Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Fourth Quarter Stampede Leads to Big Things for Buffs

January 23, 2020

The background music might’ve been “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead.

But first, consider the following:

Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan was 0-for-5 passing with an interception in the first half against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in early November of 1990.

The Huskers converted the interception by Mike Petko into a Gregg Barrios field goal. 

Buffs running back Eric Bieniemy Jr., the nation’s leading rusher (and, yes, now the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator), fumbled five times, losing three, in the first three quarters of the game.

Early in the third quarter, Pat Engelbert forced Bieniemy’s second lost fumble, which Travis Hill recovered at the Colorado 43-yard line. On the first play, quarterback Mickey Joseph broke loose and ran to the end zone. The officials ruled he had stepped out of bounds at the 9, however, a ruling Joseph disputed. The Huskers could only move the ball to the 3. On fourth down, Barrios, who had given Nebraska a 6-0 lead in the first half, missed a 20-yard field goal attempt, wide right.

Bieniemy’s third lost fumble came nearly 5 minutes later. Mike Croel recovered at the Husker 20. Five plays later, Joseph and tight end Johnny Mitchell teamed up on a 46-yard touchdown pass. Joseph’s two-point conversion pass—intended for split end Dan Pleasant, a walk-on from Craig, Colorado—was incomplete, however, and with 2:38 remaining in the third quarter, Nebraska led 12-0.

Bieniemy had rushed for 81 yards on 29 carries. Hagan had been sacked four times.

After considering all those things, you’d probably expect a Husker victory. But that didn’t happen.

Bieniemy carried nine times for 56 yards and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Hagan completed 3-of-4 passes for 58 yards—giving him 6-for-7 of 143 yards in the second half—and Nebraska couldn’t score again after the Joseph-to-Mitchell touchdown pass.

Bieniemy’s third touchdown came after Nebraska attempted a fake punt on fourth-and-3 at its own 28-yard line midway through the fourth quarter—fullback Tim Johnk picked up 2 yards—and his fourth came when the Huskers went for it on fourth-and-15 from its own 15 with just over 3 minutes remaining. Joseph was sacked for a 5-yard loss.

Had Joseph not been ruled out of bounds on the run early in the third quarter, Nebraska would have played things differently in the fourth quarter, Tom Osborne said. Would that have changed the outcome? Probably not, according to defensive coordinator Charlie McBride.

The Buffs were physically superior, he said. “They just trucked it right at us.”

Bieniemy ran behind a line with a foundation of fifth-year seniors, straight ahead, nothing fancy, emulating Nebraska’s offensive approach, you might say.

“As the game went on, I thought we’d be the stronger team,” said Osborne.

That wasn’t the case.

Colorado’s defense was stout. The Huskers were held to season lows in first downs (nine), rushing yards (163) and total offense (232 yards). 

I-back Leodis Flowers, who had rushed for 100 or more yards in each of the previous six games, didn’t play in the second half because of an ankle sprain. He finished with 43 yards on 14 carries.

Nebraska had climbed to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, and into the national-title hunt, the same ranking and situation as the previous season when it had gone to Boulder and lost 27-21. 

Colorado had climbed to No. 9, after opening the season at No. 5 but tying its opener with Tennessee, 31-31, and losing its third game against Illinois, 23-22.

The Huskers would drop to No. 13, while Colorado would move to No. 4, behind Notre Dame, Washington and Houston. A week later, Washington and Houston would lose, and the Buffaloes would move to No. 2. The week after that, they would replace Notre Dame atop the rankings after an Irish loss against No. 18 Penn State—and they would remain No. 1 in the AP poll. 

“I’d like to say this, the Nebraska crowd really showed a lot of class,” Colorado Coach Bill McCartney said. “I hope our players handle this with the humility they should because the Nebraska crowd was tremendous . . . when the game ended, they were very generous. 

“I’m grateful for that, and I think that’s a class that we at Colorado would want to duplicate.”

“Grateful” brings us back around to “Truckin’.” OK, that’s a stretch. Still, you might borrow a couple of lines from the song: “Sometimes the light’s all shining on me. Other times I can barely see.”

It wasn’t shining on the Huskers this damp, 30-degree late afternoon in November. 

But “after the game I told them I was proud of their effort,” Osborne said of the once-beaten Huskers. “We could’ve played better, but I think we can still have a fine season. I’m really anxious to see how they respond because after something like this, I think you can go different directions.”

And Nebraska, after getting “trucked,” did.

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