Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fifth down and goal

On November 16th 1940 the Cornell Big Red rolled into Hanover, NH as the homecoming day guest for hated rival Dartmouth. Cornell was undefeated at 6-0 and stood second in the AP poll. Until falling behind eventual national champions Minnesota in that week’s poll Cornell had been ranked first all year. The 1940 Big Red remains the only Ivy League team ever to top the AP standings.

Cornell is hardly a football power today but in 1940 they were a formidable outfit. The legendry Glenn “Pop” Warner had played and coached at Cornell, as had Gilmour “Gloomy Gil” Dobie – a giant of his generation who led the Washington Huskies to a 58-0-3 in his nine seasons as head coach from 1908 to 1916. This is still the NCAA’s longest ever undefeated run. Dobie’s Cornell teams claimed three consecutive national titles from 1921 to 1923. Although subsequent seasons had been less kind, the Big Red were enjoying a return to former glory under the rigorous tutelage of Carl “the Grey Fox” Snavely. An eighteen game unbeaten run stretched back to a narrow two-point road defeat at Syracuse in mid-October 1938. A winning streak of fourteen games beginning on opening day 1939 included a home and home series sweep of Francis Schmidt’s heavily favored Ohio State Buckeyes, the 1939 Big Ten champions. Although the fiscally cautious university administration turned down several bowl invitations in 1938 and 1939 Cornell did claim the Sagarin national title in the latter of those years and entered the 1940 season as a hot favorite in every wire service poll.

Waiting for the bookmaker’s fifteen-to-one favorite were the 3-4 Dartmouth Indians, led by their own rising coaching star, the young Earl “Red” Blaik. Then in his last season at Dartmouth before moving to West Point, Blaik had a win percentage above .700 and had never posted a losing season. [His entire career would total a quarter century with only a single losing year]. Although his team lacked the talent of the high scoring Red, on the day Blaik out foxed the Grey Fox. A bitterly cold contest unfolded on increasingly muddy sod. Snow began falling by the final quarter and neither team managed to move the ball. Snavely ran a progressive offensive system for the time, combining end-around runs with short passes underneath and to the flat [almost a hybrid of what would later become known as the option and west coast offenses]. Blaik quickly saw that the conditions would afford little mobility and dropped the interior of his defensive line back a few steps off the ball. By also bringing his linebackers up he created a crowd of defenders able to react quickly and contain the ball. Dartmouth gave the Big Red short gains on every down, but no more.

Dartmouth passed only once all day. That ball fell incomplete. Neither team gained a first down in the opening fifteen minutes. The teams punted a combined twenty-two times. Cornell had not entered the locker room without the lead in two seasons, but the game remained tied at zero heading into the final period. Finally, with less than five minutes to play, Dartmouth penetrated the Cornell twenty yard line and attempted a field goal on fourth down. Pre-war football being what it was, no player on the entire Dartmouth team had ever been involved in a field goal try. They were universally amazed and ecstatic to see left tackle Bob Kreiger send the ball through the uprights.

In response, a desperate Snavely signaled his men to open up the playbook. With an unbeaten season, possible AP title, and long winning streak at steak Cornell began to throw the ball in defiance of the inhibiting conditions. Starting from a kick return to their own forty-eight it took only two long connections to carry the Big Red to Dartmouth’s six yard line. Facing first and goal with under a minute remaining, a three yard halfback run off left tackle halved the distance. A run off right tackle on second down ate up two more yards. Then, with only seconds remaining, the game entered infamy in Ivy League lore. Fullback Mark Lansberg carried up the middle and fell backwards towards the goal line. Center Frank Finnerman maintains to this day that Lansberg came across the line and landed on top of him in the end zone. The carry would have given Cornell a victory. Instead, referee Red Friesell called the ball down and returned it to the one yard line. Someone in the confused and angry Cornell team attempted to call a timeout, forgetting that the Big Red had none remaining. This error drew a delay of game penalty and moved the ball back to the six. On fourth down, with time expiring and only one chance remaining, quarterback Walter Shaw bootlegged right and threw a jump-pass to the end zone. A Dartmouth defender batted the ball down, apparently sealing the 3-0 win. Inexplicably, Friesell placed the ball on the six yard line rather than the twenty (where the rules of the day dictated Dartmouth should have taken over after a turnover on downs inside the red zone). Friesell signaled fourth down and Cornell ran the same play with a different result. Halfback Bill Murphy brought the ball safely to his chest before the PAT gave Cornell a controversial 7-3 win.

