Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Fifth Down Game(s)

This Saturday, Missouri will open conference play against Colorado. It will probably be the last time the Tigers and Buffaloes will face off for some time, as Colorado is moving to the Pac-10 Conference next school year.

Missouri has owned the series lately, winning four straight. The Tigers have outscored Colorado 149-27 in the last three games.

This week also marks the 20th anniversary of what is likely the most famous (infamous) moment in the series history, the Fifth Down Game. Now if you’re vaguely familiar with football and are thinking “Fifth Down Game” is up there with “Free $7.99 Buffet” and “Fuel-Efficient Hummer,” then you realize the absurdity of this game.

On Oct. 6, 1990, 12th-ranked Colorado was in trouble late, trailing unranked Missouri 31-27 in Columbia. The Buffaloes drove inside the five, and were, in theory, supposed to have four attempts to get the ball into the end zone for the win.

To make a medium story short, the officials failed to switch the down marker to third down during a timeout, essentially giving Colorado two second downs. On fifth down, with the down markers showing fourth down, Colorado backup quarterback Charles Johnson scored on a one-yard touchdown run as time expired, giving the Buffs a 33-31 win. Colorado finished the season at 11-1-1 and shared the national title with Georgia Tech.

Missouri chancellor Haskell Monroe Jr. asked the Big Eight to declare Missouri the winner. Commissioner Carl James said the mistake was “not a post-game correctable error” and the result would remain.

I was all of 3 at the time, but looking back I wonder, how did Missouri coach Bob Stull not run on the field and body slam someone? Or, perhaps more wisely, tell officials the four plays that had just happened?

Colorado coach Bill McCartney drew the ire of Missouri fans after the game, saying he would have forfeited the win, but didn’t because “the field was lousy.” Apparently Missouri played on something called Omniturf at the time.

As though the situation weren’t bizarre enough, McCartney later founded the Promise Keepers men’s ministry. At a Promise Keepers event in 1998 in Columbia, McCartney admitted mistakes in how he handled the situation. Again, times change.

They particularly changed from 1940 to 1990. In 1940, Cornell and Dartmouth played the original Fifth Down Game. Cornell was ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll and trailed unranked Dartmouth 3-0 late in the game. After Cornell failed to score on fourth-and-goal, officials mistakenly gave them another down, and they scored the winning touchdown.

The officials discovered their error after reviewing the game films, though it boggles my mind that they had game films in 1940. Those Ivy Leaguers are cutting edge. In a perhaps more baffling (and pleasantly surprising) development, the Cornell players, coach, athletic director and president all agreed they should forfeit. The NCAA records the game as a 3-0 Dartmouth win.

(Also, Miami and Tulane had their own Fifth Down Game in 1972, with Miami using the extra down to score a decisive touchdown.)

What a difference 50 years makes. And now, what a difference 20 years makes. Missouri is ranked (No. 22 in the Coaches Poll, 24 in the AP Poll), and Colorado has struggled mightily over the last four years. Missouri has won 22 more games over the last four years than Colorado.

Colorado did beat the morass formerly known as Georgia football on Saturday. It was an encouraging win for them, even if Colorado fans' storming the field after beating a 1-3 team is pretty ridiculous. So Missouri can’t sleepwalk to a win, but the Tigers remain a heavy favorite and should win by double digits. It would probably take more than five downs at the end of the game for Colorado to win this one, even if the Buffaloes are improved.

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