Game 6

Result: Colorado 33, Missouri 31.

When: Oct. 6, 1990.

Where: Columbia, Mo.

Bottom line: On treacherous turf, CU escapes on fifth down.

In looking back at Colorado's 1990 trip to Missouri, a game that eventually became known as Fifth Down, a detail is often overlooked that helps explain the seemingly impossible blunder that defined the contest.

It was the first season in which college teams were allowed to stop the clock by spiking the ball into the ground, something Colorado did twice on the final series of downs leading to the winning score. The game was played Oct. 6, not even the midway point of the season for some teams, and officials didn't have a lot of experience with the rule.

It certainly doesn't excuse the human error that helped push the Buffs over the top for a 33-31 victory, but it's a fact that shouldn't be ignored.

Another factor that day that shouldn't be ignored but often is on the Missouri side is the condition of the Omni-turf playing surface. As longtime CU sports information director Dave Plati pointed out in his book "University of Colorado National Championship 1990," former Kansas State athletic director Steve Miller counted 17 unassisted tackles on the Buffs he credited to the hard, sandy turf when he reviewed film of the game for the Big Eight Conference.


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The traction issue was most prominent on the final CU drive when backup quarterback Charles Johnson, playing in place of injured starter Darian Hagan for the second week in a row, hit tight end Jon Boman on second-and-4 from the Missouri 9-yard line. Boman was wide open in the flat, with no Tiger in position to stop him from scoring, but he slipped on the turf, giving the Buffs first-and-goal from the 3.

Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson leans toward the goal line for the winning touchdown on fifth down against Missouri in 1990.
Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson leans toward the goal line for the winning touchdown on fifth down against Missouri in 1990. (Jerry Cleveland / The Denver Post)

Johnson spiked the ball on first down to stop the clock and Eric Bieniemy ran up the middle to the 1 on second down. Bill McCartney called timeout with 18 seconds left and informed the team and officials of his strategy with the down marker and scoreboard still showing second down. He planned a run on the next play and to spike the ball again if the Buffs didn't score.

That is exactly what unfolded. However, Bieniemy's dive for no gain was actually third down instead of second down. If any of the coaches on either team realized the error at that point, none made an effort to correct the officials and there was time because officials stopped the clock with eight seconds to allow players to unpile and get lined up.

Johnson spiked the ball on what was fourth down but CU believed was third down. With two seconds showing, Johnson took the snap on fifth down, ran to his right and leaned desperately toward the goal line for the winning score as time expired and Missouri fans began to rush the field.

PLAYER PERSPECTIVE

Jon Boman, tight end: "On that particular play (when Boman slipped at the 3), I caught the ball, and I'm thinking, 'Man, I'm going to score a touchdown here.' And the next thing I know, it was like someone shot my legs out from underneath me from the stands. You had no chance on that turf; it was just terrible."

QUOTING MCCARTNEY

Colorado linebacker Kanavis McGhee celebrates the Buffs’ great escape in Columbia, Mo., in 1990.
Colorado linebacker Kanavis McGhee celebrates the Buffs' great escape in Columbia, Mo., in 1990. (Daily Camera file photo)

"We found a way to win that game. So I don't apologize for that, but I also understand how they could feel that way (like CU didn't deserve to win). What I've always said is we didn't know it was fifth down. If we had known it was fourth down when it was fourth down, we wouldn't have spiked the ball. Think about it. I mean, give me a break. That's a no-brainer."