MIAMI, JAN. 1 -- The Colorado Buffaloes, with the help of a blocked extra point and a Notre Dame clipping penalty, tonight won their first national college football championship with a 10-9 victory over the Irish in the Orange Bowl.
Colorado blocked Notre Dame's extra point attempt midway through the second quarter, which in the end accounted for the margin of victory. Then, with just 45 seconds left in the game, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail returned a punt 91 stunning yards for what would have been the winning touchdown, but it was nullified when Irish senior Greg Davis was called for clipping early in the return. A Colorado interception six plays later ended the game.
"I didn't see it; I didn't think I clipped him," said Davis.
Said Ismail: "These things happen; you learn to live with them."
Were it not for the blocked kick and the clipping call, Georgia Tech probably would be the national champion. But in one of the most turbulent years ever in college football, those two plays -- plus the infamous fifth down against Missouri in October -- pushed the Buffaloes (11-1-1) over the top.
The final Associated Press and United Press International polls will be released on Wednesday. The AP said never has one of its top-ranked teams won a bowl game and not captured the national title.
It was the first bowl victory in five tries for Colorado Coach Bill McCartney.
"It was fitting we ended this way," he said. "We had to scratch out the victory like we have throughout the season. I'm physically spent."
The Buffaloes, behind 9-3, moved ahead on a one-yard run by Eric Bieniemy with 4:26 left in the third quarter. No. 5 Notre Dame (9-3) had its chances but fumbled twice and quarterback Rick Mirer threw three interceptions in front of 77,062.
Colorado faced many challenges tonight, not the least of which was the loss of its starting quarterback. Charles Johnson, the quarterback who scored that fifth-down touchdown against Missouri, replaced Darian Hagan, who ruptured a tendon in his left knee at the end of the first half. Johnson, the game's most valuable player, completed five of six passes for 80 yards, and Bieniemy gained 86 yards on 26 carries.
The two most important players in the game were unknown to almost everyone watching. Colorado's Ronnie Bradford broke in untouched and blocked Craig Hentrich's extra point attempt after tailback Ricky Watters's two-yard touchdown run with 7:32 left in the first half. That cost Notre Dame its 10th point.
Davis clipped Colorado's Tim James as Ismail blew by James near the Irish 35-yard line on his way up the right sideline to the end zone on the punt return.
Davis told Coach Lou Holtz he was the one who committed the clip.
"I don't know if the clip had anything to do with the return, but I certainly hope it did," Holtz said.
"I saw the flag before he broke free," McCartney said, "so I wasn't as alarmed as I might have been."
Had he scored the touchdown, Ismail would have gone down in college football history with one of the most thrilling plays ever. Instead, he must settle with thoughts of what might have been and these statistics: 57 yards on six receptions, minus one yard on three rushes, 68 yards on four punt returns and 30 yards on two kickoff returns.
The first five minutes of the game were breathtaking. The last minute of the first half simply took Colorado's breath away, as Hagan was injured on a tackle after a five-yard gain and spend the second half leaning on crutches in street clothes on the sideline.
Colorado appeared loathe to play it safe on its first few plays and instead dug deep into its bag of tricks with a reverse on the first play and a double-reverse flea flicker minutes later.
Why the Buffaloes believed they needed the gimmicks at the beginning of the game was unclear; perhaps their minds were on last year's game, when they didn't score in the first half against the Irish and lost the Orange Bowl, 21-6, and their No. 1 ranking.
When the teams settled down, they played a rather mundane first half, which Notre Dame led, 6-3. That was one touchdown to one field goal, with a blocked extra point.
Notre Dame didn't have much luck with its kicking game, as Hentrich missed two long field goal attempts (50 and 48 yards) as well as the extra point.
After Hentrich's 50-yard try hit the right upright and bounced away, the Buffaloes took over at their 32 and drove to their only points of the first half. An 11-play, 63-yard march in 4:28 climaxed with Jim Harper's 22-yard field goal with 12:04 left in the half.
Fullback George Hemingway, who was sent home from this game last year for breaking team rules, gained 17 yards on three carries, Bieniemy gained 18 on one run, then eight more on two carries, and Hagan gained 20 on two carries.
Colorado stalled at the Notre Dame 5 before the field goal.
Notre Dame then marched to its touchdown on an almost identical, nine-play, 62-yard drive that took 4:32. Mirer completed two passes to Ismail for 21 total yards to start the drive, then freshman fullback Jerome Bettis carried twice for 24 yards. On first and goal from the 5, Bettis went over the left side for three yards before Watters bulled into the end zone on a second effort for a two-yard touchdown with 7:32 left.
The extra point was blocked by Bradford, who lined up wide to Hentrich's right and dashed in untouched to stop the kick, and Notre Dame led, 6-3.
Notre Dame moved ahead 9-3 on Hentrich's 24-yard field goal with 10:10 remaining in the third quarter, but the Irish's next three possessions were horrendous. In four plays, they turned over the ball three times.
"We had five turnovers, I think they had one," Holtz said. "And we had one touchdown called back. Three turnovers in four plays is disastrous. You can't win a football game doing that."
Watters fumbled on first down at the Notre Dame 40 with 8:24 left in the third quarter, setting up Bieniemy's touchdown run four minutes later. The extra point by Harper put the Buffaloes ahead, 10-9.
On Notre Dame's next possession, tailback Tony Brooks fumbled a handoff from Mirer at the Irish 49, but Colorado could do nothing with the ball and punted back to the Irish. On first down Mirer underthrew Ismail deep and was intercepted by free safety Greg Thomas at the Colorado 28 with 1:24 left in the quarter. It was Thomas's second interception; he picked off Mirer's first pass on Notre Dame's first play of the game.
The Buffaloes kept the ball until the 11:19 mark of the fourth quarter, but Harper's 36-yard field goal attempt was blocked by George Williams, and the Irish remained within one.
On their touchdown drive, the Buffaloes made a daring play that saved the day. It was third and inches from the Notre Dame 12 when Johnson faked a handoff to Bieniemy, then rolled right and hit tight end Jon Boman open in the flat for an eight-yard gain.
On first and goal at the 4, Hemingway gained one yard, then Johnson gained two before Bieniemy scored the go-ahead touchdown over the right side.