Photo courtesy of University of Colorado
The 1990 Colorado Buffaloes seemed to like living on the edge.
That rocky journey however, ended on the highest note in program history. Colorado would claim its only national championship that season.
Fittingly for the Buffaloes, the season ended in controversy. On this day 30 years ago, it was a controversial call that helped the Buffaloes cap the magic campaign with a 10-9 victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.
Setting the Stage
Notre Dame was 9-2 and ranked No. 5. Like Colorado, the Fighting Irish had spent time at No. 1. Notre Dame’s national championship hopes had ultimately fallen by the wayside with a heartbreaking loss to Penn State.
After a number of close calls early in the year, No. 1 Colorado appeared to be playing its best football as it arrived at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1991. The Buffaloes were 10-1-1 and had won nine straight. It had been nearly two months since Colorado had played a game decided by fewer than nine points.
The Buffaloes were looking to avoid having history repeat itself. At the Orange Bowl the year prior, Colorado arrived as the No. 1 team in America, needing only a win to wrap up a national title.
The Fighting Irish blasted the Buffaloes, 21-6. On a late punt return a year later, it looked as though Notre Dame had again dashed Colorado’s title hopes.
With less than a minute to go and nursing a 10-9 lead, Colorado needed only to accomplish something that was easier said than done — tackle Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. Tom Rouen’s punt was fielded by Ismail inside his own 10-yard-line.
Like a magician, Ismail broke at least four Colorado tackles before breaking free near his own 35-yard-line. As the last line of defense, the punter Rouen never had a chance. Ismail had gone 91 yards for the touchdown to dash Colorado’s title hopes — or so it seemed.
Ismail never went down on the return. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, a flag did.
Senior Greg Davis was called for clipping during the return, which negated the touchdown. Replay showed that Davis had appeared to block Colorado’s Tim James on the side, but the call stood and the touchdown didn’t.
Instead, Notre Dame was forced to start at its own 20-yard-line. Deon Figures would seal the win for Colorado with an interception of Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer. It was Mirer’s third interception of the night.
After a scoreless first quarter, Colorado would score first and more importantly, last. Jim Harper’s short field goal gave the Buffaloes a 3-0, but Notre Dame answered on Ricky Watters’ 2-yard touchdown before the half. Ronnie Bradford however, blocked Craig Hentrich’s extra point. It was Hentrich’s first miss in 74 tries and would prove to be a key play in the contest.
After Hentrich’s 24-yard field goal in the third quarter pushed the Notre Dame lead to 9-3, Colorado scored its only touchdown of the night. Following a Watters’ fumble that gave Colorado the ball at the Notre Dame 40-yard-line, Eric Bieniemy scored from a yard out. Harper’s extra point gave the Buffaloes the decisive 10-9 lead.
From there, the Colorado defense did the rest. Notre Dame turned the ball over twice on its next three plays before back-to-back 3-and-outs. Even without starting quarterback Darian Hagan, the Buffaloes were able to melt nearly six minutes off the clock before the infamous punt in the game’s final minute.
In addition to Figures’ game-sealing pick, safety Greg Thomas intercepted Mirer twice. Bieniemy rushed for a game-high 86 yards in the victory. Backup quarterback Charles Johnson, who replaced Hagan, was 5-for-6 passing for 80 yards.
For Colorado, the victory would be its first bowl win under head coach Bill McCartney. Although Georgia Tech would jump the Buffaloes in the final Coaches Poll, the Buffaloes would finish No. 1 in the AP Poll for the first and only national title in program history.
Notre Dame would fall just one spot to No. 6 in the final AP Poll. It marked the third straight top-10 finish for the Fighting Irish under fifth-year head coach Lou Holtz.
Holtz and McCartney would meet just once more. McCartney capped his career with a 41-24 victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl to close the 1994 season.
During their tenures, Holtz would win three of the five match-ups against McCartney. Notre Dame fans will say it should have been four of five. That might be the case without the controversial call that allowed Colorado to claim its first national title on this day three decades ago.