Media uproar began immediately. Reporters wired news across the country of the inexplicable fifth down and Cornell’s eleventh hour victory. Some speculated that Friesell may have thought the five yard penalty cancelled a down. Whatever he thought, the umpire soon changed his mind. After reviewing tape of the game he admitted his error in apologetic telegrams to both schools only hours after the final gun. The following day Cornell President Ezra Day, a Dartmouth graduate, and coach Snavely agreed to concede the game. Informing the team of the decision Day assured the distressed players that Dartmouth honor and decency would surely lead their president to refuse the concession.

Day was wrong. The game became the first in college football history decided off the field. It entered the record books as a 3-0 Dartmouth victory and ended the Cornell winning streak. The following week a crushed Big Red team dropped a second game by two points at Penn. Cornell men still protest that had they retained a morale boosting victory in Hanover their team would surely have triumphed in Philadelphia to finish the season 8-0. Instead, Frank Leahy’s undefeated Boston College headed south as champion of the East to face Tulane in the 1941 Sugar Bowl. 6-2 Cornell ended the year 15th in the AP rankings. No Ivy League team has ever come so close to an AP crown.

Exactly half a century later in 1990, the 3-1-1 Colorado Buffalos headed to Columbia on October 6th for a Big Eight matchup against 2-2 Missouri. Head coach Bill McCartney was in his ninth year in Boulder, where he had put together some startlingly athletic teams. His dynamic option offenses even gave Tom Osbourne’s power running Cornhuskers some things to think about. McCartney had finally broken through the ten-win barrier and flirted with a national title in 1989, going 11-1. Through the first five games of a grueling 1990 schedule the Buffaloes had defeated #12 Washington (the eventual Pac-10 winner and Rothman national champion), #20 Texas (the eventual Southwest Conference champion), and unranked Stanford. They had lost by a single point in Champagne to Illinois (the eventual Big 10 champion), and had tied the #8 Tennessee Volunteers (the eventual SEC champion). Understandably, even with starting quarterback Darian Hagan out injured, Colorado entered Columbia heavy favorites over the unranked Tigers.

The Buffaloes were loaded with talent. McCartney had expanded CU’s recruiting base, taking stud athletes from urban areas of California. Several brought personal problems along with their physical ability. McCartney caught serious media heat for the frequent arrests surrounding his team, but annually increasing win totals largely alleviated domestic discontent. Nine players from the 1990 Buffaloes would be drafted into the NFL, including first round picks in receiver Mike Prichard and linebacker Alfred Williams, and a second round pick in standout running back Eric Bieniemy. Such a deep and dynamic team should have dispatched unfancied Mizzou with ease. But on a hot and dry October day conditions were poor for the Buff’s explosive option attack.

Backup quarterback Charles Johnson recently told that Missouri’s turf was designed to cope with a typically humid and muggy climate. That day the disastrously low-tech 1980s artificial turf was dry and dusty and afforded little purchase. Colorado players slipped on play after play as they attempted to turn up-field for potentially significant gains. Johnson claims the conditions disadvantaged the Buffaloes’ system far more than the vertical passing Tigers. Film of the game obviously shows the difficulty CU players experienced attempting to stay upright. On the play immediately preceding the fateful series of downs, Johnson threw a screen pass to tight end Jon Boman who broke for the end zone. With nothing but daylight between him and the game winning score Boman slipped out of bounds at the three yard line. But whatever the validity of their excuses, Colorado failed to put the game away. A back-and-forth offensive slugging match stood at 31-27 to Mizzou and came down to Colorado first and goal at the three with forty seconds and one timeout remaining.

Hoping to distract the Buffs and help their frantic Tigers save a memorable conference win, Missouri fans roared as Colorado approached the line of scrimmage. Times were not rich for Mizzou. Second year head coach Bob Stull had begun his MU career with a disappointing 2-9 campaign. In five seasons at Missouri Stull would fail to register a single winning record. The Tigers had not enjoyed a season above .500 since Warren Powers’ penultimate campaign in 1983. They would not taste another until 1997. MU students could be forgiven for moving hopefully toward the field in preparation to tear down the goal posts. The prospect of knocking off a ranked rival with an impressive record coming off an 11-1 year was a rare treat.

