The Big Eight Conference yesterday refused to overturn Colorado's 33-31 victory over Missouri, but admitted that the officiating crew that worked Saturday's game allowed an illegal play that led to the Buffaloes' win.

Commissioner Carl James said the mistake was not correctable according to NCAA rules, but he did suspend indefinitely the seven officials who worked the game, which Colorado won on a last-second touchdown by quarterback Charles Johnson that came on fifth down.

"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," James said in a statement. "The final score in the Colorado-Missouri football game will remain as posted."

The officials, all veterans of Big Eight games, will begin their suspensions this week.

"Obviously, we're very disappointed," said Missouri Athletic Director Dick Tamburo. "As far as we're concerned, our players and our people know we won that game even though Colorado gets the W. Now we just want to get this whole mess behind us."

In a statement, referee and crew chief J.C. Louderback expressed regret for the error. "In officiating, you work the game for the players and your feeling is the game should be determined by the players, not the coaches or officials on the field," he said. "It's always a tough feeling when a rule, or an error in a rule, becomes a factor in a game. We are human. We erred. And we feel terrible in regards to the circumstances at the end of the game."

The controversy began after a six-yard reception by Colorado tight end Jon Boman moved the ball to the Missouri 3-yard line with 31 seconds left. On first down quarterback Charles Johnson threw the ball to the ground to stop the clock. On second down running back Eric Bieniemy gained two yards to the 1. Colorado then called its final timeout with 18 seconds left, but sideline officials failed to change the down marker.

With the down marker reading second down for the second straight play, Bieniemy was stopped inches short of the goal line while the clock continued to run. Johnson then threw quickly to the ground to stop the clock with four seconds left.

That play -- coming on fourth down -- should have turned the ball over to Missouri. But because of the incorrect down marker, the officials -- and apparently the Buffaloes -- thought it was fourth down. On the next play, Johnson scored on a keeper for the winning touchdown.

University of Missouri Chancellor Haskell Monroe filed a protest with the Big Eight early yesterday, asking James to award Missouri the victory.

In the protest, Monroe asked that James "review the game and make an appropriate correction of the mistakes which were made by the crew which worked the game. . . . Certainly, I am well aware that such an appeal of the outcome of a game is unusual in intercollegiate football, but the error which determined the outcome of the game was even more unusual."

One of the sideline officials at Faurot Field, Rich Montgomery, told the Associated Press that no one in his crew knew Colorado had gotten five downs.

"Everyone on the sidelines was on the same wavelength," said Montgomery, who has worked the sidelines at Missouri games for 23 years. "It was not until we were back in the car, listening to the replay on the radio, did we know we missed the down. . . . We got home, turned on the TV and I was just sick to my stomach when I saw it. Did we miss a down? I sure missed it if we did."

Dave Nelson, secretary and editor of the NCAA's rules book, said no appeals process exists. "It says the team having the biggest score at the end of the game is the winning team," he said. "Once the referee says the game is over, that's it."

With no NCAA provision for reversing the outcome and the Big Eight's refusal to do so, only Colorado can award the victory to Missouri. But earlier yesterday, Colorado Coach Bill McCartney said the Buffaloes would not relinquish the win.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime situation and I wish it hadn't ended this way," McCartney said. "It was not a fair test for our team. For us to forfeit under all these circumstances is absurd. I'm confident the Big Eight would not request it of us."

The last controversy of this type was in 1940, when heavily favored Cornell defeated Dartmouth, 7-3, with a touchdown on a fifth down. Less than a week after the error was discovered, Cornell gave the victory to Dartmouth.