The play of the year for 2014 was an ultimately inconsequential touchdown scored by a mediocre team in an obscure bowl game few fans attended.
Sports is so cool. Just when you think there is no reason to care about an event arranged by a television network looking for holiday time-slot filler, athletes whose names soon will be forgotten turn the final second of a clock into something unforgettable.
It happened Wednesday in the Bahamas, where the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers put their 7-5 record on the line against the Central Michigan Chippewas, also 7-5. Unless you were a fan with an allegiance to either school — or a gambler desperate for action — this was another ho-hum, so-what college football game during a week with an abundance of ho-hum, so-what college football games.
And when Western Kentucky took a 42-14 halftime lead, the Relevance Quotient dipped to a 2014 bowl-season low, which is saying something.
But Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush kept flinging the ball into the end zone, and Western Kentucky kept whiffing on casually applied arm tackles, and with one second remaining, the Chippewas, trailing 49-42, were 75 yards away from scoring a potential game-tying touchdown.
There was no doubt about Central Michigan’s last-second strategy: Heave a deep pass, then proceed on a series of hot-potato laterals en route to the end zone. The first time I saw a hot-potato sequence win a game is also the last time, in 1982, when California’s kick-return team weaved through a Stanford defense obstructed by the Cardinal marching band.
“The Play to Beat the Band” involved five laterals, two of which appeared to be made by players whose knees had touched the ground. (If officials were using replay reviews to settle disputed calls in 1982, it’s almost certain the most storied kickoff return in college football history is a nonstory the following morning.)
Anyway, back to the hot potato in the Bahamas, and please forgive me if that transition conjures visions not related to football. Central Michigan’s version of “The Play to Beat the Band” began with the 46-yard completion of a Hail Mary pass, between three defenders, to receiver Jesse Kroll.
Kroll lateraled the ball to teammate Deon Butler, who lateraled to Courtney Williams, who dumped off still another lateral to Titus Davis. It was the textbook version of the ill-advised forward pass New Orleans receiver Marques Colston threw last season at CenturyLink Field, where the Saints’ hopes for a playoff-game comeback against the Seahawks were undone by the penalty Colston drew with seven seconds remaining.
Colston was an accomplished receiver who’d torched the Hawks’ secondary — his last-minute touchdown catch had put the Saints within eight points — and that brain-lock “lateral” underscored the one-in-gazillion chance of scoring a touchdown through a succession of ball exchanges.
But Central Michigan pulled it off. Davis scampered 15 yards and crashed over the pylon, forcing Chippewas coach Dan Enos to make a decision: Attempt the virtually certain kick that ties the game and sets up overtime, or try the two-point, twist-of-the- dagger conversion?
“We thought we had momentum,” Enos explained afterward, referring to the five unanswered touchdowns his team had scored in the second half. “So we’d try to win the game.”
I admire the aggressiveness — don’t kick it when the opponents are down, go for the gusto — except the Chippewas never really went for the gusto. They called a fade-route pass play toward the corner of the end zone, the football equivalent of a plea bargain.
Denied space for his receivers to achieve separation, a quarterback’s typical fade-route maneuver is to toss a jump ball and pray for pass interference.
No penalty was called on Central Michigan’s incomplete pass. A minute after the Chippewas participated in the play of the year, they walked off the field as 49-48 losers of a bowl game that meant nothing — and yet provided a moment of sheer magic.
By the way, of the names destined to be forgotten from the Bahamas Bowl, the Western Kentucky cornerback who broke up the two-point conversion attempt will remain in the memory bank a bit longer than anybody else’s.
A last-second touchdown, requiring teamwork executed so efficiently it looked to have been choreographed, was scored Wednesday. And it went for naught because Wonderful Terry was in the right place, at the right time.
Sports is so cool.