American Football Database
The Fifth Down Game
Conference Game
1 2 3 4 Total
University of Colorado at Boulder 7 7 3 16 26
University of Missouri 14 0 7 10 31
Date October 6, 1990
Stadium Faurot Field
Location Columbia, Missouri

The Fifth Down Game was a college football game that included a play that the crew officiating the game permitted to occur in error. That play enabled the Colorado Buffaloes to defeat the Missouri Tigers by scoring a touchdown on the last play of their game on October 6, 1990. The ensuing controversy cast doubt on Colorado's claim to Division I-A's 1990 national championship, which it shares with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. It has been called one of the top memorable moments and blunders in college football history.[1][2]


In American football, a team is allowed four attempts or "downs" to move the ball 10 yards (9.14 m) towards the goal line. If the offense moves ten yards in four attempts or fewer, it gains a "first down," which restarts the process. If, after four attempts, the offense has neither scored nor gained ten yards, the other team is given possession of the ball. Under normal circumstances (for example, excluding penalties which can involve replaying a down), no team is supposed to be allowed five attempts. In this game, due to an officiating error, Colorado was given a fifth consecutive down which they used to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired.

Game recap

The game pitted the Colorado Buffaloes (CU) against their Big Eight Conference rival, the Missouri Tigers (MU), and was played on October 6, 1990 in front of a crowd of 46,856.[3] The game was played at Faurot Field, Missouri's home stadium in Columbia, Missouri. Colorado's starting quarterback, Darian Hagan, was injured and backup quarterback Charles Johnson[lower-alpha 1], who had some playing time the previous week and season, played the game. However, Colorado was still heavily favored to win.[4] Colorado was ranked #12 by the Associated Press in the nation while Missouri was unranked (i.e. below the top 25).[5] Colorado's record coming into the game was 3–1–1 (three wins, one loss, one tie) with wins over #12 Washington and #20 Texas ranked teams and unranked Stanford; their loss to the #21 ranked Illinois team and the tie to #8 Tennessee.[6] Missouri was 2–2 (two wins, two losses) coming in to the game with wins over #21 Arizona State and unranked Utah State and losses to unranked TCU and Indiana.[7]

The lead in this game changed several times, and several big plays kept the momentum swinging. With less than three minutes to go, Colorado took possession of the ball deep in its own territory trailing 31–27. Johnson led the team on a last-ditch drive. With about 40 seconds to go, he completed a pass to Colorado tight end Jon Boman who fell down just yards short of the goal line. Boman slipped due to the poor conditions of the field.[4][8] This play gave the Buffaloes a first down, but it led to immediate confusion because the Buffs were running a hurry-up offense.

On first down, Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. On second down, a power run into the line by Eric Bieniemy was stopped just short of the goal line. Colorado then called its third and final timeout. During the timeout, the officiating crew failed to flip the down marker to note that it was now third down. On the next play, with the down marker showing second down when it was really third down, the Buffaloes made the same call and Bieniemy was again stopped short of the end zone. Johnson then spiked the ball (thinking it was third down when it was really fourth) to stop the clock with two seconds left. He later claimed that he had no idea the officials had made a mistake, and believed he was spiking the ball on third down.[4] On the following play – fourth down according to the marker, but "fifth down" in reality – Johnson kept the ball himself and scored a touchdown.

Referee J. C. Louderback and the Big Eight officiating crew conferred for nearly 20 minutes to decide their course of action. During the delay, radio and television announcers noticed that Colorado had scored with the help of an additional play. Louderback was shown on the phone. After a lengthy consultation, the referees announced their decision: It was a touchdown, and Colorado would now have to run the extra-point conversion. Not wanting to take any risks with only a two-point lead, the Buffaloes snapped the ball and downed it to end a controversial 33-31 contest.[9][10]

