Colorado got one big break instead of five downs and claimed its first national championship.
Backup quarterback Charles Johnson, who scored the winning touchdown in the infamous fifth-down victory over Missouri, took over for injured Darian Hagan and led the top-ranked Buffaloes to a 10-9 win over No. 5 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night.The victory was Colorado's first in eight bowl games and it almost got away in the closing seconds.
Notre Dame's Rocket Ismail returned a punt 91 yards for an apparent touchdown with less than a minute left only to have it called back because of a clipping penalty.
"We got a little lucky on the clip on Rocket's runback," Colorado coach Bill McCartney said.
The victory apparently clinched the national title for the Buffaloes (11-1-1), a goal that eluded them last year when they were beaten by Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.
Every top-ranked team that has won a bowl game has been crowned national champion, so it would be a major break with tradition if Colorado doesn't finish No. 1 when the final Associatede Press poll is released on Wednesday.
"That's the way I feel," McCartney said. "I think historically if you play a team as worthy as Notre Dame and you beat them, you should hold your ranking. Comparative scores really mean nothing. If you look at what Colorado has done all year, the teams we've beaten, we should maintain our ranking."
Second-ranked Georgia Tech (11-0-1) bolstered its claim to the title by beating Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl and No. 4 Miami (10-2) made its case by routing No. 3 Texas 46-3 in the Cotton Bowl. But it seems highly unlikely that either team will pass Colorado in the rankings.
Things looked bleak early in the second half for the Buffaloes, who were trailing 9-3, struggling on offense and missing Hagan, who ruptured a tendon in his left knee after being tackled shortly before halftime. But Johnson, a junior who started two games this season, came in and led the Buffaloes to the go-ahead touchdown - a 1-yard run on third and goal by Eric Bieniemy with 4:26 left in the third quarter.
"I couldn't be prouder of him," McCartney said of Johnson. "It was fitting that it should end this way because all year long we've had to reach deep to find a way to scratch out a victory."
The Irish had a chance to regain the lead after recovering a Bieniemy fumble on their own 46 with 7:26 remaining in the game, but Colorado stopped them on four downs.
Before the game, Johnson was best known as the player whose 1-yard run on fifth down (the officials goofed) beat Missouri 33-31. Now he will also be known as the substitute who helped Colorado gain the biggest win in school history.
Johnson completed 5 of 6 passes for 80 yards, including three completions for 32 yards during Colorado's second-half scoring drive.
Bieniemy, who fumbled away a sure touchdown in last year's game, redeemed himself this year by scoring the go-ahead touchdown and leading the Buffaloes in rushing with 86 yards on 26 carries.
Ismail, who caught six passes for 57 yards, nearly became the hero with his tackle-breaking punt return with 35 seconds left. But a clip by Greg Davis, of nearby Hollywood, Fla., nullified the spectacular run and a last-second desperation pass by Rick Mirer was intercepted by Deon Figures. Mirer completed 13 of 31 passes for 141 yards, but was intercepted three times.
Both teams entered the game with high-powered offenses, but it was defense that dominated. Colorado, which was averaging 32 points and 431 yards per game was held to 295 yards by Notre Dame's much-maligned defense. Notre Dame, averaging 32 points and 417 yards per game, gained only 264 yards.
There was little scoring, but plenty of excitement in the first half as Notre Dame took a 6-3 lead.
In the opening 21/2 minutes, Colorado ran a reverse, fumbled the snap on a punt, intercepted a Notre Dame pass and tried a fleaflicker play. But the game remained scoreless until Colorado's Jim Harper kicked a 22-yard field with 12:04 left in the half.
The Buffaloes had a first-and-goal on the Notre Dame 7, but the drive stalled at the 5 following a failed halfback pass by Bieniemy and an incompletion by Hagan.
After Harper's field goal, Notre Dame drove 62 yards in nine plays for the only touchdown of the half, a 2-yard run by Ricky Watters. The tailback appeared to be stopped at the line of scrimmage, but bounced off the pile and scored on a strong second-effort. Craig Hentrich's extra-point kick was blocked by Ronnie Bradford, leaving the score at 6-3.
Hagan, the sparkplug of Colorado's option offense, was injured with 50 seconds left after scrambling for a 5-yard gain. He was sandwiched by two Notre Dame tacklers and had to be helped off the field.