Missouri.

It would be a long two weeks.

Continue reading story, including my essay for the game, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”, here

Game Five … 

October 12th – Boulder           No. 25 Colorado 55, Missouri 7

There is nothing like a loss to bring out the frustrations of a good team.

After being surprised by Baylor in the second game of the season, Colorado had responded with a 58-0 rout of Minnesota. On the heels of the disappointing setback at Stanford in game four, the Buffs again bounced back, this time with a 55-7 mauling of Missouri.

In 101 years of football, Colorado had accumulated over 600 yards in total offense only seven times. Now, the Buffs surpassed 600 for the second time in three games, rolling up 656 yards against the Tigers. The 656 yards represented the fourth highest total in school history.

Quarterback Darian Hagan connected with Michael Westbrook from 21 yards out on Colorado’s first drive of the game, and the Buffs never looked back. A five-yard touchdown run by fullback James Hill near the end of the first quarter pushed the lead to 14-0.

After a 21-yard field goal by Jim Harper, Hagan connected with senior tight end Sean Brown on an 11-yard score as Colorado moved to a 24-0 lead late in the second quarter. On the day, in limited duty, Hagan passed for 119 yards and rushed for 101 more.

In the second half, a number of players saw action as Colorado continued to dominate.

The Buffs scored on their first five possessions of the second half, holding Missouri scoreless until the scoreboard read 55-0. Backup quarterback Vance Joseph ran for one score (for 15 yards), and connected with Michael Westbrook (for 35 yards) for another. Red-shirt freshman wingback Erik Mitchell and senior fullback Tony Senna each scored their first career touchdowns for the Buffs. Mitchell took the ball in from 15 yards out; Senna from the one. In all, six different Buffs scored touchdowns in the rout.

Continue reading game story here

Game Six … 

October 19th – at Oklahoma          No. 22 Colorado 34, No. 12 Oklahoma 17

Colorado put together a pair of 99-yard touchdown drives on its way to a 34-17 upset of 12th-ranked Oklahoma.  In scoring the most points ever against the Sooners in Norman, the Buffs out-gained the Sooners 371 yards to 251.  Darian Hagan accounted for 211 yards of total offense on the day, including 10-of-15 passing for 150 yards and three touchdowns.

After witnessing Oklahoma put up a score on their first possession, Colorado scored 20 unanswered first quarter points.  The first score came on a six-yard pass from Hagan to tight end Sean Brown, culminating an eight-play, 99-yard drive. The extra point attempt failed, leaving the Buffs behind, 7-6.

But the Buffs would not be behind for much longer.

The next two came in rapid succession as the Buffs, taking advantage of Oklahoma turnovers, scored twice more in the next three minutes.  Hagan connected with red-shirt freshman tight end Christian Fauria from five yards out after the Buffs intercepted Oklahoma quarterback Cale Gundy.

The Sooners fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Buffs quickly took advantage, with Hagan teaming up with wide receiver Michael Westbrook from 15 yards out.

With five minutes remaining in the first quarter, the score had been 7-0, Oklahoma. Before the quarter was over, though, Colorado was up 20-7, and Hagan had a school record with three touchdown passes in one stanza.

The Sooners would not go quietly, though.

Oklahoma put up ten points in the second quarter to pull within three points, 20-17, with 3:31 to play before half.  The Buffs were undeterred, as Colorado marched 64 yards before half to pull ahead, 27-17.  The ten-play drive was spearheaded by junior tailback Scott Phillips, subbing for injured starter James Hill.  Phillips contributed a 21-yard reception from Hagan to keep the drive alive before scoring on an eight yard run just before half.  The score was Phillips’ first ever as a Buff, joining Christian Fauria in posting his first ever points for Colorado on the day.

[It was the sixth game of the season, and the Buffs had already seen seven players score their first offensive touchdowns.   If nothing else, the 1991 Colorado offense was at least diversified.]

