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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Latest College Football News & Rumors / 1990 Colorado Buffaloes: The Controversial National Champions

1990 Colorado Buffaloes: The Controversial National Champions

Publish Date:09/19/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

1989 Colorado made history when they thwarted the Nebraska-Oklahoma lock on the old Big Eight conference. They went undefeated through regular season play and into bowl season before losing to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. 1990 brought out more excitement as Colorado once more showed its prowess on the national championship stage; by season’s end, they indeed became national champs!

Eric Bienemy led an option offense anchored around his prowess as a running back, with over 1,600 yards logged that year earning All-American status and finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting. This run-heavy offense relied heavily on Bienemy to achieve success and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting as well.

Darian Hagan led the option offense this season and completed 46% of his throws. However, his yards per attempt average was still relatively high due to big-play receiver Mike Pritchard, who averaged an impressive 26 yards per catch!

Hagan excelled at running as an essential element of this offense and finished third on the team with 442 yards, narrowly behind Pritchard (445) and George Hemingway (325).

You are correct in assuming that an offense with such a potent rushing attack would possess a top-tier offensive line, with Joe Garten being an All-American guard, Mark Vanderpoel being honored with honorable mention for all-American tackle status, and Jay Leeuwenberg receiving All-Big Eight center status.

Kanavis McGhee and Gary Howe led the defensive side in 1990 with all-conference honors on defense. Tim James earned All-Big Eight status for his performance as an all-conference defensive back, intercepting six passes himself. Deon Figures played in the secondary but wasn’t honored in 1990 despite possessing great NFL potential.

Colorado entered 1990 ranked fifth nationally. Their talent made them competitive from day one of the competition.

Colorado and Tennessee kicked off their season at Anaheim with a 31-31 tie (overtime wasn’t used until 1996) that set expectations high. Both teams would go on to finish in the Top 10.

Colorado only dropped to #6, but their narrow 21-17 win against Stanford on a Thursday night wasn’t enough to impress pollsters, and Colorado fell from #6 to #9. At first blush, Colorado should not have been pleased with this result as this Cardinal team would finish 5-6 and go on to defeat Notre Dame while Dennis Green would go on to a successful NFL coaching career in Minnesota; had voters known what we know now then their reactions may have been milder.

Colorado had scored its signature non-conference victory the previous season, when they defeated Illinois at home by an overwhelming score. Now ranked 21st, Illinois presented Colorado with another challenge, and they held on for an exciting 23-22 win in Champaign.

Colorado tumbled to #20 in the polls. A second blemish on their record now standing at 1-1-1 made it appear that winning the national title had passed them by, yet 1990 would prove an unpredictable year in college football and Colorado had more big games ahead of them.

Colorado traveled to Texas ranked #22 to secure a 10-1 season. Colorado trailed 22-14 entering the final quarter before Bienemy scored two rushing touchdowns for Colorado in an unlikely comeback, resulting in a 29-22 victory.

Washington was on their way to a Pac-10 championship and, ultimately, Rose Bowl triumph when they traveled to Boulder a week later, trailing 7-3 at halftime and 14-10 in the third quarter. Hagan suffered an injured shoulder that forced him from the lineup.

Charles Johnson led Colorado to ten unanswered points before their defense made two red zone stops – including an interception by Figures with less than one minute remaining in the game – to preserve a 20-14 win and vault back into #12 of the polls.

Missouri was seen as an easy trip for Colorado to begin Big Eight play. Yet, Hagan would miss this matchup because Colorado played nationally significant games without receiving a bye week this season. Furthermore, though Missouri only won four games, Kent Kiefer was the conference’s top passing quarterback who boasted Linzy Mays and Damon Collins as big-play receivers – two traits Hagan knew Colorado lacked.

Colorado was primed to experience an epic letdown, and that is precisely what transpired. They trailed 31-27 in the fourth quarter when they began their last-ditch drive led by Johnson, who connected with tight end Jon Bowman for a significant completion to move within five yards – just one timeout remaining and less than a minute remaining left in play; what followed would go down in college football history forevermore.

Soon after that, Johnson spiked the ball, Bienemy was stopped, Colorado used their final timeout, and Johnson spiked it again to stop time before running in for the winning touchdown run by Bienemy himself.

