Fifth Down Game (1990)
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|The Fifth Down Game|
|Date||October 6, 1990|
The Fifth Down Game was a college football game that included a play that the crew officiating the game permitted to occur in error. That play enabled the Colorado Buffaloes to defeat the Missouri Tigers by scoring a touchdown on the last play of their game on October 6, 1990. The ensuing controversy cast doubt on Colorado's claim to Division I-A's 1990 national championship, which it shares with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. It has been called one of the top memorable moments and blunders in college football history.
In American football, a team is allowed four attempts or "downs" to move the ball 10 yards (9.14 m) towards the goal line. If the offense moves ten yards in four attempts or fewer, it gains a "first down," which restarts the process. If, after four attempts, the offense has neither scored nor gained ten yards, the other team is given possession of the ball. Under normal circumstances (for example, excluding penalties which can involve replaying a down), no team is supposed to be allowed five attempts. In this game, due to an officiating error, Colorado was given a fifth consecutive down which they used to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired.
The game pitted the Colorado Buffaloes (CU) against their Big Eight Conference rival, the Missouri Tigers (MU), and was played on October 6, 1990 in front of a crowd of 46,856. The game was played at Faurot Field, Missouri's home stadium in Columbia, Missouri. Colorado's starting quarterback, Darian Hagan, was injured and backup quarterback Charles Johnson,[a] who had some playing time the previous week and season, played the game. However, Colorado was still heavily favored to win. Colorado was ranked #12 by the Associated Press in the nation while Missouri was unranked (i.e. below the top 25). Colorado's record coming into the game was 3–1–1 (three wins, one loss, one tie) with wins over #12 Washington and #20 Texas and unranked Stanford; their loss to the #21 ranked Illinois team and the tie to #8 Tennessee. Missouri was 2–2 (two wins, two losses) coming in to the game with wins over #21 Arizona State and unranked Utah State and losses to unranked TCU and Indiana.
The lead in this game changed several times, and several big plays kept the momentum swinging. With less than three minutes to go, Colorado took possession of the ball deep in its own territory trailing 31–27. Johnson led the team on a last-ditch drive. With about 40 seconds to go, he completed a pass to Colorado tight end Jon Boman who fell down just yards short of the goal line. Boman slipped due to the poor conditions of the field, which saw the Buffaloes slip on the turf repeatedly throughout the game. This play gave the Buffaloes a first down, but it led to immediate confusion because the Buffs were running a hurry-up offense.
On first down, Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. On second down, a power run into the line by Eric Bieniemy was stopped just short of the goal line. Colorado then called its third and final timeout. During the timeout, the chain crew failed to flip the down marker to note that it was now third down. On the next play, with the down marker showing second down when it was really third down, the Buffaloes made the same call and Bieniemy was again stopped short of the end zone. Johnson then spiked the ball (thinking it was third down when it was really fourth) to stop the clock with two seconds left. He later claimed that he had no idea the officials had made a mistake, and believed he was spiking the ball on third down. On the following play – fourth down according to the marker, but "fifth down" in reality – Johnson kept the ball himself. Whether the ball crossed the goal line before Johnson was down remains a subject of some argument, but he was awarded a touchdown.
By this time, referee J. C. Louderback and his officiating crew had realized their mistake, and conferred for nearly 20 minutes to decide their course of action. During the delay, radio and television announcers also noticed that Colorado had scored with the help of an additional play. Louderback was shown on the phone. After a lengthy consultation, the referees announced their decision: the touchdown counted, giving Colorado a 33-31 lead. They also decided that the Buffs would have to attempt the extra point. The rules do not require the extra point try if time has expired and the result will not affect the outcome of the game. However, since Colorado only led by two, Missouri could have potentially blocked the try and returned it for two points to tie the game, the try was required. Not wanting to take this chance, Johnson took the snap and went to a knee, allowing the Buffaloes to go home with a controversial win.
|MU||Bailey 19yd pass from Kiefer (Jacke kick)||0-7||11:10||1|
|CU||Bieniemy 29yd run (Harper kick)||7-7||3:19||1|
|MU||Mays 49yd pass from Kiefer (Jacke kick)||7-14||1:55||1|
|CU||Pritchard 68yd run (Harper kick)||14-14||1:45||2|
|CU||Harper 35yd FG||17-14||10:51||3|
|MU||Jones 13yd run (Jacke Kick)||17-21||7:30||3|
|CU||Pritchard 70yd pass from Johnson (Harper kick)||24-21||13:56||4|
|MU||Jacke 45yd FG||24-24||11:11||4|
|CU||Harper 39yd FG||27-24||3:41||4|
|MU||Mays 38yd pass from Kiefer (Jacke kick)||27-31||2:32||4|
|CU||Johnson 1yd run (conv. failed)||33-31||0:00||4|
Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, a former Missouri Tigers player, did little to soothe the controversy. Asked whether he would consider forfeiting the game, McCartney declared that he had considered it but decided against it because "the field was lousy." He complained about Missouri's notorious Omniturf artificial turf surface, which he said had caused repeated slips and falls during the game.
Missouri chancellor Haskell Monroe appealed to the Big Eight, arguing that since Colorado's game-winning touchdown had come on a play that should have never been run, Missouri should be declared the winner 31-27. However, he was rebuffed by Big Eight commissioner Carl James, who said in a statement that "the allowance of the fifth down to Colorado is not a post-game correctable error," and therefore Colorado's win would stand.
Closure came in the summer of 1998—four years after McCartney retired as the Buffs' head coach—when he admitted to making mistakes and being saddened by the Fifth Down fiasco. McCartney made the remarks at a Promise Keepers gathering at the site of the controversy in Columbia, Missouri.
