The Colorado football program was on its greatest high coming into the 1991 season. They had played in the Orange Bowl for the national championship following both the 1989 and 1990 seasons. Each time they faced Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame and in the most recent matchup, had emerged with a victory. In the aftermath of that 1990 championship season, the 1991 Colorado football team represented a step back—but they were still a good team and part of a successful decade for head coach Bill McCartney.
Colorado was built on running the football in an option offense. Quarterback Darian Hagan only attempted 170 passes on the season—or roughly the same number a Mike Leach-led offense would put up in two weeks in today’s game. Hagan skillfully ran the option though and his 386 rush yards were second on the team.
Lamont Warren was the primary running back, gaining 830 yards, but the best player on the offense was found in the trenches. Jay Leeuwenburg was the best center in the country. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, defensive lineman Joe Steed made all-conference and went on to a nice run in the pros with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Another future Steeler was in the secondary, in corner Deon Figures. He was joined by all-conference defensive back Eric Hamilton. Linebacker Greg Biekert’s name was also called when the Big Eight unveiled its all-league team in 1991. No one was expecting a national championship reprise in Boulder, but they were still ranked #13 to begin the season.
September did not go well. After tuning up with a 30-13 win over mediocre Wyoming, the Buffs hosted Baylor. Bears’ head coach Grant Teaff was a legend at his school and this was a pretty good team, one that would win eight games. And they were at their best early in the season, upsetting Colorado 16-14. Two weeks later another well-coached team on its way to eight wins upended the Buffs. They went to Stanford, led by future NFL coach Dennis Green and lost 28-21.
In between the two losses was a 58-0 beatdown of Minnesota. With the Gophers coming off successive winning seasons this looked more impressive at the time than it turned it out to be, as Minnesota collapsed and only won twice in 1991.
Colorado was barely hanging on in the polls at #25 as Big Eight play began. They got back on track with a 55-7 blasting of Missouri and then it was time to pay a visit to Norman. Oklahoma and Nebraska had dominated this league prior to the Buffs’ crashing of the party in 1989. The Cornhuskers remained a national contender, but the Sooners had slipped back the last two years. This season, they were ranked #12 in October and looking for a statement win.
They didn’t get it against Colorado. The Buffs picked the right time to get their season rolling, with a 34-17 win over OU. After a ho-hum 10-0 win over woeful Kansas State, the calendar turned to November. And Nebraska was coming to town.
The winner of this game would have the clear path to the Big Eight’s automatic Orange Bowl bid. The game was tied 3-3 in the second quarter when Hagan ripped off a 28-yard touchdown run for the lead. After the Cornhuskers answered with a touchdown, Colorado blocked the extra point and ran it back for two points the other way. Instead of being tied, they led 12-9.
A Nebraska field goal tied the game in the third quarter, but a Hagan touchdown run just before the period ended put the Buffs back on top. With 6:14 to play, the Cornhuskers scored a touchdown and opted to kick the extra point rather than go for two. Overtime did not exist in college football prior to 1996 and with Nebraska being ranked higher in the polls (9th compared to 15th for Colorado), they would have the inside path to the Orange Bowl.
Colorado might have lost outright—they had to block a 41-yard field goal try on the final play of the game. But even preserving the 19-19 tie was a bit deflating. They needed to win out and hope Nebraska stumbled.
The Buffs took care of their business, although they were hardly impressive in doing so. They survived Oklahoma State 16-12 and barely escaped Iowa State 17-14. A 30-24 win over Kansas, one of the worst programs in college football then, as they are now, was hardly the type of performance that would vault them past Nebraska in the rankings. And the Cornhuskers won out, beating Oklahoma to secure the Orange Bowl nod.
An excellent opportunity would still present itself in bowl season. Colorado was paired up with Alabama, who had gone 10-1, was ranked #8 and should have been in one of the January 1 major bowls.
McCartney had made some decisions though. He wanted to throw the ball more and decided to use the bowl game against a quality opponent to start implementing the new concepts. He had talent at the wide receiver spot—Michael Westbrook and Charles Johnson were both young, but both would turn into first-round NFL draft picks by the mid-1990s.
But Hagan was miscast in this role and while he threw for 210 yards and kept his team in the game, he was an erratic 11-for-30. The Buffs also had a special teams letdown in allowing a punt return for a touchdown and they lost 30-25.
They concluded the season ranked #20. 1991 didn’t offer the kinds of highs Buffs fan enjoyed the previous two years, with the near-misses against Nebraska, Alabama, Baylor and Stanford. But it was a mark to how far McCartney had brought the program that he could get a share of the Big Eight title in a so-so year. And bigger wins were ahead—McCartney coached through the 1994 season and his team earned two more major bowl bids in the immediate years ahead.