Buffaloes fed up with 5th down Disputed extra play works up emotions ORANGE BOWL Colorado vs. Notre Dame

December 30, 1990|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Correspondent

MIAMI -- It seems only fitting that when anyone mentions the most controversial series of plays in the 1990 college football season, the University of Colorado's players want to take the fifth.

"Oh, no, can we please bury this?" said Joe Garten, Colorado guard and captain. "Actually, we had nothing to do with it. The officials made the mistakes. As far as I'm concerned, it's history."

It won't be history until a team is crowned national champion for the 1990 college football season. If that team is top-ranked Colorado (10-1-1), which plays No. 5 Notre Dame (9-2) in the Federal Express Orange Bowl Tuesday night, will there be an asterisk beside its name?

"In all honesty, if we win this game, I'm going to set a vertical jump record for the McCartney household," said Colorado coach Bill McCartney. "It's not going to be impaired by what other people think."

The controversial series occurred Oct. 6 in Columbia, Mo., where the Buffaloes were playing Missouri. The game ended with a fifth-down play and a 33-31 Colorado victory that has sparked debate about the legitimacy of the Buffaloes' claim to No. 1.

Here's what happened: Trailing, 31-27, the Buffaloes took possession at their 12-yard line with 2 minutes, 24 seconds left in the game. Backup quarterback Charles Johnson drove Colorado the Missouri 3 with 30 seconds left.

From there, through a mistake by the officials, Colorado scored a touchdown in five plays, getting five downs.

Then the controversy began.

Missouri coach Bob Stull said something seemed funny, but he was certain seven officials couldn't be wrong. Referee J.C. Louderback had no idea it was fifth down, and McCartney said he didn't know, either.

Missouri fans from among the crowd of 47,000 ran onto the field and started tearing down the goal post because they thought Johnson had been stopped.

But wait a minute. The officials met, and hands were raised. Colorado had scored. High fives turned into teary eyes. Fans were cleared off the field, as the Buffaloes attempted the extra point.

By then, some of the crowd had become annoyed with the turn of events. Debris was thrown onto the field. A police officer was punched. McCartney, at a news conference, was called obscenities from outside the room.

"I saw one character coming out of the stands giving me five fingers," said Louderback recently. "Then an assistant coach from Missouri came up to me and said, 'I think you guys might have given them five downs.' "I said, 'You got to be kidding me.' "

Missouri folks weren't laughing, either.

"There are seven officials, and they all kept track of downs," said Stull. "There was no way all of them could be wrong. Plus the down-marker guy, he had worked at our school for 27 years. Nobody wanted to say it. Everybody was second-guessing themselves. It was kind of hard to believe."

McCartney said he was overwhelmed by the incident and didn't know the magnitude of the series until the following days. His post-game comments were considered offensive and unapologetic.

But he wasn't giving away the victory, a decision that led to hate mail and telephoned threats.

"I was caught up in the euphoria of the game, and, at the time, didn't realize the importance of the extra down. I didn't even know we had an extra down," said McCartney. "But, in retrospect, if I had realized the magnitude of the play, I probably would have commented differently. It wasn't like I had a lot of time to think about what had transpired.

"I read some inflammatory columns in newspapers and letters attacking me personally. They certainly hurt a little, but, like any other adversity, you've got to go on."

McCartney has received support from his players and peers, particularly Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.

"It all boiled down to what happened during the game, not what happened afterward," said Holtz. "It was a win, and the game was over. He made the right decision for Colorado."

Garten said: "You can't penalize the entire team for mistakes made by the officials. It's all part of the game. There are other mistakes made by officials on obvious calls, but do you see the coach who is getting the call running out on the field and saying: 'Oh, no, take the call back. We don't want the touchdown or a first down.' It was just a case of miscommunication by the officials."

The decision, according to Garten, benefited Colorado in other ways. The Buffaloes steamrolled through their next six opponents.

Apparently, the controversy won't keep Colorado away from a national championship if it beats Norte Dame. Jim Thomas, who covers Missouri for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, recently reached 47 of the 60 people who vote in The Associated Press poll. He asked whether the fifth-down controversy would affect their final vote. Thirty-three said it would not. Seven said it would. The other seven were undecided.

"Traditionally, a team that is ranked No. 1, goes to a major bowl and wins stays No. 1," said McCartney. "If we beat Notre Dame and don't end up No. 1, I'll be awfully disappointed in the system. A lot of people will be disappointed in the system."

Maybe Johnson summed it up best.

"It's always that one play, that fifth down. I'm always going to be remembered for that one play and so is this team, no matter what happens," Johnson said.

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