Right smack in the middle of 13 straight losing seasons, in the middle of another otherwise forgettable year, Missouri played one of the most memorable games in the program’s history. That game, of course, is the infamous Fifth Down Game, in which Colorado won with the aid of a fifth down after a mistake by the officiating crew. Unlike the one other instance of a Fifth Down Game in Division I college football, Colorado’s coach a Mizzou alum, refused to forfeit the “win,” apparently because Missouri’s Omniturf field was terrible. Got it?
So yeah, we wade into bizarre territory in this recap. Let’s set things up.
Missouri was not great in 1990, Bob Stull’s second season in charge. The Tigers lost 20-19 at home to Texas Christian University, then still representing the fading old Southwest Conference. Within a few years, part of the SWC and the Big Eight would be merging into the Big 12, but that probably wasn’t a thought in anyone’s mind in September of 1990.
Missouri did manage to beat Utah State 45-10 the following week, but then the Tigers suffered a humiliating 58-7 loss at Indiana on Sept. 22. Missouri, either because they were enraged and embarrassed, or simply because college football often makes no sense, thumped No. 21 Arizona State 30-9 in Columbia the very next week.
That made the Tigers 2-2 heading into that Oct. 6 game with Colorado, which had started the season 3-1-1 against a tough schedule. The Buffaloes, coached by Mizzou alumn Bill McCartney, who had played under Dan Devine, were coming off a Big Eight title and No. 4 final ranking the year before. They were title contenders again.
Missouri played an inspired game and led 31-27 late. Colorado drove down the field in the final minutes, toward Missouri’s north end zone, the Rock M end. After an injury, backup quarterback Charles Johnson had been playing for the Buffs. With 40 seconds left, Johnson completed a pass to tight end Jon Boman, who fell just yards short of the goal line, the latest in what was apparently a game full of players slipping and falling on the Omniturf. Colorado hurried to the new line of scrimmage, in the sort of chaos and semi-confusion that accompanies last-ditch college football efforts.
First down, Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. Second down, a Colorado run was stopped short of the goal line. The Buffaloes called their final timeout, and apparently during that timeout the chain crew didn’t flip the down marker to show it was now third down. On third down (with the down marker showing second down), another Colorado run was stopped short of the goal line by the dug-in Tiger defense. Then on fourth down, with the marker showing third down, Johnson spiked the ball again to stop the clock, thinking it was third down. But it was actually fourth down, and with two seconds left, Missouri should have taken over and been able to end the game.
On the next play, the fifth down awarded to Colorado, with the down markers showing fourth down, Johnson ran the ball and the officials ruled he had scored a touchdown. Although even in that case the replays at least raised doubts as to whether he actually broke the plane of the goal line and scored. (Or, if you ask some people, outright showed he didn’t get in.)
There was a long delay as the officials realized their mistake, but they eventually decided the touchdown counted. The Buffaloes had to attempt an extra point try since a returned point-after try would’ve tied the game for Missouri, but they simply took a knee.
There was a similar play in original Fifth Down Game, in 1940. It was a Cornell-Dartmouth game in November 1940. There are similarities. Cornell was ranked No. 2 and in the national title hunt.
Dartmouth was a scrappy home underdog looking for a big win and leading late. Cornell got inside the Dartmouth five-yard line late, was accidentally awarded a fifth down due to a referee’s mistake, and threw a touchdown pass on their extra down to win the game. Had the extra down not been awarded, Dartmouth would’ve had the ball with 9 seconds left up 3-0 and won the game.
Here the two Fifth Down narratives differ. Officials discovered the error after reviewing game films. Despite their No. 2 ranking, Cornell’s players, coach and administrators all agreed to send a telegram to Dartmouth offering to forfeit the game. Dartmouth accepted and is credited with a 3-0 win in the game.
In contrast to Ivy Leaguers at the dawn of World War II who communicate via telegram and have high-minded ideas about sportsmanship, McCartney went with the “refuse to forfeit but also toss in an insult” route, saying he considered forfeiting but decided not to since “the field was lousy.” McCartney, to his credit, would later say he could’ve handled the situation better. College football can inspire some pretty emotional responses anyway.
Missouri tried to get the result overturned, but the Big Eight declined, saying it was “not a post-game correctable error.” Colorado won out and split the national title with Georgia Tech.
The remainder of Missouri’s season was much less noteworthy, by turns routine and awful. The week after the Fifth Down, the Tigers got hammered 69-21 by Nebraska in Lincoln, their 12th straight loss to Tom Osborne and the Huskers.
Missouri did notch a win over Kansas State and Bill Snyder, 31-21, on Oct. 20 to move to 3-4. But then came a 48-28 loss at Oklahoma State, a crushing 55-10 demolition by Oklahoma over the Tigers at Faurot Field, and then a narrow 27-25 defeat at Iowa State, the Cyclones’ third straight win in the Telephone Trophy rivalry.
Missouri was now 3-7, but closed out the season with a 31-21 win over a bad Kansas team, one of many times there was little on the line in the Border War besides pride and hate, and that was plenty to make it a high-stakes game.
The season was remembered for the Fifth Down fiasco, and a bar in Columbia still bears the Fifth Down game, but otherwise the 1990 Missouri season was another forgettable one, finishing 4-7.
1990: 29 years ago, tied for 6th in Big Eight
Record: 4-7, 2-5 in Big Eight