Jan. 1, 1991
MIAMI, Fla. – Turnovers, mistakes and missed opportunities — they all played major roles for Notre Dame as the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish self-destructed on offense in their Orange Bowl rematch with top-ranked Colorado.
This time, it was the Buffs who survived one last amazing attempt by Raghib Ismail and claimed the national championship on a 10-9 victory.
The game produced some strange twists, notably the starring role played by reserve Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson. He came off the bench after Darian Hagan injured a knee late in the first half and looked impressive in completing five of six passes after intermission.
Meanwhile, the Irish offense — coldly proficient most of the season — struggled to five turnovers, including three within four plays in the second half. The Notre Dame defense, which had its share of struggles in 1990, played maybe as well as it had all year against a potent Buffalo attack.
But it was a play that didn’t even count that had everyone talking once this one was over.
With Colorado nursing its one-point lead and pushing toward field goal range in the waning moments, Notre Dame’s defense came to the fore. From a first-and-10 situation at the Irish 27 for the Buffs, Notre Dame produced three straight lost-yardage plays, the last two sacks of Johnson for a combined 19 yards in losses, pushing Colorado back to its own 47 with 43 seconds to go — and brought punter Tom Rouen onto the field. In turn, Ismail wandered back toward the goal line for the Irish.
Electing not to boot the ball out of bounds, Rouen boomed a 44-yarder that Ismail fielded at his own nine. Rocket weaved his way through all kinds of traffic and eventually broke free down the right sideline for what appeared to be a spectacular 91-yard return. But a flag had been thrown against Greg Davis for a clip as Ismail was breaking to the outside. The Irish began instead at their own 22 and couldn’t advance beyond their own 38 before time ran out.
The frustrating finish typified what proved to be an unusually inefficient evening for Notre Dame’s offense. The Irish endured just about everything — a blocked PAT, a 50-yard field goal that banged off the upright, three interceptions and a pair of lost fumbles. Still, Ismail’s last gasp return might very well have turned out to be the game-winner.
Colorado wasted little time throwing its best shots at the Irish, sending speedy Mike Pritchard on a reverse for 15 yards on the game’s first play. But when Rouen mishandled the punt snap on fourth down, Notre Dame began at the Colorado 48. That’s when the Irish should have known they might be in for a long evening, as a pressured Rick Mirer saw his first-down pass for Ismail picked off and returned to near midfield.
Notre Dame’s next possession took up 14 plays — but moved only as far as the Buff 35 following two straight incompletions. A Jim Sexton punt penned Colorado at its three, and enabled Notre Dame to take over on the Big Eight champion’s 35. This time, two more incompletions prompted a Hentrich field goal attempt from 50 yards that clanged off the right upright.
Colorado broke the scoring drought early in the second period, taking the ball from its own 32 to the Irish five. Notre Dame held off the Buffs from a first-and-goal situation at the seven and forced a Jim
Harper field goal that made it 3-0.
The Irish responded by throwing a 62-yard march of their own at Colorado. Mirer threw twice to Ismail for 21 total yards and later to Irv Smith for nine yards on third down. Ricky Watters negotiated the last two yards for the touchdown, but Colorado blocked Hentrich’s extra-point attempt. Notre Dame’s lone other first-half attempt ended in a 48-yard field-goal try by Hentrich that misfired.
Notre Dame took the second half kickoff and drove methodically from its own 28, getting 26 yards on a first-play throw to Derek Brown and 19 more on a Watters run. But, after first and goal at the Colorado four saw the Irish manage two runs for lost yardage and an incompletion, Hentrich converted the field goal from 24 yards to make it 9-3.
Next for the Irish came their offensive undoing, as lost fumbles by Watters and Tony Brooks were followed by an interception of a Mirer throw. In between came Colorado’s only other points — a oneyard Eric Bieniemy run capping a 40-yard drive, plus the eventual game-winning PAT — and it could have been worse. Notre Dame’s defense thwarted one possession with a pair of minus-yardage plays and ended another when George Williams blocked a 36-yard field-goal attempt early in the final period.
The Irish couldn’t convert after Willie Clark recovered a Bieniemy fumble near midfield at the halfway mark of the fourth quarter. That set up Ismail’s ill-fated punt return that left fans of both teams gasping.
Defensive Most Valuable Player
Chris Zorich, Nose Tackle