Scoring details

Team Description Score Time Quarter
MU Bailey 19yd pass from Kiefer (Jacke kick) 0-7 11:10 1
CU Bieniemy 29yd run (Harper kick) 7-7 3:19 1
MU Mays 49yd pass from Kiefer (Jacke kick) 7-14 1:55 1
CU Pritchard 68yd run (Harper kick) 14-14 1:45 2
CU Harper 35yd FG 17-14 10:51 3
MU Jones 13yd run (Jacke Kick) 17-21 7:30 3
CU Pritchard 70yd pass from Johnson (Harper kick) 24-21 13:56 4
MU Jacke 45yd FG 24-24 11:11 4
CU Harper 39yd FG 27-24 3:41 4
MU Mays 38yd pass from Kiefer (Jacke kick) 27-31 2:32 4
CU Johnson 1yd run (conv. failed) 33-31 0:00 4


Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, a former Missouri Tigers player, did little to soothe the controversy. Asked whether he would consider forfeiting the game, McCartney declared that he had considered it but decided against it because "the field was lousy." He complained about the unusually slick Omniturf artificial turf surface, which he said had caused repeated slips and falls during the game.[8] It is alleged that Missouri purposely did not put sand on the field in order to make it slippery, and that their players, knowing this in advance, wore longer spikes on their shoes to compensate (Colorado did not know this and had to make do with shorter spikes).

The Big Eight...ruled that Colorado's 33–31 victory over Missouri would stand even though game officials allowed the Buffaloes a fifth down that produced the winning touchdown on the game's final play. Missouri's chancellor, Haskell Monroe Jr., had appealed to the Big Eight, asking that Missouri be declared the winner.

"It has been determined that, in accordance with the football playing rules, the allowance of the fifth down to Colorado is not a post-game correctable error," Carl James, the Big Eight commissioner, said in a statement. "The final score in the Colorado-Missouri football game will remain as posted."[11]

Closure came in the summer of 1998—four years after McCartney retired as the Buffs head coach—when he admitted to making mistakes and being saddened by the Fifth Down fiasco. McCartney made the remarks at a Promise Keepers gathering at the site of the controversy in Columbia, Missouri.[12]

The seven man Big Eight Conference officiating team was suspended indefinitely following the contest.[11]

National championship

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) governs American football as played by the teams representing the largest universities in the United States, termed Division I-A (Changed in 2006 to FBS — Football Bowl Subdivision). Although smaller schools participate in formal NCAA tournaments to determine the national college football championships in Divisions I-AA, II, and III, Division I-A lacks such a tournament.

The "mythical national championship" of Division I-A is determined by polls of coaches and/or sportswriters. In the early 1990s, two such polls were regarded as authoritative: A poll of sportswriters conducted by the Associated Press (AP) called the AP Poll, and a poll of college football coaches conducted by the American Football Coaches Association called the Coaches Poll. These polls are conducted weekly during the football season, and the final polls (in January, after all bowl games) determine the championship.

Because 1990 was a year in which no single college football team was dominant, the Fifth Down controversy played a role in determining the Division I-A national champion for the 1990 season. The Missouri game caused Colorado's ranking to decline to 14th. However, most of the top teams lost in subsequent weeks, while the Buffaloes won their remaining games, including a 27-12 victory in Lincoln over highly-rated Nebraska and a squeaker over Notre Dame. The Orange Bowl victory over Notre Dame was considered very controversial as well, due to a disputed clipping call on Notre Dame on a punt return touchdown late in the game by Raghib Ismail when Colorado held a 10-9 lead, which would be the final score after Notre Dame was assessed the penalty. A blocked Extra point by Colorado turned out to be the winning margin.

Colorado finished the 1990 season with a record of 11–1–1 (eleven wins, one loss and one tie),[6] while the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets' record was 11–0–1, (eleven wins, no losses and one tie).[13] No Division I-A team had an unblemished record, and only Georgia Tech finished without a loss.[10][14]

Observers favoring Colorado for the national championship noted that they had played a more difficult schedule than Georgia Tech. Those favoring Georgia Tech pointed to the Yellow Jackets' undefeated status and to the tainted victory achieved by Colorado at Missouri in the "Fifth Down" game, not to mention the Orange Bowl controversy. With a loss at Missouri, the Colorado record would have been 10–2–1, and the Buffaloes may not have been as strongly considered for the national title with that record. No team has ever been voted National Champion in either the Associated Press Poll or the Coaches' Poll following a season in which they participated in three or more games that they did not win.[15]