Up ten points at half, the Buffs certainly could not rest easy.  But the Buff defense rose to the occasion, shutting out the Sooners over the last 30 minutes.  The only score of the second half came on a three-yard run by Lamont Warren, capping a 14-play, 99-yard drive to put Colorado ahead, 34-17. A 99-yard drive is unusual in any game, against any opponent, but the Buffs pulled it off against a highly ranked Oklahoma team, twice in the same game – in Norman!

Continue reading game story, including my essay for the game, “Back in the Hunt”, here

Here is the YouTube video of the Oklahoma game … 

Game Seven …

October 26th – at Kansas State          No. 16 Colorado 10, Kansas State 0

The 1991 Kansas State team was different from the Wildcat teams which Big Eight teams had grown accustomed to playing.

Third year coach Bill Snyder was building a program in Manhattan.  The joke of the conference throughout much of the ‘1980’s (and, in all honesty, for a number of decades), Snyder had taken a woeful team over in 1989, going 1-10 in first campaign.  The second team improved to 5-6, and in 1991 the Wildcats were 4-2, falling only to No. 3 Washington and No. 9 Nebraska.  The 38-31 scare put into the Cornhuskers in Lincoln put the world on notice that these Wildcats would have to be dealt with from here on as a serious threat.

It was all the Buffs could do to come away with a 10-0 win against a resilient Wildcat squad.  The Colorado defense carried the day, posting a shutout for the second time in a season for the first time since 1977.  Colorado sacked Wildcat quarterback Paul Watson nine times on the day, including three by sophomore defensive tackle Leonard Renfro.

Colorado’s offense could muster only one touchdown, and that coming after Kansas State’s Watson fumbled the ball deep in Wildcat territory early in the second quarter. Sophomore nose tackle Jeff Brunner recovered the fumble, giving the Buffs a golden opportunity.  Lamont Warren capped the 13-yard “drive” with a seven yard run.  Midway through the third, kicker Jim Harper connected from 29 yards out to post the final points of the game.

Not a convincing win, but for the 5-2 Buffs (3-0 in conference play), a win was a win.

The next poll saw the Buffs move up only one spot, to No. 15, but rankings were no longer the focus.  Four games remained in the season, and the three teams remaining on the Buffs’ schedule not named Nebraska had a combined record, as October came to a close, of 6-13-2.  The season, and the chance to three-peat as Big Eight champions, then, would come down to one game.  The Cornhuskers, despite a 63-6 mauling of hapless Missouri, held at No. 9 in the polls.  Nebraska was also 3-0 in Big Eight play.

Continue reading story, including my essay for the game, “Nerves of Spaghetti”, here

Game Eight … 

November 2nd – Boulder          No. 15 Colorado 19, No. 9 Nebraska 19

In the bitter cold of Folsom Field, Colorado and Nebraska fought to a 19-19 tie in a classic college football game.

The tie was preserved for Colorado when senior free safety Greg Thomas blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt by Nebrasak kicker Byron Bennett as time expired. Three successive time outs by the Buffs prior to the attempt served to freeze not only the Cornhusker kicker, but also the sell-out crowd of 52,319 who had braved the cold to attend.

The last seconds of the contest will be most remembered, but there were other moments of excitement as the game witnessed a number of momentum changes.

Both teams scored on their first possession, with Nebraska posting a field goal before the Buffs responded with an 11-play, 75-yard drive to take the lead. Darian Hagan did the honors from 11 yards out to give the Buffs a 7-3 lead. Midway through the second quarter, Jim Harper hit on a 27-yard field goal to up the Colorado lead to 10-3.

Just before half, Nebraska seemed to take the momentum, as Nebraska quarterback Keithen McCant hit split end Jon Bostick for a 49-yard touchdown. Nebraska was a PAT away from tying the score at 10-10 with just 1:17 before half, but the Buffs had other ideas. Sophomore defensive tackle Jeff Brunner blocked the extra point attempt, with linebacker Greg Biekert scooping up the ball and racing 85 yards for a rare defensive extra point. The two point play netted the Buffs a 12-9 halftime advantage.