Desperate for time to select the best possible play, Johnson spiked the ball on first down. Eric Bieniemy plunged up the middle on second. A Mizzou linebacker drove him back just short of the goal line. Johnson called time out. Before entering the huddle he looked at the sideline official, who had forgotten to flip his down marker from 2nd to 3rd. The announcers calling the game noted the mistake but commented that it hardly mattered as the Buffs only had time for two plays at most. Regardless, Johnson and Coach McCartney mistakenly agreed three possible plays. The QB hurriedly passed them on to his team before breaking the huddle. All-American CU center Jay Leeuwenburg attempted to correct his quarterback but with time of the essence Johnson hurried to the ball unaware of the official’s mistake.

On third down Bieniemy ran up the middle again and was stopped under a pile of bodies for no gain. When Johnson finally got his team back at the line of scrimmage only two ticks remained. Believing it to be third down he hurriedly spiked the ball. Mizzou coaches and players on the sideline began moving forward for handshakes. Students cheered and prepared to rush the field. But before they could make their way onto the treacherous turf Johnson returned to the line and ran a fifth and final play. On a quarterback keeper he fell backwards towards the line and may or may not have broken the plane of the goal. Referees signaled touchdown. Time had expired and the Buffs headed for the locker room as a crowd of MU students with shocking mullets surrounded the officials in futile protest. The students tore down the goalposts anyway, perhaps thinking the fifth play had been a mistake and believing that their Tigers would be awarded the win.

Johnson and his teammates confidently told reporters they had only run four plays. Though they genuinely believed that at the time they learned their error soon after arriving back in Boulder and watching tape. Unlike their predecessors at Cornell fifty years before, the CU president and coach did not refuse the win. The Buffaloes did not lose again and finished the season 10-1-1, tied atop the AP ranking with 11-1 Georgia Tech. Colorado claimed its only national title. Neither the AP nor the NCAA listened to howling protests emanating from Columbia.

Twice in college football history fifth down and goal plays have resulted in controversial triumphs as the clock expired in games that directly impacted the national title. Exactly fifty years separates the two games. In that half century college football evolved dramatically. No doubt Ezra Day and Carl Snavely would hardly have recognized the big money circus of the late twentieth century. They certainly would not have sympathized with Colorado’s decision. Which begs the question why the second game turned out so differently? Has modern college football lost its soul? Do Coloradans just lack integrity and honor?

The only certain fact is that there are several unwritten rules governing football that cannot be broken. For example, no one at the Tournament of Roses will ever acknowledge the fact that the Rose Bowl is not actually the national championship game. Five all-American prep running backs will go to USC every year even though it is obvious even to small children that they won’t all get playing time. But the most cast-iron, incontrovertible rule in all of college sports is this:

If it is improbable, unpredictable, disastrous, and can happen to Missouri, it will.

(Sources: Cornell Sun, history of Red football parts I and II; Cornell Bid Red history; Wiki, Gil Dobie; CSTV, Fifth down game; SI, McCartney and CU Buffaloes; Rivals, 5th down an honest mistake; Wiki, Fifth down game; CFB data warehouse; AP poll archive)


  1. A few corrections. The game was not on ABC, it was on local Colorado TV and the Big 8 Network. Neither broadcast team knew exactly what was going on. Charles Johnson was taking direction from Bill McCartney, who noticed the error of the down marker (that it stayed on 2nd down for two plays) and planned three plays to run, starting from the second 2nd down. Also, the turf was technically OmniTurf, not AstroTurf.

    Honorable Coloradan of Integrity

  2. Thanks, much appreciated.
    Although if you watch the whole final series you'll hear the commentators discussing the mistake. They're a little confused, but they noted the extra down after second down. Somehow by fourth down they had forgotten. Should have been irrelevant anyway because the fifth down play wasn't in either!

  3. I was there. It sucked big time. I knew it was wrong, but just figured I had counted wrong. You only had about 5 seconds to figure it out and the play had already started for the fifth down. Which, by the way was also NOT a touchdown. His knee was down.

    The only other thing that happened that was interesting was this:
    So they "score." Colorado runs into the lockerroom. We all sit there stunned. What the hell just happened?!

    After only just a few minutes, Colorado runs back on the field! Hooray. They've realized their mistake.
    But no. Because of the score, if Colorado had kicked an extra point that had been blocked and returned for a score, the game would have been tied again. Thus, they had to play it out. Of course, Colorado just took a knee and then ran back into the lockerroom. Again, suck.

    One other thing. This was during the very height of McCarthy's Promise Keepers campaign. Needless to say, that didn't endear me to him or the movement.