Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: McCartney Gets His Red-Letter Day

December 12, 2019

Steven Spielberg couldn’t have written a better script for the Nebraska-Colorado game in 1989, at least for the ending. That’s how Buffalo linebacker Michael Jones described it. 

Aptly, perhaps. You be the judge.

With 3:31 remaining and Colorado leading 27-21, Nebraska faced fourth-and-6 at the Buffaloes’ 26-yard line. On third down, Husker quarterback Gerry Gdowski had lost 2 yards.

Because time was limited, Tom Osborne decided to go for the first down. A Gdowski pass intended for wingback Richard Bell was short and incomplete. Colorado took over with 3:28 remaining.

Quarterback Darian Hagan kept three times, for a net of minus-1, but killing the clock. 

Nebraska took its final timeout. Less than 2 minutes remained.

On fourth-and-11 from his own 25-yard line, Tom Rouen came on to punt for the fifth time that afternoon. Tyrone Hughes was deep for the Huskers. Rather than field it, he let the ball roll. 

It was downed on the Nebraska 12-yard line; 1:40 remained.

From there eight-of-nine plays were Gdowski passes, three complete, two on fourth down to split end Morgan Gregory for gains of 14 and 10 yards, the third completion, on fourth down—and seventh attempt—put the ball on the Colorado 42-yard line with time for only one play, the eighth pass.

Gdowski heaved the ball to the end zone, intended for split end Jon Bostick, who would’ve had his first reception of the game, except the ball was deflected by cornerback Dave McCloughan.

And yes, McCloughan was the son of former Husker Kent McCloughan.

The finish might have been Spielberg-worthy, right? But so were other aspects of the game.

Nebraska went to Boulder ranked No. 3, one spot behind Colorado. The teams had been No. 4 and No. 3 since the beginning of Big Eight play. But four lopsided victories each coupled with a Miami loss against Florida State had enabled them to move up one place, behind top-ranked Notre Dame.

Though Nebraska and Colorado each had two conference games remaining, the Boulder showdown was almost certain to determine the Big Eight champ—and Orange Bowl representative. So Colorado students tossed oranges and pulled down the goal posts at game’s end.

It was unseasonably warm for Nov. 4 in Boulder. Temperature at kickoff was 64 degrees.

The stadium was soldout, officially 52,877.

Nebraska started strong, as if it were ready to shock the Buffs. On its first play from scrimmage, Gdowski teamed with fullback Bryan Carpenter on a 51-yard touchdown pass.

But 5 minutes later, on first down following a Mike Stigge punt, Hagan took the snap, ran to his left with running back J.J. Flannigan trailing, then pitched back to Flannigan, who completed the 70-yard touchdown run—all of the yardage was credited to Flannigan.

Colorado wouldn’t trail the rest of the game, though Nebraska did tie the score at 14. 

Husker I-back Ken Clark, who had missed the previous game against Iowa State because of injury, rushed for 95 yards on 21 carries. Gdowski had 69 yards rushing and 211 yards and three touchdowns passing. Flannigan carried 18 times for 96 yards and Hagan rushed for 86 yards. But he was only 2-of-10 passing, with an interception, by Tyrone Byrd, preceding the opening touchdown.

The victory was the “greatest” of his career, “easily,” said Colorado Coach Bill McCartney, who had designated Nebraska as the Buffs’ rival when he arrived in 1982, perplexing some.

Had Bostick caught that final pass . . . well, Gdowski was past the line of scrimmage when he released the ball. So the play would’ve been nullified. Officially, however, it was an incomplete pass for Gdowski and a pass break-up for McCloughan. 

It was the sort of ending Spielberg might have written.

Either way.

Footnote: Nebraska dropped to 6th with the loss. Colorado would move to No. 1 at season’s end, after Miami upset Notre Dame, which dropped to No. 4. The Fighting Irish defeated Colorado in the Orange Bowl, however, and ended up national champions, flip-flopping with Colorado in the final rankings.

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