When four downs can’t get the job done, just go for a last-second touchdown on the fifth down. Hey, it worked for the University of Colorado.
On Oct. 6, 1990, the Colorado Buffaloes were trailing 31-27 in the final minutes of a Big Eight Conference matchup against the University of Missouri Tigers’ during an away game in Columbia, Mo. Colorado backup quarterback Charles Johnson, running a hurry-up offense, drove the Buffs inside the Missouri five-yard line with just over 30 seconds to play. On first and goal, Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. A run up the gut by running back Eric Bieniemy moved Colorado to the one-yard-line, but not into the end zone — so the Buffaloes called a time out, stopping the clock with 18 seconds left.
This is where things got complicated. During the time out, the official down marker — which keeps track of the four downs allowed according to the rulebook — never changed over. It was officially still second down.
Colorado called for another Bieniemy run, but the Tigers stuffed him short of the game-winning score. Johnson again spiked the ball to stop the clock—and if the down marker had been accurate, that should have been the end of the game. But thanks to the error Colorado — and the refs — believed they still had one more play, and on that bonus fifth try Johnson kept the ball himself and squeaked over the goal line for the game-winner, 33-31, as time expired.
Years later, Johnson told the Denver Post that he and coach Bill McCartney both thought they had three plays left when they conferred during the timeout and even told the head referee what their plan was for the three plays in the next 18 seconds. Not everyone was oblivious to the mistake, though. Fans peppered the field with debris as Colorado players and officials ran off the field. The Post says the man running the down marker threw up on his way home after hearing about his mistake on the radio.
McCartney refused to forfeit the win—a decision he later said he regretted—and Colorado went on to win the National Championship that same season.