COLUMBIA — It started out like any other drive.
Flash back 20 years — almost to the day — to Oct. 6, 1990. Missouri played against No. 12 Colorado, one of its Big Eight conference rivals, but the game was more than a simple rivalry. Its outcome lives on in football history as one of the most controversial ever.
Colorado Buffaloes (3-1)
at No. 24 Missouri Tigers (4-0)
WHEN: 6 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM and 100.5 FM, KCQM/96.7 FM
TV: Fox Sports Net
With 40 seconds left in the game, Missouri led Colorado by a score of 31-27. Colorado had the ball, and Charles Johnson, its quarterback, threw to tight end Jon Boman. Boman made the catch and fell just a few yards from the end zone.
The clock was ticking, so Johnson spiked the ball to stop the time.
Next, running back Eric Bieniemy ran the ball, pushing his way through the line of black and gold. He landed still short of the goal line.
Third down. Or was it?
After a Colorado timeout, Bieniemy ran the same play again, with the same results.
Fourth down. No, wait — third down again?
Another spike to stop the clock.
Fourth down? Game over?
No, it wasn’t finished yet. On this, the notorious fifth down, Johnson kept the ball and ran it into the end zone. Touchdown Colorado. Game over.
How was such a thing allowed to happen? On third down, when Colorado called a timeout, things became blurry. While the teams huddled on the sidelines, the referees forgot to switch the down marker from second to third. A simple flick of the wrist, as routine as breathing for an NCAA football referee, forgotten.
"It’s just real unfortunate," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, a friend of Missouri’s 1990 coach Bob Stull, said. “You know, how can it ever happen? But it did.”
The situation got stranger as the drive progressed. Some players noticed the mistake, others didn’t. According to Missouri football historian Michael Atchison, most of the men on the field probably were oblivious to the mistake, especially because Colorado spiked the ball on what should have been the last play of the game.
Then, on fifth down, Johnson’s touchdown even caused speculation. Did he cross the goal line or not? To this day, that too is up for debate. Atchison said that he doesn’t think Johnson ever scored, which makes the entire situation even more cruelly laughable.
For a Missouri program that had struggled in recent years, the fifth down game was like adding insult to injury.
“It was the kind of thing that, even though it was completely unpredictable, Missouri folks might kind of expect it to happen,” Atchison said. “Everything just went wrong.”
After the drive, the referees conferred for about 20 minutes. In the end, they decided that the play would stand, and Colorado won the game 33-31 after it downed the ball instead of trying for an extra point.
“It has been determined that, in accordance with the football playing rules, the allowance of the fifth down to Colorado is not a postgame correctable error,” Carl James, the Big Eight commissioner, said in a statement after the game. “The final score in the Colorado-Missouri football game will remain as posted.”
Missouri fans were shocked. TV viewers were confused. Pity, anger, frustration — Missouri fans felt it all.
“I remember watching it on TV and being really disappointed that the game had not been reversed,” Pinkel said.
For Missouri, a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 1983, the loss to Colorado only added to its distress. Atchison said that the late 1980s and 1990s were a dark time for the program, and the almost unbelievable series of events in the game against Colorado did nothing for the team’s morale.
“We’d been conditioned to think that nothing good could happen,” Atchison said.
After the loss, Missouri’s record slipped to 2-3 and Colorado’s improved to 4-1-1. The trend continued. Missouri went on to finish the season at 4-7, and Colorado, at 11-1-1, won the national championship. But the game didn’t only hurt Missouri’s record, it also hurt the team’s psyche.
“I really felt bad for Bob (Stull), because you’ve got to get big wins in order to advance your program,” Pinkel said.
Atchison said that the game was so early in the season that no one had any real expectations going into it. It wasn’t that Missouri went into the game expecting to lose to a dominant Colorado — it was anything but an expected loss, and no one could have seen it coming.
“It just didn’t shape up to be anything,” Atchison said. “It was one of those completely out of the blue, bizarre experiences.”
After the game, arguments, punishment and blame ran rampant. The referees were indefinitely suspended, and Colorado coach Bill McCartney refused to admit the mistake or apologize. Despite Missouri chancellor Haskell Monroe’s appeal to the Big Eight to reverse the decision, the fifth down was set in stone.
“That was the moment when everyone really felt like they (the Tigers) might be cursed,” Atchison said.
Saturday's game against Colorado marks the 20th anniversary of the fifth down game, and in the years since, much has changed. Missouri's facilities, widely criticized during the 1990 game, have dramatically improved. Each team has a new head coach, and some of the players on the field weren't even born when the fifth down game was played.
The most notable change though, is the introduction of instant replay, which might not only have corrected the miscounted downs, but could have also proven whether Johnson's touchdown was indeed good.
In this new era of college football, could such a game ever occur again? Coaches and players hope not, but no one could have predicted such an outcome in 1990.