1989 Nebraska-Colorado: Battle For The Big Eight In Boulder

Nebraska and Oklahoma completely dominated the old Big Eight Conference (forerunner of today’s Big 12) through the 1980s. How thorough was the domination? In games not played against each other, the Cornhuskers and Sooners combined to go 137-6-1 from 1980-88. But in 1989, Oklahoma slipped. Colorado stepped up as the principal rival to Nebraska. And on November 4, the 1989 Nebraska-Colorado game was one of the great battles of the entire college football season.


You can read more about the season-long journey and key players for both teams at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on their head-to-head battle.


The Buffs came into the game undefeated and ranked #2 in the country. The Cornhuskers were #3. The winner of their game in Boulder would get an Orange Bowl bid and a crack at #1 Notre Dame. CBS was on hand for the midafternoon kickoff with the legendary Jim Nantz, still a young buck in the broadcast booth, on the call.

Nebraska struck first with an interception that was quickly turned into a touchdown. Colorado struck back with an electric option play. Starting on his own 30-yard-line, quarterback Darien Hagen went left and made a big play, picking up thirty yards. J.J. Flanigan, the trailing running back stayed with Hagen the entire way and Hagen actually made the pitch at the Nebraska 40-yard line. Flanigan ran the rest of the way and the game was tied.

Colorado was also winning the battle of special teams. Jeff Campbell made a couple big returns, one of which set up another touchdown. The Buffs led 17-14 in the third quarter when the game’s critical sequence went down.

On the doorstep of a touchdown that would put him two scores ahead, Colorado coach Bill McCartney got too cute by half. He called for a halfback option pass that fooled no one and ended up an interception. But pass interference was called. Replays showed that the interference call was, at best, debatable. At worst, Nebraska had been robbed. Hagen scored on the next play.

The Cornhuskers were able to close within 27-21 and got to midfield in the closing minute. Their quarterback, Gerry Gdowski, didn’t have a rifle arm and they needed about ten more yards to give him a realistic crack at a desperation throw to the end zone. Two key drops hurt and the last-ditch drive died. Ten seconds later, the goal posts were torn down in Boulder.

Nebraska settled for a Fiesta Bowl bid to play 9-2 Florida State. That didn’t go well. The Seminoles were the hottest team in the country after losing their first two games and the Cornhuskers were standing in the way of a New Year’s Day freight train. Not until 1994, did Nebraska finally win a national title for head coach Tom Osborne.

Colorado got the Orange Bowl bid and moved to #1 in the country when Notre Dame lost at Miami on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Because bowl matchups were already locked in, the Buffs still played the Irish, rather than the now-#2 Hurricanes. On New Year’s Night, the national title in their grasp, Colorado missed several early opportunities and then Notre Dame took over the second half. The ultimate 21-6 loss ended the Buffs’ title bid.

It had still been a magnificent year for Colorado, a breakthrough season. And one year later, they built on the success, came back and won a share of the national championship.