The 2003 Manhattan Bowl was the 43rd annual playing of the bowl, and the second-to-last Manhattan Bowl played at the Jersey Dome in Newark, NJ. The 2003 Manhattan Bowl, held on January 9th, 2003, also served as the college football national championship game for the 2002 season, as agreed upon by the presidents and athletic directors at the NCAA Conference in Tuscaloosa in 1999.
The game was hyped due to its pitting of Virginia head coach Dick Cheney against his alma mater, Colorado, which was heavily favored and coached by Pat Strong. Virginia wound up scoring a huge upset, beating the Buffaloes 31-17 in a game more lopsided than the final score. It was the national title game with the highest attendance up to that point and gave the Cavaliers their second football national championship, and first since 1939.
Colorado BuffaloesThe Colorado Buffaloes, coming off of a 10-2 season that included a Central Conference title and a blowaway victory in the Silver Bowl, entered the 2002 season ranked No. 4 in the nation behind Washington, Georgia and Notre Dame. It returned its record-setting quarterback Aaron Clark, who the previous year had broken the NCAA single-season passing yards record by throwing for 5,789 yards and helping the Buffs score 503 points, a Central Conference record. Three of his four starting receivers from the previous year were returning to the squad and the Buffs were returning ten of eleven defensive starters from the previous season. They were a runaway preseason favorite to win the Central again for the second consecutive year.
The Buffaloes put up even crazier numbers than the year before in 2002, finishing the season undefeated and with Clark, a Bosch finalist from the year before, passing for 6,321 yards (thus breaking his own record) and helping the Buffaloes score 698 points. He threw for 66 touchdowns, an NCAA record, and the Buffs won all twelve of their games averaging 58 points a game. Clark threw, on average, five touchdown passes per game, and running back Jon-Jon Mintzer rushed for 1,532 yards and eleven touchdowns, while backups Trent Young and Sam Golding combined for 987 yards and four touchdowns each. The defense returned six turnovers for scores, and the team as a total scored 96 touchdowns all season, also an NCAA record. The offense was labeled "the Greatest Show on Turf" and was instantly hailed, for good reason, as the best offense in the history of college football. Apachia was a shoe-in for the national title game in New York City that January and Aaron Clark won the Bosch Trophy by one of the widest margins in history, and coach Pat Strong was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year, while running back Jon-Jon Mintzer received the Wyatt Award for the best running back in college football, and linebacker Cole Hauser was given the Sarelli Award for best linebacker - the only other Buffalo to win the same award was Dick Cheney, the head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers entered the season ranked No. 11 nationally, coming off of an 10-2 season the year before that they had ended on a high note by beating Western New York, the NEC champion, in the Manhattan Bowl. They returned three All-Americans on defense: linebacker Ike Crowder, defensive end Adrian Sutton, and corner Luka Dizon. While they had graduated Ronald Henry from the secondary and linebacker Stephon Lewis had chosen to go out for the AFL Draft, Virginia was considered to have the best defense bar none in the Atlantic conference. With seven returning defensive starters and nine returning starters on offense, Virginia was a prohibitive favorite to win the Atlantic and a unanimous preseason lock to win their division.
Virginia established itself early with a huge non-conference 30-24 victory on the road at Lakes powerhouse Missouri in the first week, a nationally televised game over the No. 18 team in the country. Virginia established itself as a power-running team behind tailbacks James Gabriel and Tre Biggs. Quarterback Matt Schaub, a second-year starter, had a breakout game in the conference opener against No. 22 Clemson, in which the Cavaliers won a decisive 47-14 contest on the road, with Schaub contributing two passing and two rushing touchdowns for Virginia.
Virginia won every game handily throughout the season until an early November matchup at home against Cuba. The Spaniards, unranked at the time, took Virginia to double overtime. Virginia scored on their first play of the second overtime period to advance their score to 49-42; when Cuba scored, Spaniards head coach Jason Nolan elected to try for a two-point conversion. The conversion was intercepted by Luka Dizon and Virginia escaped with their record intact.
