You hear it all the time from college head football coaches.
“To have a chance to beat a team as good as the one we’re playing, we’ve got to play the full 60 minutes.”
When I was a much younger writer, I thought that quote was the most overused cliché ever.
And then as the years have passed, as I’ve covered game after game, season after season now closing in on 3½ decades of mostly entertaining football and mostly bad press box chili dogs, that cliché rings true.
It certainly does this week on the one-year anniversary of LSU’s 16-14 victory over Tennessee, possibly the only game in SEC history in which the winning team scored its only touchdowns on its first and last offensive plays from scrimmage.
As crazy as that game was – LSU got a chance to run one more play for the game-winning touchdown because Tennessee was penalized for having too many men on the field – there have been other games with endings that Academy Award-winning screenwriters couldn’t devise.
Here are some of the ones I recall, and I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten. Fortunately, I was in the stadiums for most of these games, and at the end of the day or night when I finished writing, I had the same thought:
Right when you think you’ve got SEC football figured out, then you don’t.
Here we go with my five stunning endings in no particular order:
No. 1 Tennessee 28, No. 10 Arkansas 24, Nov. 14, 1998 in Knoxville – As the clock is winding inside of two minutes left to play, I’m standing on the Tennessee sideline, notebook in hand, observing a distraught bench full of orange jerseys watching a perfect season and a chance to win the national championship disappear.
Arkansas, after stunning Tennessee with three first-half touchdown passes by quarterback Clint Stoerner, is leading 24-22. It’s no fluke that the Hogs are ahead. They’re 8-0 under first-year coach Houston Nutt and have played unafraid all day.
There’s 1:43 left on the clock and Arkansas has second-and-12 from its own 48. Because Stoerner has been superb – he eventually finishes completing 17-of-34 for 274 yards – Nutt calls for Stoerner to rollout at left end, giving him an option to run or throw. Since Tennessee’s defensive alignment dictated it was prepared to stop a running back plunge in the middle designed to run clock and protect the ball, a QB rollout seemed to be a safe call with just enough shock value to pick up the first down that would clinch the win.
But as the play started, Tennessee defensive tackle Billy Ratliff bullrushes Arkansas all-American right guard Brandon Burlsworth. Stoerner, concentrating on getting away from the line while keeping his eyes downfield, doesn’t see Burlsworth backpeddling and trying to dig in to stop Ratliff.
That’s when Stoerner trips over Burlsworth, trying to put down his right hand to avoid going down for a loss. When this happens, the ball falls out of Stoerner’s hand and Ratliff recovers at the Arkansas 43.
Five running plays later with 28 seconds left to play, Tennessee running back Travis Henry launches into the end zone for the game-winning 1-yard TD to improve to 9-0. Four wins later, the Vols capture the national championship.
As the horn sounds and Stoerner is walking off the field, myself and a couple other reporters walk besides him to ask him about the fumble. He could have kept walking and said “No comment” but he forever earned my respect that day.
He looked at us dead in the eyes and said, “I just dropped the ball. I don’t do that and we beat the No. 1 team in the country.”
For a year, Stoerner had to live with that mistake. But good things come to those who wait. The next season, when the defending national champion Vols visited Fayetteville sporting a 7-1 record and a No. 3 national ranking, Stoerner led a 5-3 Arkansas team to a 28-24 win, ironically the same score as the previous year except reversed.
Ole Miss 24, Mississippi State 23, Nov. 19, 1983, Jackson, Miss. – In your sportswriting career, you hope maybe one day that you will turn a phrase that will never be forgotten.
My friend Butch John of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger is in that elite category. And he has Mother Nature to thank for it.
Here’s the setup:
In Billy Brewer’s first year as Ole Miss coach in 1983, the Rebels started the season 1-5. Then, Ole Miss won its next four games by a combined 26 points, including back-to-back three-point wins over LSU and Tennessee.
That put the Rebels at 5-5 heading into its annual season-ending rival game with Mississippi State. A win for Ole Miss would mean an Independence Bowl bid, the Rebels’ first bowl invite after an 11-season drought.
But after the first three quarters on this windy day in Mississippi Memorial Stadium, it seems like Ole Miss will be sitting home for the holidays since State led 23-7.
