The 1991 Orange Bowl was a 1990–1991 college football bowl game that was played on January 1, 1991, for the national championship. The 57th edition of the Orange Bowl featured the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and the Colorado Buffaloes. Colorado came into the game with a 10–1–1 record and #1 AP ranking, whereas Notre Dame came into the game with a 9–2 and #5 AP ranking. The game was a rematch of the 1990 Orange Bowl, in which #3 Notre Dame took a National Championship away from #1 Colorado, 21–6. The 1991 win gave the Buffaloes their first and (to date) only National Championship, shared with Georgia Tech.
Colorado came into the Orange Bowl 10–1–1, but needed some luck to get to that point. In their first game, the Tennessee Volunteers came back from 21 points out, kicking the tying extra point to hold a 31–31 tie. More than one month later, Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson[lower-alpha 1] scored a touchdown to beat the Missouri Tigers 33–31, in a very controversial game in which Colorado was allowed to have a 5th down. The winning touchdown was scored on that play, and it was allowed to stand, even though Johnson was stopped short of the goal line on that play. That game is often referred to as the "5th down game". One reason for the Buffaloes number 1 ranking was that they had the toughest schedule of any team. Another was quarterback Darian Hagan and half back Eric Bieniemy, who finished 3rd in the Heisman voting. A victory would guarantee at least a share of the championship, but the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets weren't far behind with their number 2 ranking in both polls, and were 10–0–1 going into New Year's Day.
The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, meanwhile, were 9–2, but the two losses were unfortunate. Both losses occurred when they were number 1 in the polls, and at home. The first was a 36-31 loss to 1-3 Stanford on October 6. The second loss came when Penn State's Craig Fayak kicked a 34 yard field goal to hand the Irish a 24-21 loss. The Penn State loss resulted in Notre Dame's number one ranking falling to Colorado. Sophomore quarterback Rick Mirer passed for 1824 yards and 8 touchdowns, while Raghib Ismail accounted for 1726 all-purpose yards, putting him on the All-American team as a wide receiver.
After a scoreless first quarter, Colorado struck first blood, as Jim Harper kicked a 22 yard field goal to give the first points of the game. A few minutes later, on 2nd and goal, tailback Ricky Watters plunged in from 2 yards to give the Fighting Irish the lead. But when Ronnie Bradford blocked Craig Hentrich's PAT attempt, the score remained 6-3. This cost Hentrich his 73 straight successful PAT attempts, a school record. Things would turn sour for the Buffaloes, however, as Hagan ruptured his tendon in his left knee just before the half, where the score remained the same.
The 1991 Orange Bowl is also remembered for a controversial finish. Raghib Ismail returned a punt 92 yards for the seeming winning touchdown with 43 seconds left. This would have sealed the victory for Notre Dame and cost Colorado a share of the National Championship. However, the touchdown was called back on a clipping penalty, and Colorado held on for the 10-9 victory.