Top 40 of the Past 40 – No. 3

Previously posted:

As always, I look forward to your comments and suggestions as we count down my favorite 40 games and favorite 40 players of my 40 years as a Buff …

Top 40 Favorite Games … No. 3

January 1, 1991 – No. 1 Colorado 10, No. 5 Notre Dame 9

Colorado claims its first national championship in a game which – like the 1990 season – was not without controversy

From the Pre-Game Story for the Orange Bowl ... “Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame” … 

Rooting for Notre Dame is hard for any Buff fan. It was the Irish who had deprived the Buffs of a storybook ending to the 1989 season. Now, in November, 1990, with Notre Dame and Colorado No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, and Notre Dame having already accepted an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl against the Buffs, Colorado fans had to root for the Irish.

Even though a Notre Dame loss to Penn State or USC would mean Colorado would obtain the No. 1 ranking for the first time in 1990, the Buffs had to cheer, cheer, for ol’ Notre Dame. If Notre Dame maintained its top-ranking, the Orange Bowl would be the national championship game, winner take all.

So Colorado fans had to root for the Irish.

Naturally, they let us down.

While Colorado was completing its regular season 10-1-1 by dismantling Kansas State, the Irish blew a 21-7 halftime lead in succumbing to Penn State, 24-21. The Irish were now No. 7, and the allure of a title game in the Orange Bowl was lost. “I think having Nos. 1 and 2 playing would have eliminated a lot of speculation,” said Buffs’ head coach Bill McCartney. “It would have been a more clear-cut.”

Colorado was now the No. 1 team in the nation, and would carry that mantle into the Orange Bowl to face the Irish. One who was not pleased with the early selection of Notre Dame as the Buffs’ opponent was Miami head coach Dennis Erickson. “Making the selections for bowls as early as they make the selections is ridiculous,” said Erickson, whose Hurricanes moved up to No. 2 in the next poll. “I just don’t think its fair. What happens is somebody ends up with egg on their face.”

Not facing No. 2 Miami on Miami’s home field was a plus, but now the speculation as to Colorado’s status as the nation’s top team could begin. In the Associated Press poll the week after the Notre Dame loss to Penn State, Colorado was No. 1, receiving 45 first place votes. Fifteen other voters, however, cast ballots for other schools for No. 1. 2nd-ranked Miami received three votes; No.3 Georgia Tech received eight; No. 4 BYU two; with fifth and sixth rated Florida and Texas each receiving one vote.

With a month now to debate Colorado’s ranking, the Missouri game crept back into the discussion. “In this voter’s mind,” said Andy Gardiner of The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, “they lost the game. By the grace of an awful mistake, they got something they didn’t earn and didn’t deserve.” Miami’s Dennis Erickson could not help but to weigh as well, lobbying for his Hurricanes. “There is not an asterisk after their record that means the win doesn’t count,” said Erickson. “The people voting will look at that …. You’d think they would”.

Continue reading pre-game story, including my Essays, “Mixed Emotions” and “Jockeying for Position”, here


From the Game Story in the CU at the Game Archives …

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.

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):

Here are the YouTube highlights of the entire game (which take only seven minutes to watch) … 

Read full game story, including “How Things Looked on January 2, 1991” and the Game Notes for the Orange Bowl, here

From my Essay for the 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.”

From my Essay for the Game, Settling” … 

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 !!!!!

Additional coverage of the 1991 Orange Bowl can be found here

Top 40 Favorite Players … No. 3

Quarterback Kordell Stewart (1991-94)

From Stewart’s bio … A second-team Associated Press All-American, the highest honor ever afforded a Colorado quarterback from the wire service (along with Darian Hagan in 1989)… The Big Eight Conference’s all-time total offense leader with 7,770 yards… First-team All-Big Eight as a senior… CU’s career leader in both total offense and passing yards (6,481)… First-team all-Big Eight as a senior in 1994, when he was the Buffs’ most valuable player… The MVP of the ‘95 Fiesta Bowl, as he rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown while throwing for 205 and a TD in CU’s 41-24 rout of Notre Dame… Finished 13th in the Heisman balloting that year, when teammate Rashaan Salaam won…

Stewart became the first player in CU history to have three 2,000-yard passing seasons… His 1,289 rushing yards were the second most by a quarterback in school history… Had 19 200-yard passing games and seven 300-yard total offense games in his career… At the time, he posted the most prolific first start at quarterback in school history, throwing for 409 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-17 win over Colorado State to open his sophomore year… Key player in college football’s play of the century, when he heaved a 64-yard pass to Michael Westbrook that rallied CU to a 27-26 win as time expired at Michigan in 1994 (the game became known as “The Catch”)…

Stewart became a second round pick by Pittsburgh in the 1995 NFL Draft (61st overall)… Though nicknamed “Slash” early in his professional career because he played some wide receiver (thus a QB/WR listing on the roster), he never went out for a pass in his college career… Played eight seasons with the Steelers (1995-2002) before moving on to Chicago in 2003 and Baltimore in 2004-05… He was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 2016… In his post-football career, he has worked for ESPN and is now a sports personality in the Atlanta area… Inducted into CU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2018.


3 Replies to “Top 40 of the Past 40 – No. 3”

  1. I read your line the pre-game essay, “winner take all” and threw up a little in my mouth. You did not factor in that jacka$$ Tom Osborne and his petty BS attitude. Not your fault, of course. I have never gotten over that betrayal. After all he was the one always spouting conference unity and sticking together, but that is a one-way street for the bugeaters in the Cornholer state. And after watching Frostie’s shenanigans this past week it is clear that he’s a chip off the old block. Sorry for the rant, but I will never let that go!

    1. I think my point with the pre-game essay was that, if Notre Dame had kept winning, they would have maintained its No. 1 ranking, with CU at No. 2, then Georgia Tech – and Nebraska’s shameful performance against the Yellow Jackets in their bowl game – would have been irrelevant. If Notre Dame hadn’t been upset, the Orange Bowl would have been No. 1 v. No. 2, and the Orange Bowl would have indeed been “Winner-take-all” … and Tom Osborne wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.

    2. Dont forget another Osbornish thing was allowing the pervert RB facing charges in Cal for circulating videos of what I believe was his ex girl friend having sex to stay on the team and play.
      In linkin you have to do everything you can to please “the best fans in the world.” Sorry it aint workin out for ya so far Scottster

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