MIAMI, JAN. 2 -- Colorado Coach Bill McCartney said he saw the flag before Raghib "Rocket" Ismail blew by him, believed it really was a clip and said his man could have either stopped or slowed down the Rocket had he not been illegally blocked.

Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz said it was a difficult call to make in the final minute of the most important game of the college football season and he believed his man caught the Colorado player on his side or his stomach, not from behind. But he did say that a look at the replays made it apparent that something was happening.

Forevermore, the 1991 Orange Bowl game, which Colorado won, 10-9, to gain the Associated Press portion of the national football championship, will be remembered for The Clip -- the moment when a Notre Dame player named Greg Davis ran into the back of a Colorado player named Tim James as the Rocket ran 91 yards with a punt return for what would have been the winning touchdown.

What a fitting ending for the Buffaloes. The team that used a fifth down to defeat Missouri during the regular season needed a controversial clipping call with 43 seconds left Tuesday night to save itself from the strategic blunder of punting the ball to Ismail when he was the one person who could save the Irish.

"It was heavy on my mind as to what would happen," McCartney said this morning. "It was really a risky thing to do. You know {Ismail's} prowess. You know what he can do. I do think I could have used a little bit better strategy on that play."

Colorado's decision to punt to the most feared returner in football was curious, but more on that later. Once the ball was in Rocket's hands, at the 9-yard line, he was on his way, breaking three tackles and exorcising all the Notre Dame mistakes -- two interceptions and two fumbles -- of the previous 59 minutes.

But there was one more Irish mistake about to be made. As Ismail picked his way through traffic near his 35 and wheeled into the clear along the right sideline, one of the last players with a chance to tackle him -- James -- moved in from Ismail's right. Davis, a senior who starts at strong safety, moved toward James. They collided.

"I saw the film clip, I've seen it a couple times, and there isn't any question it's a clip," McCartney said. "Tim James had a legitimate chance to make the tackle on Rocket, or, if not tackle him, slow him down."

"The first time I saw it, I was not sure there was anything there," Holtz said this morning. "It's not something that jumps out at you. But when you zero in on it, when you know to look for it, you can probably make a case for it."

The penalty was called, the Fighting Irish moved back to their 22 with 43 seconds remaining and no timeouts left, and six plays later the game was over.

The Notre Dame camp believes Davis hit James in front, not the back.

"I still don't think it was a clip," Davis said after the game. "But I knew the ref had called it on me. He threw the flag right at me. I thought it was borderline, yes, but I thought I had my head in the guy's front."

Ismail, meanwhile, had no idea what was going on back downfield as he stood in the end zone.

"When I finally saw it, I was just hoping and hoping it wasn't against us," he said. "I had told myself just to make something happen. I thought I had."

Holtz and Davis talked about the play twice, in the locker room and in the hotel.

"We believe Greg consistently makes pretty good decisions," said Notre Dame sports information director John Heisler. "We thought he had his head in front and the Colorado player turned his shoulder at the last minute. Greg is a senior, a veteran. Lou has always thought he made good decisions."

Davis found Ismail after the game to apologize for his mistake.

"I told Rocket I had made a bad decision," he said. "I probably wouldn't have blocked {James} if I thought Rocket had come clean through the first line, but I didn't think he did."

The clip is one part of the story. The Buffaloes' decision to punt the ball to Ismail is the other.

McCartney said he made a couple of mistakes. Colorado began with a first down at the Notre Dame 27 with 2:15 to play. Then the Buffaloes went backward on two sacks and faced fourth and 31 at the 48. McCartney let the clock run out and received a delay-of-game penalty too, so it was fourth and 36 at the Colorado 47. A punt out of the end zone or into the coffin corner now was virtually out of the question.

"I should have called a timeout, not let the clock run out," he said. "That was a tactical error. I could have handled it better."

McCartney told senior Tom Rouen, the nation's top punter in 1989, to go ahead and kick to Ismail.

"I did not order him to kick it out of bounds because I thought he might knock it out on the 30 and I wanted it out on the 20," McCartney said. "I didn't want to {give them good field position and} get beaten by a field goal. He's never really been effective angling kicks. He is better kicking it high."

So Rouen did as he was told.

"I would really probably never have forgiven myself if there hadn't been a clip," McCartney said. "I certainly could have ordered him to kick it out of bounds, but we've led the nation in net punting the past five years and I had confidence in our punt team."

Said Ismail: "I wasn't stunned they kicked to me. Their coverage had been good all game."

Ismail returned four punts for 68 yards and two kickoffs for 30 yards. He ran from scrimmage three times for minus one yard and caught six passes for 57 yards. "We can settle for that," McCartney said.

Colorado was winning without junior quarterback Darian Hagan, who went out in the first half with a severe knee injury.

Rank...School..............Record....Pts

1.....Colorado (30).......11-1-1....1,244

2.....Georgia Tech (19)...11-0-1....1,237

3.....Miami (1)...........10-2-0....1,172

4.....Florida St..........10-2-0....1,094

5.....Washington..........10-2-0....1,034

6.....Notre Dame...........9-3-0....1,005

7.....Tennessee............9-2-2......927

8.....Michigan.............9-3-0......884

9.....Clemson.............10-2-0......820

10.....Texas...............10-2-0......748

Rank...School...........Record

1.....Colorado.........11-1-1

2.....Miami............10-2-0

3.....Georgia Tech.....11-0-1

4.....Washington.......10-2-0

5.....Florida State....10-2-0

6.....Clemson..........10-2-0

7.....Notre Dame........9-3-0

8.....Texas............10-2-0

9.....Houston..........10-1-0

10.....Michigan..........9-3-0