A Look Back: 1991 Fiesta Bowl Champions

Under the direction of head coach Howard Schnellenberger, the Louisville Cardinals finished the 1990 season by defeating Alabama 34-7 in the Fiesta Bowl.

1991 Fiesta Bowl Champions

After finishing the 1989 season with a final mark of 6-5 and the majority of its experienced players returning, the 1990 University of Louisville football team seemed poised for one of its best runs in recent years. Included in the group of returning starters were quarterback Browning Nagle, receiver Anthony Cummings, fullback Ralph Dawkins, linebacker Mark Sanders, free safety Ray Buchanan and defensive linemen Mike Flores and Ted Washington.


Browning Nagle

While the schedule wasn't amoung the most difficult in the nation, it did include road games at West Virginia, Southern Miss and Pittsburgh, as well as a home contest against Boston College. The Cardinals have had difficulty defeating those teams through the years, compiling a combined overall record of 4-21-1. In fact, Louisville had never defeated either Pittsburgh or West Virginia.

Louisville visited San Jose State in the season opener and fought through a game dominated by great defensive play from both programs. After defensive tackle Ted Washington, now an NFL All-Pro with the Buffalo Bills, blocked a field goal attempt late in the game to preserve the 10-10 tie, many fans, as well as many in the media, began to dought much of the preseason hype that surrounded this years squad. A 68-0 pounding of Murray State at Cardinal Stadium the following weekend didn't do much to bring some in the media back on the good side of head coach Howard Schnellenberger. In fact, one local columnist inked that the Cardinals could only win in a 'bush league,' referring to fact that both Murray State and Western Kentucky were both on the 1990 schedule.

The next three contests would help ease the pressure from the media, as the Cardinals began to show signs of brilliance, beginning with a 28-16 home victory over Kansas.

With a record 2-0-1, the Cardinals headed back on the road to face West Virginia. Playing in front of a sold-out crowd of 61,993, the Cardinals were led by a fierce defense and the leg of kicker Klaus Wilmsmeyer. The Mountaineers were only able to muster one touchdown, while Wilsmeyer booted three field goals to give the Cardinals their first ever victory over West Virginia.

The undefeated Cardinals visited Southern Miss the following weekend. Southern Miss, behind the direction of quarterback Brett Favre, exploded during the first quarter, scoring 22 points in the opening 5:51 minutes of the game. The Golden Eagles then added a field goal early in the third quarter to push their lead to 25-0. The Cardinals rolled off 13 straight points, but the five turnovers proved costly as it wasn't enough and their record dropped to 3-1-1.

Louisville then returned home to face Tulsa the following Saturday. After playing uninspired ball in the first half, leading just 17-14 at halftime, the 5th ranked defense shut down the Hurricane in the second half, while the Louisville offense exploded. The Cardinals went on to win 38-14, improving to 4-1-1.

Then next weekend, the Cardinals needed a bit of magic to prevent the Memphis State Tigers from upsetting the Cardinals in front of the third largest crowd in Cardinal Stadium history, as well as bowl representatives from the All-American and Independence Bowls. With a 19-7 lead heading into the 4th quarter, Louisville appeared to be set to win its sixth game of the season, but Memphis State scored 10 unanswered points to make the score 19-17. With 2:02 remaining in the game, Memphis State intercepted a Nagle pass at the Louisville 45 and returned it to the 14. With Memphis State in seemingly great position to win, the Louisville defense once again rose to the challenge. The Tigers were unable to gain a yard and sent in the kicker to attempt the game winning field goal with 1:31 remaining in the game. The Tigers were kicking into a very loud 'Crunch Zone,' which appeared to inspire the Louisville defense. As the ball left the foot of the Memphis kicker, sophomore free saftey Ray Buchanan streaked around the right side and blocked the attempt to assure the Cardinals the win.

Seven days later at Pittsburgh and off to its best start in 18 years (6-1-1), Louisville fans discovered that their quarterback, Browning Nagle, was one of determination. Nagle left the game three times due to an injury -- seperated shoulder, sprained knee, twisted ankle -- but he returned to toss a touchdown to tight end Ken McKay to give the Cardinals the 27-20 win. Following the game, Nagle appeared to be able to see the future as he talked to the press. "This (win) shows Louisville is for real. This is a real strong team. There's no reason why we shouldn't go 9-1-1."

The next two contests saw Louisville rack up over 800 yards of offense and score 82 points against Western Kentucky and Cincinnati to improve to 8-1-1 heading into the season finale against Boston College.

The Cardinals headed into the game against the Golden Eagles ranked 22nd in the polls. Once again with an ailing quarterback, Louisville relied on its defense to secure a win. Linebacker Mark Sander intercepted a pass and returned it for what was the game winning touchdown. Cornerback John Gainey picked off two passes in the end zone, including one at the final gun. Louisville won 17-10 to finish the season 9-1-1 and looking forward to the bowl season.

As the bowl invitations began to be sent out to various schools, Howard Schnellenberger found himself accepting an invitation to face a school were he once served as an assistant under legendary Paul 'Bear' Bryant. The Cardinals were set to face the Crimson Tide of Alabama on New Year's Day in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.

Once again, many began to wonder if Louisville, then an independent, could compete against a traditional power from the SEC. It didn't take long for the skeptics to be proven wrong once again! Louisville opened the game with a 70-yard touchdown pass to Latrell Ware and never looked back. After the first 15 minutes of play, Louisville had mounted a 25-0 lead over Alabama and continued on for a 34-7 win. A few Fiesta Bowl records set by Cardinals continue to stand today. Browning Nagle was awarded the Offensive Player of the Game, while Ray Buchanan was honored as the Defensive Player of the Game.

Game Stats
LOU
Team
ALA
25
First Downs
10
39-113
Rushes/Yds.
33-95
458
Passing Yds.
94
21
Completions
12
39
Attempts
35
3
Ints.
2
571
Total Offense
189
3-41.0
Punts
8-40.2
3-1
Fumbles/Lost
3-1
10-87
Pen./Yds.
7-40

Louisville finished the season ranked 12th in the Coaches Poll and 14th in AP.


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