MIAMI -- Sixty-five seconds remained when Colorado's Tom Rouen went into punt formation. An Orange Bowl crowd of 77,062 anticipated the moment, a familiar scene in which a blur named Raghib "The Rocket" Ismail changes everything.
Ismail delivered the goods, but the result was devastating for Notre Dame. Ismail's 91-yard return for a touchdown was nullified by a clipping penalty and No. 1-ranked Colorado held on for a 10-9 victory last night over the Fighting Irish.
Colorado (11-1-1) now awaits the coronation of the pollsters, who later today are expected to award the Buffaloes their first national championship. Notre Dame (9-3) must replay the flag that was thrown while Ismail was reducing Colorado to dust.
Greg Davis, Notre Dame's starting strong safety, was called for blocking the Buffaloes' Tim James in the back near the Colorado 35-yard line. After further review, Ismail's brilliant return was a footnote to a Colorado milestone.
"It wasn't like our season was going up in smoke," said Colorado coach Bill McCartney. "I saw the flag first."
Davis had an idea he was the guilty party, but he questioned the decision.
"I didn't see it; I didn't think I clipped him," he said. "I was getting up to run and I saw the ref throw the flag. He threw it back at the pile where I was, so I knew the penalty was on me."
McCartney said he never considered punting the ball out of bounds, despite the fact that Ismail has returned five kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns in his three years with the Irish. "I just felt like we could cover it," he said.
McCartney figured wrong. Ismail broke away from several would-be tacklers and Rouen had little if any chance of making a touchdown-saving stop on the sideline.
"We figured we had him pretty well contained throughout the game," Rouen said. "I hung it up real high. We had four or five guys circling him. He put some Rocket moves on and turned the boosters on. He was wrapped up twice and was stopped and he broke away and was back up to full speed.
"I busted out to the left side of the field. I had the angle on him and he just blew right past me."
Ismail was mobbed beyond the end line until he learned of the sobering news. Afterward, he accepted his fate in his usual low-key manner.
"It don't matter. These things happen. You learn to live with them," Ismail said.
Colorado tailback Eric Bieniemy, who led all rushers with 95 yards, realized a penalty was the Buffaloes' best bet once Ismail got into the open field.
"I knew he was gone," Bieniemy said. "The only thing I could do was look back [for a flag]."