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25 Years Later: The Fifth Down play remembered

A look back at October 6, 1990 and the infamous play from Colorado and Missouri

CBS4 Denver

Twenty-five years later and people still talk about it like it was yesterday. A play that will forever go down in history as the one that shouldn't have occurred. That final series between the Colorado Buffaloes and Missouri Tigers had a lasting effect on the subsequent national championship. October 6, 1990 marked the day a Missouri officiating crew made the most monumental error of all time. Referee J.C. Louderback along with six other men were tasked with keeping track of the game's progress and ultimately failed as it became lost in the shuffle of the last few moments.

Not everyone who was paying attention noticed the free down and neither did Bob Stull. Missouri's head coach wasn't planning his next execution on the flawed set of circumstances, but rather stopping Colorado to finish the game. Stull believes Bill McCartney started manipulating the officials earlier in CU's drive.

"Actually what happened is when (Colorado) hit a timeout McCartney told the officials-- If we don't get in, because there's only 28 seconds left, if we don't get in you guys have to stop the clock. Don't let them unpile slowly and run the clock down. You have to call timeout and unpile. You don't let them do that. You don't stop the clock to unpile and he tells them that. When they ran the play and don't get in. Louderback comes in right away and stops the clock, then they unplie people and start it again. Even at that, it took them down to two seconds to down the ball. So theoretically, they shouldn't have even had a fifth down and the game should've been over at that point."

CU quarterback Charles Johnson landed past the goal line on fifth down with time expiring for a 33-31 win that shouldn't have counted in the first place. Johnson was quoted after the game saying, "All I know is I scored. It was a running play, second down another run play and then the touchdown. My head was in the end zone and my shoulders were on the goal line."

Reflecting on that day now Johnson said, "I still can't believe its been 25 years. It was such a bizarre series of downs. I had no clue it was fifth down. Center Jay Leeuweburg kept telling we can't do that. I had no idea he was trying to articulate it was an extra down and was trying to get him to focus"

Most would believe the officials would converge to sort out the confusion and correct the extra down. The eyes on the field were the trustworthy source before the days of instant replay and multiple camera angles. Making the right call meant the touchdown stood regardless of the down. Considering the officials on the field didn't know along with the scoreboard operators, nothing was questioned. Stull had a hunch there was something wrong, even though his concerns weren't vocalized.

"We were questioning it saying wasn't that 4th down? When the spike was going on it was confusing. I was focused on getting our defense to make on more play, period," Stull said about the lead up to the last play.

McCartney saw the play differently, crediting the correct call being signaled on the field. "In all fairness about that game, whether he got over the goal line or not. Not every official raised his hands, but it just took one."

Stull believes to this day Johnson never scored and has photo evidence as his proof.  McCartney won't dispute the win or surrender over a technicality.

"You're entitled to four downs. Whether they give you another is a different story. Those officials weren't from Colorado, they had trouble counting. If you study the film, you'll see the downs marker didn't show fourth down. When we spiked the ball we were going by the standards that you're given."

Stull argued the legitimacy of Johnson's touchdown to the officials and was ultimately overturned .

"After the game we got in the face of the officials and they met for 15 minutes. They came back and said no we're right... this is right... that never happened... this is right."

A young journalist, Mark Kiszla, was covering his first ever CU assignment that day for Denver Post and recalls the observations from inside the press box.

"I'm there and the Big 8 conference commissioner (Carl James) is right behind me and I'm taking my notes. Before fifth down I'm spewing-- It's fifth down. You can't run the ball on fifth down. I turn around to (James) and I go, You gotta do something! He doesn't know its fifth down."

James never respond to the media after the game or asked Colorado to forfeit the victory.

Dave Plati knew what down as well. CU's sports information director was providing stats to Larry Zimmer for the Buffs radio broadcast and let a four letter F-word slip out on the air when Johnson spiked the ball.

Believe it or not, the additional down could've been due to a medical emergency. A man behind CU's sideline suffered a heart attack that required medical attention right toward the end of the game. Rich Montgomery, who was downs marker, claimed to be distracted by the man in the stands and failed to advance the down. While driving home to Blue Springs, Mo, he realized how the Tigers lost and immediately agonized in pain and threw up.

Another forgotten aspect was the conditions of the field. Sure, how the contest ended was notable and rightfully so. However, some say the score might not have been close if Missouri would have watered the OmniTurf surface prior to kickoff. McCartney was outspoken about the turf saying, "The biggest story is not how the game ended, it's that field, it's a joke to college football."

Most everyone agreed with Mac citing the slippery conditions... except for Stull.

"We both played on the same field. It wasn't just them it was us too. In fact, we watered the field which is important because when you've got that field in particular when it got dry it kinda got a dust film on it and made it slick. In fact, one of their players right before they downed the ball on first down, he caught it in the flat and slipped and feel down. They said he would have walked into the end zone and he probably would have, if he hadn't of slipped and fell down. We were all playing on the same surface."

There wasn't a level playing field for both teams. CU wasn't equipped with the proper shoes for Missouri's turf with a deeper cleat for more traction control. The show of poor sportsmanship allowed the Tigers to be on the Buffs level.

"Bottom line is if we had the shoes they were wearing, we blow that team out by probably four touchdowns," Plati said about the equipment disadvantage.

Play-by-play analyst Les Shapiro noticed the horrible field surface and commented about it during the game to his broadcast partner Dave Logan by saying, "Maybe they should rip up the turf Dave? The way everybody's been slipping on it."

A quarter-century later and we ask ourselves, with the advancement with modern technology, is it possible for a fifth down scenario to happen in the future? Eh, not likely or at least if it did, the reactions on social media would be epic. Colorado will continue to be hounded for decades to come by hecklers wanting the 1990 national championship taken away or have an asterisk beside it. But that won't change the outcome and the title for Colorado.