Thanks to running the table and reaching the Atlantic title game undefeated, Virginia was ranked No. 2 behind Colorado entering the title game in Tampa against the Florida State Seminoles, who boasted the second highest-scoring offense in the country behind quarterback Channing Tatum and receiver Jamal Kelley. Virginia defeated FSU on a last second field goal to win 33-30 and the Atlantic Conference, sending Dick Cheney and the Cavaliers to the Manhattan Bowl the second year in a row, and to Cheney's first national championship game since he was a defensive coordinator at Huron.
Prior to the game, which was to be broadcast on NBC, most commentators had already signed off on Colorado being one of the best teams in the history of the sport. NBC football analyst and former Bosch winner Rick Johansson compared the Buffaloes to the 1976 Texas Longhorns or 1993 Maryland Terrapins, two squads widely regarded in the conversation of best ever in terms of offensive production. ESPN analyst Denzel Washington was one of the few sports pundits in the country who dared suggest that Colorado would score less than 30 points - the Buffaloes' lowest scoring total in any game of the season had been 42 against Sequoyah. No team in history had put up numbers as gaudy as Colorado's, and while Virginia sported the No. 3 defense in the country in 2002 based off of all combined statistics, the offense led by Schaub and James Gabriel was not considered potent enough to go point-for-point against CU.
Much of the pregame hype was based not on the game's status as a coronation for the greatest offense in history, but instead for the match between Dick Cheney and his alma mater. Cheney, who grew up in northern Colorado, had played for the Buffs in the early 1960's and was the only two-time Sarelli Award winner. He had served on the CU staff in early 1980's, but was passed over for a head coaching position in favor of David Josephs in 1983 and defected to Huron, where he was an enormously successful defensive coordinator for Randy Edison in the 1980's. Cheney had never faced Colorado since his inglorious exit, and the game was billed as a "revenge match" for Cheney. An added storyline was the faceoff between Cheney, Colorado's only previous Sarelli Award winner, and the winner for 2002, Cole Hauser, who was the heart and soul of the Buffalo defense.
On January 8th, a reporter asked Cheney in an interview how he had prepared his team for a supposed letdown, phrasing the question, "How have you prepared your team for when you lose?" Cheney responded, "What kind of question is that? We're not going to lose. This interview is over."
The Colorado Buffaloes wore all-black uniforms, even the helmet, which was typically gold. The Virginia Cavaliers wore white jerseys with blue pants. The national anthem was sung by country singer Colt Talley, and the ceremonial coin toss was done by New York Metros quarterback Joe Rullens, a former Georgia player.
The Cavaliers won the opening coin toss and drove downfield in a surprisingly successful drive that was capped off by a perfect touchdown pass from Matt Schaub to David Watson. The Buffaloes responded with a drive of their own, before Clark threw his first interception since October to an expectant Luka Dizon on an out-route. Virginia and Colorado traded punts on the next four possessions, until a favorable punt return at the very end of the first quarter led Virginia on a three-play drive to set up a Bryce Kohler field goal from 37 yards. Colorado received the next kick and had the ball to begin the second quarter.
Clark threw his second interception of the night shortly thereafter, this time to Kai Jennings. Schaub would throw a red-zone interception eight plays later, right into Cole Hauser's chest as he looked for tight end Hayden Murray. Clark drove the Buffs downfield with surprising sharpness and the momentum seemed to be swinging in Colorado's favor. Kai Jennings dropped an easy interception in the endzone and on the next play Clark threw a spiral to the back of the endzone to Justin Blair, his favorite target all season long.
The rest of the second quarter was a scoreless affair, with the Virginia offense failing to gain any momentum after the turnover drive earlier, but with Colorado struggling against the Cavalier defensive front, Pat Strong's record-setting offense remained mired in trouble. The offensive line was overwhelmed by the Virginia line, and Clark was sacked four times in the second quarter, hurried or hit on almost every play and threw five consecutive incompletions.
The score would be 10-7 at halftime, with Blair dropping a hail mary to end the second quarter near the endzone.
Colorado would have the ball again to start the second half, but while running downfield on what should have been a huge gain, receiver Gage McCullen was stripped of the ball by Aaron McCormick and the defense recovered the ball. Virginia proceeded to drive downfield behind the rushing of Gabriel and the running back burst in with several defenders in tow for a seven-yard score.