Then in a blink, three State turnovers lead to 17 straight Ole Miss points in the first 5:12 of the final quarter. It appears the Rebels have tucked away the one-point victory in an incredible comeback when Ole Miss quarterback Kelly Powell fumbles at State’s 20-yard line with 4:50 left to play.
Knowing it only needs a field goal for the win and realizing it has one of the best placekickers in the SEC, State starts grinding out a perfectly-timed drive. Finally, it has quarterback John Bond sneak twice to place the ball squarely in front of the goalposts at the Ole Miss 10.
It’s third-and-five and State placekicker Artie Cosby is summoned to kick a 27-yard field goal. Even with Ole Miss calling timeout, Cosby knows it’s a chip shot.
The snap, the hold and. . .
“The ball felt perfect coming off my foot,” Cosby says afterward.
Cosby’s kick sailed right down the middle, a picturesque end-over-end. Some State players began celebrating, throwing up their hands like officials signaling “It’s good!”
And it was, until a 40-mile-an-hour wind gust stopped the ball in mid-air, inches from the crossbar, then slapped it to the ground back near the goal line.
Which led to my boy Butch John naming the play “The Immaculate Deflection.”
Alabama 25, No. 7 Auburn 23, Nov. 30, 1985, Legion Field, Birmingham – ABC-TV announcer Keith Jackson and two drunk Alabama fans believed what Crimson Tide placekicker Van Tiffin didn’t – that he was ’Bama’s only hope in the end to win the annual Iron Bowl rivalry.
Auburn, featuring ’85 Heisman Trophy-winning running back Bo Jackson, started the season ranked No. 2 in the polls. By week two, the Tigers were No. 1 and kept the spot for two weeks before losing to Tennessee.
By the time, Auburn rolled into Legion Field for the last regular season game, it was 8-2 overall and ranked No. 7. Alabama, in its third year under Ray Perkins, Bear Bryant’s successor, was 7-2-1, its two losses back-to-back to Penn State and Tennessee by two points each.
Since Auburn had lost the ’84 game to Alabama, 17-15, when the Tide’s Tiffin kicked a 52-yard field goal (“I didn’t think I hit it that good, it just cleared,” Tiffin told me one time when I worked at the Mobile (Ala.) Register for 16 months in the late 90s), the Tigers’ coach Pat Dye didn’t want to lose two straight in college football’s most fierce rivalry.
So in this ’85 game, when the Tigers take the lead, 23-22, with 57 seconds left, Dye is feeling good, especially when the ensuing kickoff is a touchback.
Alabama has 80 yards to cover in less than a minute and one time out. As Tide quarterback Mike Shula trots to the line to open the final possession, Jackson, probably the most legendary college football TV play-by-play announcer ever, says, “Van Tiffin is the man if they an get it within his range. He has kicked a 42-yarder today. He has missed wide left from 52 yards with the wind.”
Down on the Alabama sideline, Tiffin isn’t even warming up. He doesn’t believe there’s enough time to get close enough, especially when Shula is sacked for an 8-yard loss on second-and-10 and is forced to call Alabama’s last time out with 37 seconds left.
Behind the Alabama bench, a couple of thoroughly intoxicated fans spy Tiffin and begin yelling, “It’s going to come down to you, it’s going to come down to you.”
“I’m thinking they had no idea what they were talking about,” Tiffin said.
But then, Alabama makes two great plays that not only keeps the drive alive, but also stops the clock.
On third-and-18 from the Alabama 12, Shula throws a 14-yard pass to running back Gene Jelks, leading him perfectly to the left sideline where he runs out-of-bounds with 29 seconds left.
Then on fourth-and-four at the Tide 26, Alabama runs a totally unexpected double reverse that starts as a toss sweep around right end, but a second handoff to wide receiver Al Bell scooting around left end results in a 20-yard gain, with Bell stepping out-of-bounds to halt the clock at 2 seconds. The key to the play is Shula leveling Auburn’s backside defensive end to spring Bell.
After Shula’s first-and-10 pass is almost intercepted, he has superb protection on second-and-10. He holds it and holds it and holds it until Greg Richardson breaks across the middle left to right. Shula hits in stride, Richardson gains 18 yards to the Auburn 35 where he stretches out-of-bounds with six seconds left.
