Are voters extra down on Colorado?

December 31, 1990|By Ray Parrillo | Ray Parrillo,Knight-Ridder

MIAMI -- Something that should have been as easy as 1-2-3 for the guys who officiated the Oct. 6 Colorado-Missouri game turned into a strange form of higher math.

And ever since, the top-ranked Colorado Buffaloes have been put down for the convoluted count.

Everywhere they've gone -- outside of Boulder, of course -- since what forever will be known as the "Fifth-Down Game," the Buffaloes have been asked about it, prodded about it, and vilified for it by more folks than they wish to, uh, count.

Quite simply, a lot of people don't think Colorado deserves to be No. 1 because of the tainted win. A lot of people think there should be an asterisk rather than a buffalo on their golden helmets.

And so the questions that won't die keep surfacing.

It has been no different here at the site of tomorrow night's Orange Bowl, a repeat of last year's matchup between fifth-ranked Notre Dame (9-2) and a Colorado team (10-1-1) out to grab its first national championship outside of skiing in the school's history.

"Do you people draw straws to see who asks the question?" exasperated Colorado coach Bill McCartney asked, his eyes rolling upward.

No, the questions won't die.

How could Colorado in good conscience accept its 33-31 victory over Missouri when the winning touchdown, which came with no time remaining, was scored on a fifth down?

Well, the answer is that the Buffaloes had to accept the win, because according to NCAA rules, a final result can't be overturned.

Another question is: Why haven't the Buffaloes at least been apologetic or contrite about the tainted victory? The answer is bad public relations.

"We're here, and we're not apologizing for it," said Darian Hagan, Colorado's nimble-footed quarterback.

"People are going to say what they want, anyway," added fullback George Hemingway, trying to mow down the issue the way he mows down linebackers for tailback Eric Bieniemy, the nation's second-leading rusher. "Fifth down, fifth down, fifth down . . . Who cares? When I was in the game, I didn't know it was fifth down. None of us did. Look, we're here, and I [don't] understand why people continue to bring it up. It just makes no sense to keep bringing it up."

Some recounting is in order here.

The infamous series of downs began at the Missouri 3-yard line, with less than a minute remaining in the game and the Buffaloes trailing, 31-27. On first down, backup quarterback Charles Johnson grounded the ball to stop the clock. On second down, Bieniemy ran to the 1. McCartney stopped the clock with 18 seconds to go. On the third play, Bieniemy was stopped for no gain. At that point, the down marker remained stuck on two. On the next play, Johnson, thinking it was third down, spiked the ball to stop the clock with two seconds remaining. On the fifth play, Johnson sneaked in for the winning touchdown.

All the while, Missouri's coaches sat on their hands along the sideline instead of bringing the foul-up to the attention of the officials.

Ever since, some have accused Colorado of bad sportsmanship; some have considered the Buffaloes a team with two losses; some have even written that they hope Notre Dame beats the Buffaloes and denies them the national title.

McCartney has repeated over and over again that he accepted the win because the error did not give his team a competitive advantage. He said if he'd known it were third down instead of second, he would have chosen a different play. And it is hard to believe Johnson would have deliberately spiked the ball if he knew it was fourth down, unless he was out to win Bonehead of the Year.

Therefore, the Buffaloes took the winning-means-never-having-to-say-you're -sorry stance.

How it will affect Colorado's standing in the final Associated Press poll of reporters and broadcasters is hard to gauge. In the final regular-season poll, the Buffaloes received 42 of a possible 60 first-place votes. No. 2 Georgia Tech received 16 and No. 3 Texas two. Colorado, the only Division I-A team with a nine-game winning streak, is the only team to beat Texas, and the Buffaloes' schedule was clearly stiffer than Tech's.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch polled 47 of the 60 AP voters on whether the fifth-down win would affect their voting in the final poll to be released this week. Thirty-three said it wouldn't, seven said it would, and seven were undecided.

Angered by the AP vote, McCartney said he only cared about the United Press International coaches poll, which gave Colorado 45 of 55 first-place votes.

It's likely that Colorado wouldn't have felt so much backlash if McCartney hadn't been so tactless as to criticize the field conditions at Missouri. His initial response to the controversy was to whine that his players slipped about 90 times on Missouri's artificial turf.

Thus, the fifth-down game continues to haunt Colorado.

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