Prior to head coach Bill McCartney, Colorado had not enjoyed much football success in a while. But even McCartney’s tenure started slow before he broke through with a win that showed the Buffaloes were a national player on this day 30 years ago.
Colorado was ranked No. 2 in the nation as No. 3 Nebraska came to Folsom Field on Nov. 4, 1989. With both teams undefeated in Big 8 play, the contest served as a de facto Big 8 title game. The Buffaloes had not won the conference since 1976 and had done so just twice in 41 years as a member. When all was said and done, that feat had been all but accomplished in a 27-21 victory.
Despite Colorado being 8-0, it was Nebraska that tried to set the tone. The Cornhuskers started at midfield after Tyrone Byrd intercepted Buffaloes’ quarterback Darian Hagan on the opening drive near midfield. It took Nebraska just one play on offense to go ahead as Gerry Gdowski found Bryan Carpenter on a screen pass that went 51 yards to make it 7-0 just 90 seconds in.
It didn’t take the Buffaloes long to answer or Hagan long to atone. Less than nine minutes later, Colorado found itself up, 14-7.
After starting a possession at its own 30-yard-line, running back J.J. Flannigan scored a 70-yard touchdown on an option pitch from Hagan about 30 yards downfield. After a nice punt return from Jeff Campbell set the Buffaloes up inside the Nebraska 5-yard-line, Colorado capped a 3-play, 4-yard march with a 1-yard touchdown run from Hagan with more than five minutes to play in the first quarter.
That would be the last touchdown of the first half for Colorado, but it did take a 17-14 lead into the locker room. After Gdowski found Morgan Gregory for a 12-yard scoring strike on 3rd-and-goal to even the game for Nebraska with less than 12 minutes to play in the second quarter, Colorado kicker Ken Culbertson’s 49-yard field goal late in the first half put the Buffaloes ahead for good.
Flannigan’s second rushing touchdown of the game midway through the third quarter gave the Buffaloes their biggest lead of the day, but Nebraska would cut it back to three late in the third quarter on Gdowski’s third touchdown pass — a 26-yard strike to Chris Garrett.
Culbertson would cap the scoring with a 28-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter and from there, the Colorado defense did the rest. With Nebraska driving and less than four minutes to play, Colorado defensive tackle Joel Steed came up with a key tackle for loss on Gdowski. Facing 4th-and-6, the Buffaloes were able to force an incomplete pass and a turnover on downs.
Nebraska would get the ball back at its own 12-yard-line with less than two minutes to play following a 62-yard punt from Tom Rouen and proceed to march into Colorado territory. But with time ticking away, Gdowski’s Hail Mary as time expired was knocked to the turf.
Flannigan finished with 96 yards rushing to go with two touchdowns while Hagan rushed for 118 yards in the win. Gdowski accounted for 280 total yards and three touchdown passes in the loss.
Nebraska finished with 397 yards of offense to just 227 for the Buffaloes, but special teams were the difference on that Senior Day afternoon in Boulder. Colorado would beat Oklahoma State and Kansas State to finish the regular season undefeated and ascend to No. 1 in the polls. Unfortunately, a 21-6 loss to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl would cost the program its first national championship.
What the Buffaloes did do that season was claim the Big 8 title for the first time in 13 years. That would not have been possible without a win in a match-up of top-3 teams that took place on this day 30 years ago.
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