Alabama’s field goal unit hustles on the field. Tiffin puts down his flat kicking tee at the Auburn 42 (it was legal in college back then). Holder Larry Abney kneels and looks to the center.
That’s when things could have gone incredibly wrong, because the snapper snaps the ball before Abney calls for it, which throws Tiffin’s timing off.
“I was so shocked that I was late getting to the ball,” Tiffin said. “And it almost got blocked by (Auburn’s) Kevin Porter because he jumped offsides.”
But it didn’t. Let’s go the ABC call by Jackson and color analyst Frank Broyles:
Jackson: “Here comes Van Tiffin. With six seconds left, he’s in the game.”
Broyles: “My heart won’t stand it.”
Jackson: “He missed a 52-yarder wide left, with the wind. This is 52 yards into the breeze. Not strong, but some. The kick is up! It’s long enough. . .it’s GOOD! HE MADE IT!”
And the kid who came to the Crimson Tide program as a 5-9, 155-pound walkon from Red Bay, Alabama, became a legend that night.
Now 46 years old and the research and development director for Tiffin Motorhomes in Red Bay, Van proudly watched his son Leigh surpass many of his records as a Tide placekicker from 2006-2009. Ironically, the very last extra point kick of Leigh’s career in the fourth quarter of Alabama’s BCS national championship game win over Texas, gave him the school career record for extra points made at 136 (142 attempted), one better than his dad, who by the way, was 135-of-135.
Even with Leigh’s success, the long Alabama fans never forget Van’s game-winner vs. Auburn, forever immortalized in Birmingham-based sports artist Daniel Moore’s painting named “The Kick.”
“I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time, but later I realized it was,” Tiffin told me. “I was lucky that Auburn didn’t call a time out to freeze me to think about it. I was able to run right in and just kick it.”
LSU 33, Kentucky 30, Nov. 9, 2002, Lexington, Kentucky – Every football coach usually plays the percentages, especially in situations when a game is on the line.
So after watching his team battling back from a 14-point deficit to pull into a 27-27 tie with then-defending SEC champion LSU, Kentucky coach Guy Morriss is faced with a decision with 15 seconds left in the game after one of his players calls UK’s final time out on first down at the LSU 11.
Does Morriss take one more shot at the end zone? Does he run one more play, maybe to position the ball even better for placekicker Taylor Begley? If it’s a rushing play, UK would have to unpile and spike the ball to stop the clock.
Nope, he plays the percentages. Begley kicks a 29-yard field goal for a 30-27 lead with 11 seconds left. LSU’s Devery Henderson gets the kickoff and runs straight out-of-bounds.
Yet even after a delay-of-game penalty back to the LSU 8 and a 17-yard pass from Tigers’ quarterback Marcus Randall to wide receiver Michael Clayton at the LSU 25 with the Tigers calling timeout with two seconds left, LSU appears done. Randall doesn’t have a throwing arm that can get it anywhere near the Kentucky end zone, and everyone dressed in blue is anticipating a huge upset.
Morriss gets a celebratory Gatorade bath and Kentucky student begin lining the field.
LSU’s last shot is a play called “Dash right 93 Berlin” and then-Tigers’ offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher makes the call.
One receiver (Jerel Myers on this day) to the left. Three receivers (the speedy Henderson, Clayton and Reggie Robinson) to the right.
Randall is supposed to roll right and loft it towards the trio of receivers. Robinson’s job is to tip the ball to Clayton, who’s the closest to the goal while Henderson speeds along the backside.
But as Randall launches his throw, all the receivers are out of position. And stunningly, Randall’s throw (68 yards in the air) overshoots Robinson and Clayton, and then caroms off the fingertips (in order) of Kentucky defenders Quentus Camby, Morris Lane and Earven Flowers before settling into Henderson’s hands at the Kentucky 18.
Somewhat, stunned, Henderson juggles the ball for three yards, shakes off one last tackle attempt by Kentucky’s Derrick Tatum and cruises into the end zone for a game-winning 75-yard TD that it equally stuns Kentucky students and the Jefferson-Pilot network.