Although Colorado was allowed to keep the win, Louderback and his entire crew were suspended indefinitely following the contest.
The NCAA did not confer a formal national championship for the highest level of football (then Division I-A, now the Football Bowl Subdivision) in 1990; it was the only competition the NCAA sanctions for which it did not do so. Until 1998, Division I-A (and before it the undivided Division I) determined what was aptly called its "mythical national championship" entirely by subjective polling. Unlike lower divisions, no formal NCAA playoff existed, and until the 1992 Bowl Coalition, no mechanism even existed to arrange postseason bowl matchups to better determine a champion; conference bowl contracts would often yield the top four to six teams in the country playing in entirely separate bowls. In the early 1990s, two polls were regarded as authoritative: A poll of sportswriters conducted by the Associated Press (AP) called the AP Poll, and a poll of college football coaches conducted by the American Football Coaches Association called the Coaches Poll. These polls were conducted weekly during the football season, and the final polls (in January, after all bowl games) determined the championship.
Because 1990 was a year in which no single college football team was dominant, the Fifth Down controversy played a role in determining the Division I-A national champion for the 1990 season. Most pollsters dropped Colorado's ranking to 14th, apparently feeling that its win over Missouri was not legitimate. However, most of the top teams lost in subsequent weeks, while the Buffaloes won their remaining games, including a 27-12 victory in Lincoln over #3 Nebraska to give them the Big Eight title, and a squeaker over #5 Notre Dame. The Orange Bowl victory over Notre Dame was considered very controversial as well, due to a clipping call on Notre Dame on a punt return touchdown late in the game by Raghib Ismail when Colorado held a 10-9 lead, which would be the final score after Notre Dame was assessed the penalty. A blocked extra point by Colorado turned out to be the winning margin.
Colorado finished the 1990 season with a record of 11–1–1, while the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets' record was 11–0–1. No Division I-A team had an unblemished record, and only Georgia Tech finished without a loss.
After the conclusion of the 1990 season in January 1991, the AP Poll voted Colorado national champions. The Coaches Poll voted the championship to Georgia Tech. Both universities therefore claim the 1990 championship. Observers favoring Colorado for the national championship noted that they had played a more difficult schedule than Georgia Tech. Those favoring Georgia Tech not only pointed out that the Yellow Jackets were the only undefeated team in the nation, but also pointed to the tainted victory in the "Fifth Down" game (and some point out the Orange Bowl controversy). With a loss at Missouri, Colorado record would have been 10–2–1, and the Buffaloes may not have been as strongly considered for the national title with that record. No team has ever been voted National Champion in either the Associated Press Poll or the Coaches' Poll following a season in which they lost or tied more than two games total.
In 1998, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was established to create a national championship game for major college football, featuring the top two teams in the BCS Ranking formula; it succeeded the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance, similar efforts from 1992 to 1998 which were unable to persuade the Rose Bowl, and through it the Big Ten and Pac-10 conference champions, to participate. The BCS formula, over its sixteen-season lifespan, took into account varying numbers of human polls, computer ranking formulas, and occasionally an additional strength of schedule index. However, the BCS neither avoided controversy nor eliminated split championships. For instance, in 2003, BCS national championship game winner LSU was awarded number one by rule in the Coaches Poll following the game while USC (number three in the final BCS standings before the bowls) was voted atop the AP Poll and the two teams therefore split the national championship. In 2012, the major conferences announced the 4 team (plus one) College Football Playoff would succeed the BCS effective for the 2014 season.
Missouri ended the 1990 season with a record of 4-7. The Tigers had not had a winning season since 1983, and would not have another winning season until 1997 under Larry Smith. They would not return to consistent contender status until the middle of the 2000s under Gary Pinkel. The surface at Faurot Field was changed to natural grass in 1995, and in 2003 to FieldTurf, a rubber-infilled artificial turf which closely simulates grass.
The Colorado-Missouri series went dormant after the Buffaloes left the Big 12 for the Pac-12 Conference on July 1, 2011. The Tigers departed the Big 12 on July 1, 2012 to join the Southeastern Conference.
Similar events had occurred in college football prior to Colorado's Fifth Down. Until 1990, the phrase "Fifth Down Game" described the Dartmouth-Cornell game of 1940, which is the first occurrence of a fifth down in college football. That game and its aftermath are described as the only time in the history of football that a game was decided off the field.
During a 1968 National Football League game between the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams, the Rams were victimized when they lost a down. The Rams were penalized for holding during a last-minute drive. The officiating crew not only assessed the 15-yard penalty, but also advanced the down marker from first to second. Holding does not carry a loss of down under the rules. Nobody in the press box or on the field noticed, and the Rams turned the ball over on downs, their last possession in a 17-16 loss.
In 1972, Miami of Florida was the beneficiary of a "fifth down" in its game against Tulane. Officials mistakenly called the Miami offense back on the field for another down after it had turned the ball over on downs. Miami scored a touchdown on the next play to win the game, 24–21.
Fifth downs have occurred at least one other time as well, without changing the outcome of the game.
- Two players named Charles Johnson played in this game for Colorado. One of these, the backup quarterback in the 1990 season, played the entire 1990 Fifth Down game as a substitute for Darian Hagan. However, this player never played in the NFL. The other Charles Johnson was a wide receiver in the 1990 season. It appeared that Johnson never actually made it into the end zone before the play was called dead by the referee. A series of photos shown in the Columbia Daily Tribune on October 7, 1990 showed Johnson was on his back with the ball well short of the goal line on the 5th down play and then lifted the ball over the goal line. Fans at the goal line also said he was tackled short of the goal line and the ball didn't cross the goal line until after the play was blown dead.
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