When the 1991 season began Nebraska was looking to shake off the after-effects of a late-season disintegration that led to a 1-3 finish. Tom Osborne was also facing criticism for failing to produce a national title since becoming head coach in 1973. Conventional wisdom dictated he couldn’t win big games and his offense was thought to be far too one-dimensional. Despite recent struggles Nebraska began the season ranked #14 nationally, but the team would need consistent play at quarterback if the Huskers were to succeed.
Nebraska opened at home against Utah State under the direction of senior Mickey Joseph. Early in the game Keithen McCant spelled Joseph and helped lead the Huskers to a 59-28 win. The following week McCant got the nod and Nebraska cruised to a 71-14 victory over Colorado State. The next week Nebraska faced a tough challenge in #4 ranked Washington in Lincoln. Despite leading 21-9 in the third quarter, Nebraska could not stop the Huskies who escaped with a 36-21 win. After the loss, the Huskers ran off four straight victories over Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Missouri. This meant Nebraska was 6-1 and ranked 9th headed into a November 2 showdown with Colorado.
Coming off their first National Championship, Colorado began the year ranked 12th nationally. They kicked off their year with a 30-13 win over Wyoming to set up a date with #23 Baylor. Despite the home field advantage, the Buffaloes never got on track and the Bears left Boulder with a surprising 16-14 win. After a blowout win over Minnesota, CU traveled to Palo Alto to meet Stanford. Although few gave them a shot in the game, the unranked Cardinal took down the Buffalos 28-21, giving CU a disappointing 2-2 start to the 1991 season. Despite the slow start, Colorado quickly regrouped to defeat Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas State in Big 8 play. This set up a match up between 9th ranked NU and 15th ranked CU in Boulder.
Nationally, the rivalry was beginning to garner attention. Despite this, Coach Osborne remained low-key.
“I don’t believe in having bonfires or trying to psyche the team up with anti-Colorado campaigns or things like that. I’ve never bought into that philosophy. We’ve never built up any one team in any special way. A year ago, somehow or another, it got to be that most of the things we did were not of a great deal of consequence because it got to the point with our players where the Colorado game was the whole measuring stick for the season. And then when we lost . . .”
While Osborne attempted to remain unassuming, tight end Johnny Mitchell took upon himself to speak on behalf of the team.
“Colorado is just Kansas State or Kansas to me. I don’t think they can compete on our level for a long time. We gave them life the last couple years; I don’t think we should have given them that much respect.”
The game kicked off under sub-zero temperatures in Boulder. Nebraska got the ball first and appeared to score on its second play from scrimmage when Derek Brown ran 24 yards for a touchdown, however, it was called back due to an illegal procedure penalty. Aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty on third and 15, the Cornhuskers then continued the drive and scored on Byron Bennett’s 27-yard field goal. Colorado then came right back on their first possession and took a 7-3 lead on Darian Hagan’s 11-yard TD run, which capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive that featured three completions by Hagan.
After the fast start, both defenses settled down and took control. Neither team scored until Jim Harper, who earlier missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt, booted a 27- yarder to put Colorado ahead 10-3 with 6:54 left in the half. This score was set up by Hagan’s 27-yard return of a punt from the Nebraska end zone (the starting QB returned punts?).
Nebraska then scored its first touchdown on a 49-yard pass from Keithen McCant to Jon Bostick with 1:17 remaining in the half. Unfortunately, Colorado’s Greg Thomas blocked the extra point and the ball was scooped up by Greg Biekert, who returned it 85 yards for two points to give the Buffaloes a 12-9 halftime lead (see video).
In the third quarter Nebraska’s Byron Bennett connected from 35-yards out to tie the game at 12-12. Unfortunately, Nebraska was still struggling to contain Hagan in the second half. The Buffaloes ultimately took a 19-12 lead on Hagan’s 4-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds left in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter Nebraska finally managed to tie the game on Derek Brown’s 7-yard scoring run with 6:41 remaining in the game.
Very late in the game Nebraska had a final chance to win after driving from its own 46 to the Colorado 23 with four seconds left. Sophomore kicker Byron Bennett, who had already kicked field goals of 27 and 35-yards then came on the field to attempt a game winning 41-yard field goal. Colorado tried to put extra pressure on Bennett by calling three consecutive time-outs and CU fans pelted the field with snowballs before his final kick. When he did try it, Thomas leaped and blocked the ball with his left elbow. The ball rolled out of bounds as time expired.
Nebraska, D.Brown 30-96, McCant 8-11, Lewis 1-6, Hughes 1-(-1). Colorado, Warren 17-55, Hagan 19-40, Hill 8-40, Kahl 3-12, Bussey 1-7, Joseph 1-4, Phillips 1-1, Westbrook 1-1.
Nebraska, McCant 8-20-0-181. Colorado, Hagan 10-22-0-140, Joseph 0-1-0-0.
Nebraska, Mitchell 2-70, Bostick 2-59, Turner 2-32, Garrett 1-12, D.Brown 1-8. Colorado, S.Brown 4-60, Warren 2-35, Westbrook 2-17, R.Smith 1-17, C.Johnson 1-11.
The dramatic finish left Colorado, 5-2-1, and Nebraska, 6-1-1, and both were 3-0-1 in the Big Eight with three league games remaining. Colorado ended its conference run with wins over Oklahoma State, Kansas, and Iowa State. Nebraska closed out the Big 8 season with victories over Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma to finish the regular season 9-1-1 and ranked 11th nationally. With both teams finishing with identical 6-0-1 conference records the Orange Bowl committee selected Nebraska to go to the January 1st game. The Huskers once again met #1 Miami on their home field. The Hurricanes were bigger, stronger and faster and saddled the Huskers with their first shutout loss since 1973. The Hurricanes earned a share of the national championship with Washington. In a bizarre twist, it was the second straight year that the Huskers lost games to two teams that shared the national title. The Buffaloes settled on an invitation to the Blockbuster Bowl, where they fell to #8 ranked Alabama 30-25.
After Nebraska dominated Colorado for 25 years, the Buffalos began to show signs of life in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Beginning with the upset win in 1986, Colorado won 3, lost 2 and tied 1 of the battles with Nebraska between 1986 and 1991. Although Husker fans still identified Oklahoma as Nebraska’s major rival, the Buffaloes were becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Big 8 conference.