Do we see an issue here? After five plays, when Colorado used its final timeout and attempted to change down markers after scoring their 33-31 victory, officials failed to change them properly, resulting in Colorado winning 33-31 despite this oversight and no punt being called! Outrage ensued immediately with calls for head coach Bill McCartney to forfeit this win and pollsters treating Colorado as having lost. The Fifth down game was and is one of the most controversial moments in College Football history.

Colorado had some easier games ahead and easily handled Iowa State and Kansas at home without receiving much punishment from pollsters; these victories placed Colorado back into the Top 10. Additionally, they defeated 22nd-ranked Oklahoma 32-23 at home before finishing their schedule with another win against 22nd-ranked Alabama at their own stadium.

Now was the momentous battle everyone in the Big Eight was anticipating: an outing at third-ranked Nebraska that could secure them an Orange Bowl bid.

Nebraska controlled most of the game on a windy and rainy Saturday. Colorado suffered an early misstep when Bienemy fumbled at Nebraska’s 3-yard line, leading Nebraska 12-0 late in the third quarter with Bienemy limited to just 62 yards – which wasn’t exactly sufficient to help Colorado secure victory in an important match-up like this one.

Colorado stunned Nebraska when it turned the tables. Bienemy added 75 more rushing yards and scored four touchdowns during just the final quarter alone for Colorado en route to a 27-12 victory.

With upsets sweeping through college football, Colorado was #4 nationally. Notre Dame was sitting atop the polls, suggesting an Orange Bowl rematch, and Colorado continued its winning ways over the final two weeks to improve even further in position.

Colorado earned their way up the standings by defeating Oklahoma State 41-22 to move up two places and now controlled their national championship destiny. On November 17, they crushed Kansas State 64-3, while Notre Dame suffered an upset at home by Penn State.

Unbelievably, after starting 1-1-1, Colorado was not only in contention for the national title going into New Year’s Day but was actually ranked #1! Notre Dame had dropped to fifth after their loss against Stanford; Texas were third but was humiliated in the Cotton Bowl by Miami; by Orange Bowl day on January 1, only Colorado and Georgia Tech, with an unblemished 11-0-1 record, had remained as contenders for national glory.

Hagen was sidelined just before halftime due to a ruptured tendon, placing their hopes for victory on Johnson, who played without error in this crucial contest. Colorado’s defense played well throughout and trailed 9-3 before they made one key error; an Irish fumble on their own 40 was recovered by Buffalo where Johnson led an eight-play drive that ended with him scoring on that score and giving Colorado the edge at 10-9.

Colorado was still ahead late in the game when they had to punt. Returning was Notre Dame’s explosive Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, who’d finished second in Heisman voting due to his special teams play; most observers expected the ball would be punted away from Ismail and out of bounds. Instead, Colorado punted it right back onto his turf field – to his great surprise and that of many observers.

Rocket fielded the punt at his own 9-yard line, moved quickly right and grabbed onto the sideline before returning it 91 yards, marking what appeared to be the longest punt return in bowl competition history – or so it seemed. A flag lay clipped near where Rocket had fielded it, thus calling back the play altogether. Colorado hung on and ultimately won.

Uncertainty over Notre Dame’s blocker Greg Davis may have led fans and pollsters alike to reconsider whether or not their decision on fifth down was accurate; Georgia Tech certainly had public opinion on their side as writers and coaches took to pollsters with poll requests in support.

Once the final ballots were cast, there was an even division: Colorado won the Associated Press Writers’ Poll while coaches chose Georgia Tech over Colorado by one vote.

There is much to discuss regarding this vote, so I will strive to keep it short…

*I am a Notre Dame fan, and Davis’s clipped block- while very close- was indeed substantial enough for it to be called out as legitimate play by Colorado in their Orange Bowl victory.

*Even when there has been an incorrect call, how far are pollsters allowed to take matters into their own hands? This question serves as an excellent segue into my feelings regarding Missouri’s officiating debacle. Although massive, once pollsters (or in today’s context College Football Playoff committee members) start overturning results, chaos ensues. How far should reviewing officiating mistakes after the fact take precedence.

Anyone using those reasons as an excuse to punish Colorado would need to consider Georgia Tech, simply because their better overall record and schedule strength issues were in my view, not enough to offset that record differential.

No matter your position on the final vote, one thing was certain–Colorado had emerged as a national force with consecutive trips to the Orange Bowl, consecutive top 5 finishes and now, finally, a national title win.

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