On October 6, 1990, the 12th-ranked Colorado Buffaloes traveled to Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri, to face the Missouri Tigers.
A top five team in the 1990 preseason poll, the Buffs completed the non-conference portion of their schedule 3-1-1. Colorado tied No. 5 Tennessee to open the season, beat Stanford at home, and fell on the road to No. 21 Illinois.
The Buffaloes then rebounded to defeat No. 22 Texas in Austin and No. 12 Washington in Boulder (Yes, that’s right. Four ranked teams in five non-conference games. Weigh that non-conference schedule against the 2008 preseason title contenders!).
Missouri, under third-year head coach Bob Stull, entered the contest with a 2-2 record. The Tigers had defeated Utah State and Arizona State, but had fallen to TCU and Indiana.
The Tigers and 46,856 faithful fans were anxious to play the 12th-ranked Buffs. Missouri had owned the Buffs for many years, building a 33-13-1 series edge through 1984. Colorado, however, had run off five straight wins in the series heading into the 1990 game.
The big games of the day pitted No. 9 Miami against No. 2 Florida State (a 31-22 Miami victory) and No. 13 Illinois against No. 20 Ohio State (a 31-20 win for the Illini).
Two undefeated top-ten teams lost that Saturday, with No. 1 Notre Dame falling to Stanford, 36-31 (the same Stanford team which had been the only unranked non-conference opponent for the Buffs), and No. 7 Oklahoma falling to Texas, 14-13.
With such a big day in college football nationwide, there was no national or even regional television coverage of the Colorado/Missouri game. The game was televised locally in Denver, though, preserving for posterity one of the most controversial endings in college football history.
Eric Bieniemy rushed for 217 yards against Missouri to become Colorado’s all-time leading ground gainer, but his accomplishment went completely unnoticed as Colorado scored on the last play of the game to pull out a controversial 33-31 win.
Soon after the game ended, it was confirmed that Charles Johnson’s score from a yard out to give Colorado the victory had actually come on a fifth-down play.
The five play sequence went as follows:
1st-down-and-goal—Missouri three-yard line (:31 remaining in the game): Quarterback Charles Johnson spikes the ball to stop the clock.
2nd-and-goal—Missouri three-yard line (:28 remaining): Running back Eric Bieniemy up the middle for a gain of two yards (final timeout, Colorado).
3rd-and-goal—Missouri one-yard line (:18 remaining): Bieniemy up the middle for no gain. Referee stops the clock as players unpile.
4th-and-goal—Missouri one-yard line (:08 remaining): Johnson spikes the ball to stop the clock.
5th-and-goal—Missouri one-yard line (:02 remaining): Johnson sneaks in around right end for the game-winning touchdown.
The game’s final play overshadowed not only Bieniemy’s record performance, but also the efforts of wideout Mike Pritchard, who scored on a 68-yard reverse and a 70-yard pass from Johnson, and of Charles Johnson himself.
Johnson, a junior, played most of the game after starter Darian Hagan injured his shoulder early in the game. Johnson completed 10 of 18 passes for 151 yards and led the Buffs to the fateful touchdown to cap a 15-play, 88-yard drive after Missouri had retaken the lead, 31-27, with only 2:32 to play in the game.
After the game, no one was interested in Colorado’s 4-1-1 record. All that was up for discussion was the fifth-down play. Colorado head coach Bill McCartney did not help matters when he deflected questions as to forfeiting the game, instead focusing on the condition of Faurot Field.
Asked about a reversal of the outcome, McCartney stated: "My reaction to that would be that it would be unfair because the field was treacherous; it was not a playable field."
As to the final plays, McCartney said: "We all thought we had scored on fourth down. We had set our strategy based on the yard marker and what we saw on the scoreboard clock. Had I known it was third down, then our strategy with the timeout would have been to pass on third down...and then run on fourth down."
Big Eight Conference commissioner Carl James announced after the game that the conference, through its officiating supervisor John McClintock, would review and "fully cover the extra scrimmage play that evidently was allowed." The net result was a brief suspension of the officiating crew, but no reversal of the outcome of the game.
What about the NCAA? Dave Nelson, NCAA rules book secretary and editor, was succinct: "There are two rules that cover that. The team with the greater number of points at the conclusion of the game is the winner. And the game is over when the officials say it’s over."
The Colorado players, as innocent as the Missouri players as to what had transpired on the field, were nonetheless made to pay a price. In the next poll, the 4-1-1 Buffs were dropped to No. 14, down two spots despite the victory.
CU and its fans could take heart, however, in the new No. 1 team, Michigan. Losses by No. 1 Notre Dame (36-31 to Stanford) and No. 2 Florida State (31-22 to Miami) allowed No. 3 Michigan to vault into first place.
The Wolverines' ranking represented the first time in the 54-year history of the Associated Press poll that a team with one loss had been ranked No. 1 this early in the season (Michigan was 3-1, having lost its opening game to Notre Dame, 28-24).
As a result, despite there being eight undefeated and untied teams in the poll, a team with a blemish was still ranked No. 1. Was it possible for a team with two blemishes to still compete for the national title?
Only if the Buffs ran the table in the Big Eight.
And if everyone would stop talking about the "Fifth Down Game."
Tempest in a Teapot
Tempest in a Teapot
While the NCAA made it clear that it had no authority to reverse the outcome of the Colorado/Missouri game, and while Bill McCartney made it clear he had no intention of forfeiting the game, there was precedent for a forfeit.
In 1940, Cornell trailed Dartmouth, 3-0, late in the game. A mixup similar to the one in Columbia, Missouri, allowed the Big Red to score late and extend its unbeaten streak to 19 games with a 7-3 win.
Later, when films confirmed that Cornell had scored on a fifth-down play, Cornell yielded its claim to victory, proclaiming Dartmouth a 3-0 victor.
Would McCartney and Colorado do the same?
"It’s a once in a lifetime situation and I wish it hadn’t ended this way," said McCartney. "It (the playing field) was not a fair test for our team. For us to forfeit under all these circumstances is absurd. If I felt like Missouri had outplayed us under fair conditions and we were inadvertently given an extra play at the end, I’d have met with my coaches and really searched my heart to consider if we shouldn’t forfeit the game. But I don’t feel like that."
Neither the Big Eight nor the NCAA had any authority to tell Colorado otherwise, and the final score stood.
In Bozeman, I took my share of grief from those who knew I was a Buff supporter. Most of the comments were along the lines of, "Didn’t they teach you how to count when you were in Boulder?"
My redemption came in an editorial in the Billings Gazette later that week. Rich Underwood, in his "Sports Commentary" column, penned: "As scandals go, it’s a tempest in a teapot." Underwood went on to note that, while he was a Missouri graduate himself, there was no need to belabor the outcome. "Send flowers and condolences to Missouri," he wrote, "and move on to next week."
I could not have said it better myself.
[The final drive of the game is available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQJT8q0MMwQ. As you watch the final sequence, note first how, on several occasions, CU players slip on the turf. Mike Pritchard, Eric Bieniemy and tight end Jon Boman all slip on that one drive—with Boman’s slip at the three-yard line preventing the winning score from coming five plays earlier.
I have read several times about how Faurot Field was watered down before the game, with the Tiger players wearing cleats normally reserved for muddy tracks. While I am not offering any excuses for the outcome of the game, check out how this bit of gamesmanship by the Tigers figured into the final Colorado drive.
For more archived games, log onto www.cuatthegame.com. I have game writeups for every game Colorado has played since 1980. If you have a particular game you would like to see posted, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go Buffs!]