Nebraska tied the score with a 35-yard Bennett field goal in the third quarter before Colorado regained the lead, 19-12, late in the stanza on a four-yard run by Hagan. A seven-yard score by Nebraska’s Derek Brown then tied the score at 19-19 with 6:41 to play.

Each team had chances to pull out the win in the game’s final minutes, with Nebraska having the best chance before Thomas’ heroics preserved the tie for Colorado. Nebraska got the ball with about a minute to play, and made it as far as the Colorado 23-yard line, but was unable to pull out the victory.

“We don’t go out in that kind of weather to play for a tie,” said McCartney after the game. “We played for a win. I’m disappointed with a tie anytime, but we’re still very much in the Orange Bowl picture.”

Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne was similar in his comments: “We still have a good shot at the Big Eight championship. Naturally, the tie hurts. But I guess it beats the alternative.”

Continue reading story, including my essay for the game, “Fit to be Tied”, here

Here is the YouTube video of the game … 

Game Nine … 

November 9th – at Oklahoma State           No. 14 Colorado 16, Oklahoma State 12

The Oklahoma State Cowboys entered their 1991 game against Colorado with an 0-7-1 overall record, having managed only a 6-6 tie against equally hapless Iowa State.  There was little for the Cowboys to play for in November other than pride.

The Colorado Buffaloes, meanwhile, still had the chance at a third straight Big Eight title.

It would be fair to expect, then, for the Buffs to roll to a blowout win over the Cowboys.

Not so.

Senior wide receiver Robbie James made a name for himself with only six seconds remaining against Oklahoma State.  With Colorado trailing 12-10, James connected with tight end Christian Fauria on a 20-yard pass off of a fake field goal attempt to give the Buffs a 16-12 victory.  The unlikely outcome, while not pretty, kept the hopes of an Orange Bowl birth alive for Colorado.

The game featured ten turnovers, including six by Colorado.  After battling to a 3-3 halftime tie, the Buffs took the lead for the first time with 5:06 left in the third quarter when Darian Hagan passed to senior tight end Rico Smith for a ten-yard score.  Early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys tied the score on a touchdown pass from quarterback Kenny Ford to Robert Kirksey.

Then things really got interesting.

On Colorado’s next drive, cornerback Mike Clark blocked a Mitch Berger punt out of the endzone.  Just like that, in less than two minutes of play, the 14th-ranked Buffs had gone from a 10-7 lead to a 12-10 deficit.

The Buffs had several opportunities to score during the fourth quarter, but failed to get close enough for a field goal attempt. After Mitch Berger pinned the Cowboys at their own ten-yard line late in the game, the Colorado defense forced a three-and-out, with Colorado taking over at the Oklahoma State 43-yard line with 1:49 to play.

In the ensuing ten-play, 30-yard drive, the 25,000 Cowboy faithful in attendance witnessed great football drama.  Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan left the game with a sprained ankle on the drive’s third play.  With the game – and the Buffs’ New Year’s Day hopes – on the line, substitute Vance Joseph connected with James Hill for a 17-yard gain on fourth-and-14.  Later, on third-and-ten, Joseph picked up ten yards and a first down on a quarterback draw.

Positioned for a game-winning field goal with six seconds remaining, Oklahoma State twice called time out to ice field goal kicker Jim Harper.  Rather than setting the ball down for Harper, holder Robbie James spun away from the kicker, finding a wide open Fauria at the OSU ten-yard line.  Fauria scored the winning points just a time expired, giving the Buffs a hard-fought 16-12 win.

The win kept the Buffs chances of a return to the Orange Bowl for a third straight year alive, but just barely.

Continue reading game story here

Here are YouTube highlights of the game (fake field goal in the 35-minute of the highlights) … 

Game Ten … 

November 16th – Boulder          No. 16 Colorado 30, Kansas 24

The Kansas Jayhawks, despite a lopsided 59-23 loss to Nebraska the weekend before, still harbored hopes of post-season play heading into the Colorado game.  Kansas was 5-4 on the year, including shutout wins over Iowa State (41-0) and Oklahoma State (31-0).  The Kansas/Oklahoma State score, if not the Buffs’ overall performance in the 16-12 nail-biter against the Cowboys, should have been to focus Colorado on the task at hand.

