MIAMI -- Under a full Florida moon, so close to a national championship that he could feel the trophy in his meaty offensive lineman's hands, Jay Leeuwenburg watched as a blur named Rocket Ismail ripped past him as he stood on the Colorado sideline. "Where's the flag?" he said to himself. "There has to be a flag."
After all, Colorado had been through so much. Not only three long seasons of controversy and such close brushes with this title, but on this final night the Buffaloes had lost their quarterback, lost a linebacker and trailed Notre Dame at halftime. Then they had come back to lead and there was less than a minute to play. They punted to Ismail and he took it at his own 9 and kept slipping tackles -- "trying to make something happen," he said -- and then he was gone.
Except there was a flag, a small piece of yellow cloth on the ground at the 37-yard line, right where Ismail had turned the corner. Clipping. "The only way we could stop him," punter Tom Rouen said. Ismail reached the end zone, 91 yards from where he caught the ball, turned and saw that it was over. "As soon as I got there," he said.
And, of course, it was perfect that Colorado should endure such pain before being crowned. Thirty-five seconds later, the players spilled as one onto the field, in possession of a 10-9 Orange Bowl victory and almost assuredly in possession of their first national championship in something other than skiing.
"We had hit rock bottom in this program," said Colorado coach Bill McCartney, who took over in 1982 and won seven games in his first three seasons. "I'm overflowing with pride for our kids, for our coaches, and to everyone attached to this program."
The No. 1 Buffaloes (11-1-1) were voted national champions today in The Associated Press poll, edging undefeated No. 2 Georgia Tech and Cotton Bowl winner No. 3 Miami.
"We held our position," McCartney said. "If you look at what Colorado has done all year, the teams we've beaten, we should maintain our ranking." And they did.
The comeback from a 6-3 halftime deficit was accomplished with Charles S. Johnson, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound junior quarterback, at the controls. Darian Hagan, the All-Big Eight junior, suffered a ruptured tendon in his left knee when he was dragged down by two Irish tacklers with 50 seconds left in the first half. All Johnson did was complete five of six passes for 80 yards, run the offense without a turnover and steer the winning drive.
"C.J. did one hell of a job," Colorado All-America guard Joe Garten said.
And Notre Dame, which dropped from fifth to sixth in the final poll, helped by playing an uncharacteristically sloppy game. A team that had committed only 11 turnovers in 11 regular-season games, the Irish committed three on consecutive possessions (covering only four plays from scrimmage) in the third quarter. In essence, the Irish cracked when Colorado should have.
"We had five turnovers in the game," Irish tailback Ricky Watters said. "There's no way we can do that and expect to win the game. We've never done that. We don't deserve it."
And there is another bittersweet footnote for the Irish: after they took a 6-3 lead on Watters' 2-yard TD run with 7:32 left in the first half, Craig Hentrich (who later boomed a 78-yard punt) had his extra-point attempt blocked by sophomore Ronnie Bradford.
It seemed unthinkable that it would matter when Notre Dame drove 66 yards in 10 plays at the start of the second half. The Irish were stopped at their 6-yard line, but Hentrich kicked a 24-yard field goal to extend Notre Dame's lead to 9-3 with 10:10 left in the third quarter. When Colorado took possession, Johnson, who was named Colorado's MVP in the game, worked a very shaky three-and-out and Notre Dame took over on its own 35. But Watters fumbled, and Johnson had another shot, in excellent field position at the Irish 40.
Johnson had played most of the Missouri game, and had, in fact, scored the winning touchdown on the infamous fifth down. "I had told him we were behind him," McCartney said. "I told him he was capable of making plays."
He made two big ones: a 16-yard completion to Sean Brown at the Irish 22 and a 9-yard throw to Jon Boman on third-and-one from the Irish 13. Eric Bieniemy, the All-America tailback who rushed for 47 yards in the second half and 86 for the game, went over from the 1 with 4:26 left in the quarter.
"I just tried to stay within myself," Johnson said. "I dream all the time about getting a chance to play. I daydream. It's a good way to prepare. I felt like I was dreaming out there all night."
Notre Dame linebacker Michael Stonebreaker said, "We thought they would feature Bieniemy more in the second half. We didn't expect Johnson to throw so much. They did a good job. They deserve to be No. 1."