After the conclusion of the 1990 season in January 1991, the AP Poll voted Colorado national champions. The Coaches Poll voted the championship to Georgia Tech. Both universities therefore claim the 1990 championship. More recently, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was established to create a National Championship Game for major college football featuring the top two teams in the BCS Ranking (which takes into account both human polls and six computer rankings). However, the BCS has not been without controversy, nor has it eliminated split championships. For instance, in 2003, LSU (the winner of the BCS National Championship Game) was voted number one in the Coaches Poll while USC was voted atop the AP Poll and the two teams therefore split the national championship.

Missouri ended the 1990 season with a record of 4-7 (four wins, seven losses). The Tigers would not have another winning season until 1997 under Larry Smith, and did not return to consistent contender status until the middle of the 2000s under Gary Pinkel. The surface at Faurot Field was changed to natural grass in 1995, and in 2003 to FieldTurf, a rubber-infilled artificial turf which closely simulates grass.

The Colorado-Missouri series went dormant after the Buffaloes left the Big 12 for the Pacific-12 Conference on July 1, 2011. The Tigers departed the Big 12 on July 1, 2012 to join the Southeastern Conference.


Similar events had occurred in college football prior to Colorado's Fifth Down. Until 1990, the phrase "Fifth Down Game" described the Dartmouth-Cornell game of 1940, which is the first occurrence of a fifth down in college football. That game and its aftermath are described as the only time in the history of football that a game was decided off the field.

During a 1968 National Football League game between the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams, the reverse of a fifth down situation happened. The Rams were penalized for holding during a last-minute drive, and the officiating crew not only assessed the yardage, but also advanced the down marker from first to second. Nobody in the press box or on the field noticed, and the Rams turned the ball over on downs, their last possession in a 17-16 loss.

In 1972, Miami was the beneficiary of a "fifth down" in its game against Tulane. Officials mistakenly called the Miami offense back on the field for another down after it had turned the ball over on downs. Miami scored a touchdown on the next play to win the game, 24–21.[16]

Fifth downs have occurred at least one other time as well, without changing the outcome of the game.[17]

See also


  1. "College football's best of the last 20 years". USA Today. 2002-11-19. Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  2. Ted Mandell (2005-09-25). "HEART STOPPERS AND HAIL MARYS" (Book/CD). Hardwood Press. Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  3. "No. 12 Colorado 33, Missouri 31". 1990-10-06. Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Steve Megargee (2006-06-06). "Johnson: Fifth Down was an Honest Mistake". Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  5. 10/2/1990 AP Football Poll - AP Poll Archive - Historical College Football and Basketball Polls and Rankings
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Football - 1990 Schedule/Results". 1990. Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  7. "FB Year By Year Scores". Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Where have you gone, Ted Williams? - dubious sports feats". Sporting News, The (via 1997-01-06. Retrieved 2007-01-10.
  9. The rules do not require the extra point try if time has expired and the result will not affect the outcome of the game. However, since Missouri could have potentially blocked the try and returned it for two points to tie the game, the try was required.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Kelly Whiteside (2006-08-24). "Overtime system still excites coaches". Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "College Football; Colorado Victory Stands - New York Times". The New York Times. 1990-10-09. Retrieved 2007-08-07.
  12. AP (1998-06-20). "McCartney 'remorseful' about fifth-down play". Retrieved 2006-11-21.
  13. "2006 Georgia Tech Media Guide" (PDF). 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-02., page 188
  14. NCAA football rules permitted ties in 1990. Subsequent rule changes in 1996 introduced overtime play, so that all games since are victories for one team or the other.
  15. "NCAA College Football National Champions". Retrieved 2007-02-24.
  16. Nelson, David M. (1990-10-14). "Fifth Down or Not, It's Over When It's Over". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-14.
  17. Jack Park. The Official Ohio State Football Encyclopedia. Sports Publishing LLC. Retrieved 2009-09-28.


External links

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