Result: Illinois 23, Colorado 22.
When: Sept. 15, 1990.
Where: Champaign, Ill.
Bottom line: Time to regroup after 1-1-1 start.
It had been 22 months and three days since Colorado's last regular-season loss when the ninth-ranked Buffs traveled to No. 21 Illinois for the third game of the 1990 season.
While the Illini were ranked and not to be taken lightly, the Buffs had dispatched them a year earlier in Boulder by a 31-point margin and felt confident coming off a last-minute victory the week before.
Illinois quarterback Jason Verduzco completed 79 percent of his passes for 222 yards, including going a perfect 5-for-5 on the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. When running back Howard Griffith powered into the end zone with 1 minute, 18 seconds to play, it marked the second time in the young season the Buffs had surrendered a two-touchdown lead. The Illini won 23-22 and hopes for a repeat run to a national title game appeared lost.
"When you know you've got Nebraska and Oklahoma around the corner, you can't go after Illinois like everything's at stake," coach Bill McCartney said, reflecting on the loss 25 years later. "You can't do it."
The Buffs started the first two games of the season poorly on offense and rebounded. This one went the other way. CU found itself in command early, jumping to a 17-3 lead in the second quarter on a 2-yard run by fullback George Hemingway, a 54-yard field goal from Jim Harper and a 32-yard pass from Darian Hagan to Michael Simmons.
The Illinois defense rose to the occasion in the second half and stopped the Buffs time and again. Colorado managed only a 26-yard field goal in the second half with linebacker Greg Biekert providing the other two points on a safety near the end of the third quarter.
The first three games of the 1990 season were decided in the final minutes and the Buffs weren't done with the nail-biters. A team that started the year with hopes and dreams of completing unfinished business from the year before needed to regroup with a new approach at 1-1-1.
The stellar motivational skills of the head coach helped that happen a week later against a perennial national power.
Sean Embree, tight end: "We kind of ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. Even though that game was a loss, it was a great lesson to learn that we have to play for four quarters or we're not going to win the Big Eight championship, which at that time was what we were going for. The flight home, that feeling of 'We had that thing' - I think it really turned our season around. We knew after that we weren't going to be beat and we couldn't be beat."
"Every week we were playing a really good team, and it was testing us. The good news is we were able to go through that grind and then get momentum. That tells you about the character of the team. How many teams are there that have a lot of talent but don't reach their potential? This team kept getting better."