It was the perfect ending for this imperfect college football season. A touchdown that wasn't would provide us with not one, but two national champions, and a player on a losing New Year's Day team would grace us with 14 of the most thrilling—though futile—seconds of this or any other season. That play will take its place beside Billy Cannon's 1959 Halloween Gallop and Doug Flutie's '84 Hail Mary Pass.
That Raghib (Rocket) Ismail of Notre Dame even got the chance to do his flash-dance was the minor miracle of the Orange Bowl. Sixty-five seconds separated Colorado from its first NCAA championship. With Colorado leading 10-9, Buffalo punter Tom Rouen, standing on his own 33-yard line, took the snap on fourth down. The 77,062 fans in the stadium and the millions watching on TV naturally assumed that he would kick the ball out of bounds. Why give Ismail, the fastest, most elusive player in the nation, a chance to touch the ball with the game on the line?
Instead, acting on orders from Colorado coach Bill McCartney, Rouen deposited the ball directly into the arms of Ismail, who proceeded to pull off the evening's major miracle. As half a dozen failed tacklers pawed at Rocket's wake, each glimpsed the same ghastly fate: Notre Dame was about to deprive Colorado of the national title for the second straight season. And suddenly, Ismail was in the end zone, having broken free for a 91-yard touchdown run.
But a flag was down on the 37-yard line. Irish safety Greg Davis had clipped, a blunder that not only would expunge from the record books Ismail's sensational return and cost the Irish the game but would also hand the 11-1-1 Buffaloes a half share of the national championship. Unbeaten though once-tied Georgia Tech, having already routed Nebraska 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl, would have to settle for the other piece of the title.
January 14, 1991
Three days after the Orange Bowl, Davis seemed most pained by the fact that as a senior, he would have no chance to redeem himself. "It hurts," he whispered. "It hurts bad."
While not flagrant, Davis's play was definitely a clip. What was flagrant were the Buffaloes' misplays and the misjudgment that led to the punt on which the entire college football season turned. With 2:39 remaining in the game, Colorado had the ball first-and-10 on the Irish 27. Three disastrous plays and one penalty later, the Buffaloes stood fourth-and-36 on their own 47. During that miserable series, Rouen had huddled with McCartney. "Kick it out of the end zone," McCartney told him. No problem, Rouen replied, and it wouldn't have been had Colorado not shifted into reverse. But by the time Rouen jogged onto the field, he could no longer reach the end zone, though his instructions remained the same: Kick the ball as far as possible.
Why not punt it out of bounds? The answer: hubris. "Remember, our punt team is Coach McCartney's pride and joy," says Rouen. On this night, the Buffaloes had succeeded in containing Ismail. "Maybe we started to think he was human," says strong safety Tim James, the left end on the Colorado punt team. "Our mistake."
Rouen hung a beauty: 44 yards with a 4.5-second hang time. In the end, it was a little too beautiful. Rouen had outkicked his coverage. Ismail made a basket catch at his own nine, and it was showtime. He feinted left and plunged into a sea of black jerseys. The first three Buffaloes down the field came up with air. Steaming in from Ismail's left, Chad Brown made contact; he hit the Rocket high but failed to wrap him up. Next, Greg Biekert, lying on his back, took a swipe at Ismail's legs with his right arm. The Rocket hurdled, stumbled...and kept his feet. As Ismail broke for the open space near the right sideline, two Buffaloes stood between him and a touchdown: James and Rouen.
James has been the starting left end on McCartney's punt team for four years. His job on punts is to provide outside containment. Now, James was sluggish getting downfield. "At the line of scrimmage a guy [Davis, as it turned out] was holding me up," he says. "Then I saw that Rocket was going to return it, and I thought, I better get out of here." James found a higher gear and got a step on Davis—a critically important step.
Davis was still feeling his way on Notre Dame's punt return team. Since becoming the starting strong safety this season, he had been bumped down to the second punt return unit to keep him rested. Then, in the days before the Orange Bowl, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz decided he wanted experience on the special teams. Davis was reinstalled.
As Davis recalls, "I had [James] walled off pretty good, but he got inside me. I turned around and saw Rocket stumble and get through the hole. Then [James] started closing on him. He was the last guy—my guy. If he makes the tackle...."
As Ismail broke for the sideline, James had a good angle on him. "That's when I got it," James recalls. "It wasn't a cheap shot or anything. It just wasn't legal."
Indeed, another look at the play shows that Davis hit James on the side, not in the back. As he fell forward, Davis still got both hands on Ismail. He was, in fact, the last person to touch him.
"I tried to get my head in front of him [James]," says Davis, addressing the key difference between a legal and an illegal open-field block. "I guess I didn't. I haven't seen a replay, but my friends have. They say it was definitely a clip."
That left only Rouen to stop Ismail. As Rouen recalls, "He pulled away from me like I was tied to a tree. But right as he passed me, I saw a flash of yellow, and I thought, Maybe we'll be okay."
Would Ismail have scored without the illegal help? Says James, "Would I have tackled him? That's a tough call. This is the Rocket we're talking about."
"He isn't positive he would have made the tackle?" says Davis in agony. "Oh, man, that's painful."
Davis's clip was nearly as painful to Georgia Tech. While the coaches' panel at UPI crowned Tech No. 1, by a single point, Colorado got the nod from the media, who vote in the AP poll. Had the Irish beaten Colorado, Tech most likely would have won in both rankings for a consensus national title. At the same time, it is fair to assume that Ismail's heroics—nullified though they were—cost Colorado at least one first-place vote in the UPI poll.
In the days after the game, Ismail was secluded at his mother's home in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., presumably weighing whether to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. The decision has been weighing on him visibly. He excused himself from the Orange Bowl's Media Day, and at the sole press conference he did attend, Ismail told reporters he resented being there.
Last weekend, besieged by phone calls from agents, Ismail was almost relieved when asked to reflect on the play that may have been his last in an Irish uniform. Said Rocket, "I remember taking that hit [from Brown] and thinking, Hey, I'm still on my feet, just get outside. When I heard them announcing a penalty, I thought maybe it was defensive holding. Then I thought, Yeah, right."
Though the usually gracious Ismail had made news in Miami for his surliness, his behavior toward his teammates was above reproach. After the crushing loss, Ismail had gentle words for Davis. "It's all right," he told him. "Don't even think about it. Forget it."
"And believe me," Davis was saying, three days later, "I wish I could."