Notre Dame vs Colorado 1990 Orange Bowl: Winning Isn’t Enough

Notre Dame narrowly missed a second consecutive national title despite a strong season and a decisive Orange Bowl victory over Colorado.

The adage that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades is one that possibly crossed the minds of the 1989 edition of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. That’s because even after a dominating season with only a single loss, the Irish found themselves agonizingly short of a second consecutive national title.

The timing of that lone defeat as well as the school it came against helped temper the excitement of Notre Dame’s 21-6 Orange Bowl victory over the top-ranked Colorado Buffaloes on January 1, 1990. Just five weeks earlier the undefeated Irish had dropped a 27-10 road decision to the Miami Hurricanes, the team that ended up being the beneficiary of Notre Dame’s bowl game success. A year earlier the Irish knocked off the Hurricanes at home in the Catholics vs. Convicts game enroute to winning the ’88 championship.

The Coaches

Lou Holtz was set to finish up his fourth season with the Irish, a year that was nearly as successful as the previous campaign. Notre Dame’s 12-0 season in 1988 marked the school’s 11th national championship and was followed by a team that had outscored opponents by an average of 18 points during the regular season.

Bill McCartney was in his eighth season at the helm of a Colorado program that had been in shambles when he took over in 1982. The school’s previous coach, Chuck Fairbanks, had run up major deficits and was connected to some of the NCAA violations that put the school on probation. McCartney survived his first three seasons with the Buffaloes, despite a 7-25 record, then went on to lead Colorado to 39 wins in its next 58 games. That included a spotless 11-0 mark entering this contest.

The Key Players

Tony Rice had led the Irish to that national title and was again using both his arm and legs to lead the team to success. The arm threw for 1,122 yards in 1989, though his two touchdown passes were countered by nine interceptions. However, his 884 yards rushing led the team, with the trio of Ricky Watters, Anthony Johnson and the electrifying Rocket Ismail combining for over 1,700 more yards on the ground. Notre Dame’s defense had its moments during the regular season but was coming off two games in which they had allowed an average of 25 points per game.

Like the Irish, Colorado was powered by its running game, led by quarterback Darian Hagan and running back J.J. Flannigan, who each rushed for over 1,000 yards. Hagan also threw for 1,000 yards, reaching that milestone on just 48 completions. For good measure, the Buffaloes also had Eric Bienemy gaining 561 yards on the ground and scoring nine touchdowns. Colorado’s defense had only allowed 150 points in its 11 regular season clashes.

The Game

The Irish had dropped from first to fourth in the rankings after the Miami loss, with the Buffaloes taking that top spot when the regular season ended. Notre Dame’s second trip to Miami within five weeks was just as unpopular with the locals as the first time. The clearest example of that came when the Irish received a torrent of boos when the team attended a Miami Heat NBA game.

From a football standpoint, energizing the Notre Dame running attack became a focus as Holtz and his offensive coaches implemented the Power-I. That strategy was based on Nebraska’s success with it against Colorado two months earlier when the Cornhuskers’ runners gained 186 yards on the Buffaloes. Additional considerations were largely shelved after Watters’ early departure due to a knee injury.

The total lack of scoring during the first 30 minutes might have been seen as dull by a national television audience. However, the Irish defense managed to help avoid putting the offense in a huge hole, with Colorado helping them accomplish that feat on three different occasions.

The first instance came when Bienemy fumbled the ball away at the Irish 19, with the next coming on a 23-yard missed field goal by the Buffaloes in the second quarter. Colorado then had first-and-goal at the one and was stymied on three straight plays to set up an apparent field goal.

Trying to catch Notre Dame off guard with less than four minutes to go before halftime, The Buffaloes’ holder, Jeff Campbell, took the snap at the Irish 10 but was unable to find a receiver. After being first hit by Stan Smagala, Campbell was then brought down by Troy Ridgely at the one.

That momentum boost carried into the third quarter, with Notre Dame moving 68 yards on seven plays following the second-half kickoff. A clutch third-and-12 catch by Tony Smith helped move the chains and was followed by Johnson’s 30-yard run that put the ball at the Colorado 10. Soon after, Johnson scored on a two-yard run and the Irish led 7-0.

On the Buffaloes’ subsequent drive, Ned Bolcar’s interception off a deflection gave Notre Dame the ball just past midfield. Johnson managed to pick up a first down on a third-down pass but the Irish were then flagged for consecutive penalties that put them in a first-and-31 situation. Despite that roadblock, an 18-yard Pat Eilers catch was followed two plays later by a 35-yard Ismail scoring tun to double the Notre Dame advantage.

In the final two minutes of the third period, Colorado picked up its only score of the night on a 39-yard run by Hagan as time expired in the quarter. The Buffaloes got the ball at their own 47 after a weak punt by the Irish, but the point-after attempt missed, making it 14-6 with 15 minutes remaining.

Notre Dame then settled the issue with a time-consuming 17-play drive that ate up nearly nine minutes of clock. Two third-down conversion runs by Rodney Culver were paramount to extending the drive that ended with Johnson’s second score, a seven-yard run to make the final, 21-6.

The Aftermath

At the same time the Irish were winning, Miami was defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 33-25. The latter victory was enough to give the second-ranked Hurricanes the national title, with the Irish earning the spot right behind them. Before Notre Dame’s matchup against Miami, the Hurricanes had been ranked seventh in the polls.

One year later, the Irish would have an Orange Bowl rematch against Colorado, with the Buffaloes again in position to win at least a share of the national title. In that case, a phantom clipping flag against Notre Dame in the final minute wiped out a potential game-winning punt return by Ismail to saddle the Irish with a 10-9 loss. Colorado ended up sharing the national championship with Georgia Tech.

Four years later, Notre Dame was in the exact same position as Miami was in 1989, but voters robbed the Irish of a title based on the same logic in which they awarded Miami one just four years earlier. Notre Dame beat #1 Florida State in the regular season before dropping the regular season finale to Boston College. Despite both teams having one loss and the Irish having the head-to-head victory, voters handed the Seminoles the championship.

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