Photo courtesy of Illinois athletics
The 1990 season is one that will forever live in Colorado lore.
That year, the Buffaloes won their only national championship, sharing the title with Georgia Tech. The lone blemish from that campaign however, came on this day 30 years ago and in heartbreaking fashion. In Champaign, Illinois scored late to stun the Buffaloes, 23-22.
Setting the Stage
Colorado had blasted Illinois the year prior in Boulder 38-7, but things had not come easy early on in 1990. The Buffaloes let a 14-point lead slip in a season-opening tie against Tennessee before being forced to rally past Stanford.
Ninth-ranked Colorado was 1-0-1 as it arrived at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 15, 1990. No. 21 Illinois was 0-1 as it prepared for its home opener. The Fighting Illini had been upset by Arizona in the season opener, 28-16.
The Decisive Drive
Once down by 14 points, Illinois trailed 22-17 when it took over from its own 37-yard-line with less than four minutes to play. With enough time to stay balanced, quarterback Jason Verduzco was masterful on the game’s decisive possession.
Verduzco completed all five of his passes on the final drive for 48 yards, but his ground game played a major role. After marching inside the 10-yard-line, running back Wagner Lester bobbled a hand-off, but gathered himself and worked his way to the 1. On the very next play, the bruising Howard Griffith put the Fighting Illini ahead for good. Griffith had converted a third down earlier in the drive to move Illinois into Colorado territory.
Griffith took the hand-off and went airborne. He was met by Colorado defenders, but the ball came down on the goal line for the go-ahead score with 1:18 to play. The 2-point conversion try however, was no good and Colorado was left needing only a field goal to steal victory.
With the game in the balance, John Mackovic’s defense stood tall. A defense that included Mel Agee and Henry Jones was able to stifle Colorado as Illinois emerged victorious.
For the second time in three games, Colorado started strong, but failed to finish. The Buffaloes raced to a 17-3 lead behind a touchdown run by fullback George Hemingway and a 32-yard touchdown pass from Darian Hagan to Michael Simmons.
After an 8-yard Verduzco touchdown pass to Elbert Turner made it 17-10 late in the second quarter, the Fighting Illini drew even on a 4-yard scoring connection from Verduzco to Shawn Wax in the third.
Linebacker Greg Biekert’s tackle of Griffith in the end zone gave Colorado a 19-17 lead after three quarters. The Buffaloes were able to push that lead to five on Jim Harper’s 26-yard field goal with less than 13 minutes remaining. Harper connected from 54 yards out earlier in the contest.
Verduzco was an efficient 23-for-29 passing for 222 yards, the two touchdowns and an interception. Griffith finished with 90 yards on the ground to go with a team-high 99 yards from scrimmage.
Defensively, Darrick Brownlow led Illinois with 12 tackles, including two for loss. Erik Foggey tallied two sacks in the win.
Eric Bieniemy powered the Colorado offense with 127 yards rushing on 23 carries. Biekert led the Colorado defense with a game-high 20 tackles, including three for loss and a sack. Alfred Williams and Joel Steed each recorded a pair of sacks in the loss.
The victory for Illinois would begin a 6-game winning streak as the Fighting Illini ascended to as high as No. 5 in the polls. Illinois opened November with consecutive losses to Michigan and Iowa, but still managed to finish tied atop the Big Ten standings. Michigan State would get the Rose Bowl berth, but a stellar season resulted in Illinois’ first conference title since 1983.
The loss for Colorado at the time seemed to be the death knell, but the Buffaloes would rally to win their final 10 games and a share of the national championship. Seven of Colorado’s 13 games, including each of its first six, would be decided by seven points or less. Its lone defeat came on this day three decades ago.