Kentucky’s students, thinking they’d won, storm the field ready to tear down the goal posts. Jefferson-Pilot immediately flashes a final score that read, “Kentucky 30, LSU 27.”
Even though Henderson is now a starting wide receiver for the New Orleans Saints and won a Super Bowl ring two years ago, he’ll never forget the play called “The Bluegrass Miracle” that won a 2003 ESPY Award as the best play in all of sports that year.
“We practiced that play all year in practice and it never worked,” Henderson recalled. “So when I’m lining up for it I’m thinking `Let God be with you.’
“I just put my head down and started running. After the ball was tipped and tipped and tipped, I reached out and it fell in my hands. I couldn't really see the goal. All I could see was Kentucky fans."
Kentucky’s Morriss said he looked at the play just once the following day. Apparently, it was enough.
"I watched the film and got it out of my system pretty quickly," Morriss said. "You're thinking, 'If it has to come down to that, we're on the right end of that deal.' You may line up and throw that thing a thousand more times and not complete it. It just didn't go our way.
"It's like a rock skipping across the pond.”
LSU, 16, Tennessee 14, October 2, 2010, Baton Rouge, La. – How many times does a football center make the game-deciding play?
Once. When he snaps the ball in panic mode, realizing the clock is about to run out to end the game with his team losing. And by snapping it, he forces the referee to call a penalty on the opposing team for having too many men on the field, giving his team one more play in the shadow of the opposing team’s goal line.
“I would love to say I was smart enough to realize Tennessee had 13 players on the field and I snapped the ball,” LSU center T-Bob Hebert said, “but I wouldn’t be telling the truth.”
Hebert happened to be right in the middle of the chaos against Tennessee last season. It starts with LSU trailing 14-10. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson is stopped for a 1-yard gain at the Vols' 1 on second down with 28 seconds left to play and the clock running. LSU has no time outs.
And the clock is running and running and running. Here’s the viewpoint from all involved parties:
LSU coach Les Miles: "The issue becomes as soon as you're without time outs, you know the only way you can stop the clock is to clock it. That discussion should have taken place really before the down and distances. In other words, as soon as it becomes first-and-goal at the 2.
“So we had our goal-line personnel in and so did Tennessee."
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley: “They (LSU) line up and it looks like they're going to clock it, and then it looks like maybe they're going to run another play, So we call our goal-line (defense). The players are locked into the play.
"The clock's ticking. And then at about 15 seconds, they change. They run their personnel on.
Miles: “We decided to switch and go with a three-receiver grouping. We got our goal-line grouping off the field and Tennessee didn't."
Dooley: “They get their sub package in, and we have to match personnel. We can't have goal-line people trying to cover their receivers. So we go to base. We begin to run our base on. At 9 seconds, the umpire steps over the ball. At 7 seconds, he steps away. A couple of guys are still getting out there. At 6 seconds, center goes down, snaps it at 3, and we don't get our (two extra) guys off the field.”
Hebert: “I saw the clock running down and I had to snap it.”
Hebert doesn’t care that Jefferson, lined up to take a shotgun snap, isn't looking at him, because he’s looking at the LSU bench. Hebert knows that if he doesn’t snap the ball, the play doesn’t get off and the game is over.
And even though Tennessee falls on Hebert’s loose snap for an 18-yard loss to the 19, setting off a Vols victory celebration since the final horn had sounded, the officials correctly call an illegal substitution penalty on Tennessee for having 13 players on the field.
Said Jefferson, "I thought the game was over. But once I saw the (penalty) flag, I knew we would punch it in."
Which LSU did on the next play with Stevan Ridley running over a Tennessee defender for the game-winning one-yard TD.
Mikes said earlier this week that he and his team learned from last year’s frantic finish against the Vols.
“We made some changes the week after last season's game so that situation won't happen again,” Miles said. “We work on it all the time anyway. In a normal week, we work on two-minute drill on Monday and Thursday. During our two-a-day package it's the first series that goes in so we work on it a lot anyway."
Said Hebert, “I hope I never have to go through an ending like last year’s game again. You think the game is over and you’ve lost, and then you have to snap back into game mode. We sat in the locker room after that game looking at each other and saying, “We won?”