Clark drove his team downfield on the ensuing drive, but the Virginia defense stuffed him when he tried to convert a third-and-inches and the Buffs punted. On the ensuing play, Tre Biggs sprinted 62-yards to the five yard line, where he was knocked out of bounds. One play later, Schaub threw his second interception on an ill-advised attempted pass to Watson. Benjamin Torrence returned the interception fifteen yards.
Clark began to show some signs of poise as he neatly avoided two sacks for completions. On his fourth pass of the next drive, he threw a lopsided spiral as he was hit from behind and Jennings grabbed his second interception of the night, returning this one 45 yards for a score. Now facing a 24-7 deficit, the Buffs began to look deflated on the sideline.
Clark drove the Buffs downfield once again, and despite multiple drops by his once-trusted receivers, Clark got CU in scoring position before he suffered a gruesome sack by Charles James on third-and-goal from the three yard line and the Buffs settled for a field goal to make the score 24-10 as the third quarter ended. Broadcasters would later second-guess the decision to not go for it with Clark from ten yards out to make the score a manageable 24-14.
Down two touchdowns, the Buffs attempted an onside kick to start the fourth quarter, with Virginia promptly recovered. Four plays later, Schaub threw his second touchdown of the night to Darrius Baines from 32 yards away on third down and the Cavaliers increased the score to 31-10, effectively putting the Buffs into panic mode. While Colorado would score on their second-to-last drive to make the score 31-17, the Virginia Cavaliers were able to run out the clock once they received possession of the ball one final time and Schaub took a knee with thirty seconds left to seal the victory and Virginia's second ever national championship, and the first for longtime head coach Dick Cheney.
UVA - Schaub 21 yard TD pass to Watson (Kohler extra point is GOOD) UVA 7-0
UVA - Kohler 37 yard Field Goal UVA 10-0
CU - Clark 13 yard TD pass to Blair (Knight extra point is GOOD) UVA 10-7
UVA - Gabriel 7 yard TD run (Kolher extra point is GOOD) UVA 17-7
UVA - Jennings 45 yard Interception return for TD (Kohler extra point is GOOD) UVA 24-7
CU - Knight 20 yard field goal UVA 24-10
UVA - Schaub 32 yard TD pass to Baines (Knight extra point is GOOD) UVA 31-10
CU - Clark 4 yard TD pass to Edsall (Knight extra point is GOOD) UVA 31-17
Postgame and Legacy
The NCAA Patrick O'Neal National Championship Trophy was presented by newly-inaugurated New York Governor Brian Williams, who had assumed the office only four days prior. In his postgame speech, Dick Cheney triumphantly said, "I may have played as a Buffalo, but I will always have won as a Cavalier." He became the first and only head coach to defeat his alma mater in the title game. Cornerback Kai Jennings, with his two interceptions, one for a touchdown, and eleven tackles and a sack, was named the game MVP.
The game, while not an instant classic due to the gameplay itself, was quickly held in regards as one of the biggest upsets of all time, due to the Buffaloes having been 20 point favorites over the Cavaliers, and the Colorado offense being so prolific. Pat Strong, the Buffalo head coach, personally took responsibility for the game and admitted that, "We weren't prepared to play with a defense of that caliber." Much of the victory was attributed to Cheney's personal hunger for revenge against his alma mater, and the athleticism of the Virginia defense in comparison to a clearly overmatched and unprepared Colorado offensive line. Aaron Clark later went on the record to say that the Buffaloes could have practiced much harder, but that many in the program felt that the title game was a formality. It was the second year in a row that the No. 2 team had upset the No. 1 team, as Washington had knocked off Mississippi the year before in the Rose Bowl.
The game capped Virginia's ascendance as a national power, and began the long decline of long-mighty Colorado. The Buffaloes would be levelled with two separate NCAA sanctions in 2004 and 2005, and Pat Strong was summarily fired prior to the beginning of the 2005 season. The Buffs have not played in a bowl game since 2006.
The game was attended by 82,587 people, a Manhattan Bowl record, and was watched by an estimated 34.3 million people nationwide. The game had the highest-ever viewer rating in France for an American football game.