The Controversial ‘Fifth Down Game’ Remains a Mystery
AP Photo/Ray Fairall

Every sports team has an unforgettable moment that cost them a game, but none are worse than the infamous “Fifth Down Game,” a college football clash between the Colorado Buffaloes and Missouri Tigers back in 1990.

With only seconds left in the game, Colorado was trailing Missouri and, with the aid of almost everyone in the stadium losing track of the downs, was given an extra play with time expiring. They scored a touchdown and took the lead.

Something like that seems impossible, right? It actually happened.

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In college football history, and all sports for that matter, referees make mistakes. It happens on every game day. But easily the worst has to be when the Buffaloes football team had the ball in the red zone and quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball on fourth down. No one realized they just turned the ball over on downs.

Maybe an even crazier story of that season is with the win over Missouri, Colorado was then able to play in the Orange Bowl and win an NCAA National Championship game over Notre Dame. That wouldn’t have been possible without one play — the extra play.

Entering October 6, 1990, the Buffalo were 3-1-1 with four games against top-25 teams. They began the season as the sixth-ranked team in the country and tied eighth-ranked Tennessee in the season opener. Colorado then beat Stanford before losing to No. 21 Illinois and followed that up with wins against No. 22 Texas and No. 12 Washington.


The Fifth Down Game

Head coach Bill McCartney and his Colorado team were ranked 12th in the country as they entered their first Big Eight conference game of the season against the Tigers at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri.

With the Tigers leading 31-27, the Buffaloes had to drive the entire field with a little over two minutes and their backup quarterback on the field. Now that may not seem like a crazy task now, but for a team that only completed 98 passes during the entire 1990 season, it was a tall order to get down the field that fast.

In the video above, it shows the entire drive, starting at the 12-yard line. At about 2 minutes, 50 seconds into the video is where it starts getting interesting.

Johnson, while rolling out to his right, completes a pass to tight end Jon Boman at the five-yard line. He turns up the field and could have walked into the end zone, but slips at the four-yard line with 31 seconds remaining in the game.

1st Down

Jon Boman did pick up enough for the first down, but with limited time, Charles Johnson spiked the ball with 28 seconds left. If you listen to the announcers, there is already confusion as to what down it is. Before the snap on second down, one says “second down… excuse me, first down and goal to go.”


2nd Down

On the second-down play, running back Eric Bieniemy gets the ball up the middle, pushing the pile to the one-yard line. Colorado uses their final timeout with 18 seconds left. After this play, the commentators again discuss their confusion about what down it is, saying the down marker had it as third down and they thought it was only second down, finally remembering the spiked pass on first down.

3rd Down

On third down, they once again decide to hand the ball to Bieniemy, who is stood up at the goal line after trying to jump over the pile. With time running and both teams piled up, the refs stopped the clock with everyone laying on top of Colorado players. And this is where it gets interesting: the announcers, who had just discussed what down it was, were saying they should spike the ball again, even though they had just said they can’t because it is fourth down.

Now obviously the referees should be keeping track of the downs better than anyone, but it just goes to show that in the craziness of the game, some of the most knowledgeable football minds in the stadium were confused about the downs.

So when someone claims this was the fault of the guy holding the down marker, Rich Montgomery, they are wrong. This is a perfect example of why instant replay is convenient, though it always seems over-used.


4th Down

Johnson then rushed his team to the line with the clock running again, calling for the ball to be spiked. And on fourth down, he put the ball in the turf.

The biggest issue here is that after the clocking of the ball, no one realized that was fourth down. If they got up and ran the next play quickly, maybe it could be missed. But Colorado went and huddled up, bringing in new players before they went up to snap the ball.

Head coach Bob Stull and other coaches from the Mizzou sideline should have been losing their minds before the ball was ever snapped.

5th Down

On fifth down, Johnson took the snap and went off the right guards hip towards the end zone for the winning touchdown. A huge controversy — not only because it was fifth down — was that Johnson never reached the end zone, coming up short on their extra play. And from watching this on video, though the quality isn’t great, it does look like there could be an argument.

After the final play, the stadium immediately fell into chaos with players running onto the field along with fans out of the stands. The officiating crew was basically chased off the field and into the tunnels, and though mistakes happen, I can’t blame any fan for being so frustrated by the last 30 seconds.

The controversial win kept the Buffaloes’ season alive, winning out their final seven games in Big Eight play against Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State. They definitely took advantage of their second life with all but one of those wins by double-digits and beating the third-ranked Cornhuskers by 15 points.

They then went on to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Miami for the national title, winning 10-9 for the program’s first National Championship, which they shared with Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets beat Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl. A matchup of the dual-champs is also the perfect example of why the College Football Playoff is necessary.

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