Colorado at Missouri, Columbia, MO
October 6, 1990
It will forever be remembered as college football’s most shocking mistake by an officiating crew, and it eventually played a role in deciding college football’s mythical national championship in 1990.
The Colorado Buffaloes entered that season with high hopes after finishing just short of a national championship the previous season. The Buffaloes only lost one time in 1989, but it came in the season finale in a 21-6 loss to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl bringing a disappointing end to an 11-1 campaign under head coach Bill McCartney.
Unfortunately for the Buffaloes, they appeared to be suffering an early season hangover once the 1990 season got underway. It started with a 31-all tie against Tennessee in the season-opening Pigskin Classic at Anaheim, California, and was followed by a close call to Stanford back home in Boulder in a 21-17 win. A shocking 23-22 loss at Illinois followed leaving the Buffaloes dead even at 1-1-1 three weeks into the season.
A 29-22 win over Texas in Austin and a 20-14 victory over Washington at home put the Buffaloes back on the winning track, but a 3-1-1 record heading into a road trip at Missouri didn’t exactly appear to be the early resume of a national champion. Thanks to an egregious error by the officiating crew, however, the trip would turn out to be the spark the Buffaloes needed to get going.
Colorado entered the game ranked No. 12 by the Associated Press and was heavily favored against the unranked Tigers, but the Buffaloes also entered the game without injured starting quarterback Darian Hagan. In his place, they started backup quarterback Charles Johnson, and the game would prove to be a seesaw affair with at least five lead changes. By the time the Tigers scored with 2:32 remaining in the fourth quarter to reclaim the lead yet again at 31-27, Colorado’s championship hopes were teetering in the balance.
Johnson, however, would lead the Buffaloes into position with a long play resulting in a first-and-goal. With the clock running, though, he was forced to rush his team to the line where he spiked the ball to stop the clock resulting in second down. Eric Bieniemy was then stopped just short of the goal line on second down forcing the Buffaloes to burn their third and final timeout.
It was at this point during the timeout that the chain crew failed to flip the down marker to third down, and the officiating crew did not notice the mistake. After the timeout, Colorado again tried to run with Bieniemy who was again stopped short resulting in what should have been fourth down. With the play marker still wrong, however, Johnson came to the line and spiked the ball to stop the clock on what should have been Colorado’s fourth and final down.
With one extra down, Johnson kept the ball himself on the game’s final play scoring a controversial touchdown in which he may have actually been short of the goal line. By this point, referee J.C. Louderback and his crew had realized their mistake, and for nearly 20 minutes, the outcome of the game hung in the balance as they conferred and tried to figure out what to do. Ultimately there was little they could do as the damage had been done. Colorado was declared the winner by a score of 33-31 after surviving on a questionable touchdown on the infamous fifth down play.
With their ‘victory’ questioned the rest of the way, the Buffaloes seemed more determined than ever to prove themselves winning their final six regular season games by at least two-score margins. Given a rematch with Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl once again, the Buffaloes escaped with a 10-9 win to earn a share of the national title with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
It’s impossible to say they wouldn’t have done it without the fifth down because Johnson likely wouldn’t have spiked the ball the final time if he had known it was fourth down. But certainly it didn’t hurt as he and the Buffaloes were given the opportunity to reset and line up to run another play. Credit the Buffaloes for turning the page and finishing on an impressive seven-game run to close the season, but it never completely removed the shadow that still hangs over Colorado’s only major college football national championship.
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