Once again, though, the Buffs were in a dogfight which came down to the game’s final minute.

Early in the third quarter, last minute heroics did not appear to be the order of the day, but it was not because of Colorado’s domination.  With 10:49 remaining in the third quarter, the Buffs found themselves down 24-10 to the Jayhawks.  The teams had battled to a 10-10 halftime tie, with the Colorado touchdown coming on a 48-yard touchdown pass from halfback Lamont Warren to wide receiver Charles Johnson on an option play.

The second half, though, started out all Jayhawks, as Colorado fumbled on its first second half possession before fumbling the ensuing two kickoffs.  In less than four minutes of playing time, the Buffs had dug themselves into a 24-10 hole.

Vance Joseph, again substituting for an injured Darian Hagan, cut the Kansas lead to 24-17 with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook late in the third quarter.  Then, with over 12 minutes still to play, Lamont Warren scored on a 19-yard run.  Spurning the tie, Bill McCartney went for a two-point conversion and the lead.  The pass fell short, though, and the Buffs still trailed, 24-23.

For the second successive week, Vance Joseph was asked to lead the Buffs on a gave-saving drive.

Taking over at the Colorado 20-yard line with just two minutes left to play, Joseph led the Buffs on an eight-play, 80-yard drive through a snowstorm.  Joseph passed 22 yards to Rico Smith before Lamont Warren broke loose for a 28-yard run, setting the Buffs up inside the Kansas ten yard line with under a minute to play.  With 40 seconds remaining, fullback James Hill did the honors from a yard out, giving Colorado a 30-24 win.

The Buffs were now 7-2-1 (5-0-1 in Big Eight play). All that remained on the 1991 regular season schedule was a road trip to Iowa State.  The Cyclones were 3-6-1 on the season, and bad weather was once again forecast.  On the upside, Darian Hagan was set to resume his full-time duties at quarterback.

Continue reading story here

Game Eleven … 

November 23rd – at Iowa State            No. 15 Colorado 17, Iowa State 14

Running back Lamont Warren capped the most successful freshman rushing season in Colorado history with a 168-yard performance against Iowa State in a 17-14 Colorado win.  Warren sprinted 74 yards for one score and carried the load on a ten-play, 80-yard drive as Colorado took the lead for good in the third quarter. Lamont Warren finished the 1991 season with 830 rushing yards, a Colorado freshman record.

The game conditions in Ames, Iowa, were horrendous, marking the third time in four weeks the Buffs had faced adverse conditions.  Iowa State sold 36,256 tickets for the game, but a crowd estimated at 2,500 was all that braved the blowing snow and minus-20 wind chill temperatures.

Iowa State jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, but Warren’s 74-yard touchdown run gave Colorado a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. A 17-yard touchdown run by Cyclone Jim Knott, though, late in the second quarter, gave Iowa State a 14-10 halftime edge.  In the third quarter, the Buffs played against a 20-mph wind, keeping the ball in Warren’s hands.  Warren carried the ball five times for 39 yards on the drive, culminated with an eight-yard touchdown pass from Darian Hagan to senior tight end Sean Brown.  The 17-14 lead held up in the scoreless fourth quarter as conditions continued to deteriorate.

With the win, Colorado clinched at least a tie for its third consecutive Big Eight championship.  The Buffs, 8-2-1 overall, 6-0-1 in conference play, had strung together a 20-0-1 run in Big Eight play over three years.

The location of the next Colorado game had now been decided – Colorado would play in Miami.  Yet to be determined, though, was whether the Buffs would play Alabama on December 28th in the Blockbuster Bowl as the Big Eight’s second place team, or against Miami in the Orange Bowl New Year’s Night as the Big Eight champion.

As the Buffs headed home from Ames, all thoughts turned to the Nebraska/Oklahoma game, to be played the following Friday in Lincoln.

Continue reading story, including bowl options, can be found here

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.

Game Twelve … 

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.

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