December 27, 2011
The best (and worst) of the season. Today: The year's most improbable, thrilling and landscape-shifting rallies.
5. Nebraska 34, Ohio State 27.
In a battle of competing "collapse" memes, was beginning to look like an even less salvageable pile of rubble than Ohio State's offense: One week removed from a rock-bottom effort against Michigan State, the Buckeyes rallied to a 20-7 lead at the half behind freshman quarterback Braxton Miller, and tacked on another touchdown early in the third quarter.
All a ruse, of course, an elaborate prank designed by some puckish gridiron deity in search of a new way to smite the Buckeyes' last remaining shreds of hope. Step 1: Miller fumbles midway through the third quarter, setting up Step 2: A quick, two-play Nebraska touchdown drive to cut the lead to 27-13. Step 3: Miller leaves the game with an ankle injury, forcing the Buckeyes to turn to senior Joe Bauserman to preserve the lead. Step 4: Nebraska profits.
After Miller's exit, Ohio State's final four possessions of the night went Punt, Punt, Interception, Punt. Bauserman finished 1-of-10 passing for 13 yards with a sack and an interception. On the other side, the Cornhuskers embarked on three touchdown drives covering 82, 72 and 78 yards, respectively, for the lead. Down 34-27 and facing 4th-and-11 with a little over four minutes to play, the Buckeyes punted and never touched the ball again. Bauserman wouldn't touch the ball again the rest of the season.
4a. Clemson 56, Maryland 45.
Undefeated season on the line, Clemson trailed the flailing Terps by 18 points early in the third quarter, 35-17. At which point the curtain went up on the Sammy Watkins Show: Clemson's freakish freshman hauled in two touchdown passes from quarterback Tajh Boyd on the Tigers' next three possessions, the second cutting Maryland's lead to 38-35 going into the final frame.
After falling behind on another Boyd touchdown pass (this one to Jaron Brown) early in the fourth, the Terps responded with an extended 13-play, 66-yard drive to retake the lead, 45-42, and the momentum on a 32-yard pass from C.J. Brown to Matt Furtsenburg — Watkins' cue to slam the door shut on an 89-yard sprint to the end zone that put the Tigers up for good on the ensuing kickoff.
Watkins finished with 345 all-purpose yards — the best single-game total in the ACC this season — and Clemson's undefeated season lasted another two weeks before going off the rails at Georgia Tech.
4b. N.C. State 56, Maryland 41.
Fresh from an inexplicable blowout over Clemson, N.C. State needed one more win on the final weekend of the regular season to secure a bowl game, and possibly to save coach Tom O'Brien's job. Duly motivated, they went out and promptly fell into a 34-14 halftime hole against the worst team in the conference. A 46-yard touchdown run by Davin Meggett extended Maryland's lead to 41-14 in the third quarter, and seemed to put the Wolfpack's tortured postseason hopes out of their misery.
N.C. State's response: Six unanswered touchdowns in the final 22 minutes of the game, including three from the arm of quarterback Mike Glennon and a clinching interception return by C.J. Wilson with a minute to go. The Wolfpack went on to the Belk Bowl, O'Brien will continue to receive a steady paycheck and Maryland limps into a long, cold offseason on a 10-game losing streak against I-A/FBS opponents.
3a. Oklahoma State 30, Texas A&M 29.
3b. Arkansas 42, Texas A&M 38.
3c. Missouri 38, Texas A&M 31 (Overtime).
3d. Kansas State 53, Texas A&M 50 (Triple Overtime).
3e. Texas 27, Texas A&M 25.
Texas A&M lost six games this season, five of them coming by a combined 17 points, four of those five coming down to the last snap of the game. In all five, the Aggies held at least a two-score lead in the second half: By 17 points over Oklahoma State (20-3); by 18 points over Arkansas (35-17); by 11 points over Missouri (28-17); by 10 points over Kansas State (31-21); and by 9 points over Texas (16-7). In all five, they yielded at least 17 unanswered points en route to defeat.
A win in any one of them would have meant a winning record on the year, and might have kept coach Mike Sherman from facing the axe on the heels of the last-second loss to Texas. Instead, Kevin Sumlin arrives from Houston next year to lead A&M into the SEC with a major chip on its shoulder.
2. Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (Double Overtime).
For Iowa State, a program that hasn't won a conference title since 1935, has never won ten games in a season and has only finished in the final polls twice, dropping the No. 2 team in every major poll on national television — to secure bowl eligibility, no less — is arguably the historical peak of Cyclone football. Pulling it off as a 27-point underdog, behind a redshirt freshman quarterback making just his third career start at the helm of the lowest-scoring attack in the Big 12, after facing a 24-7 deficit in the third quarter, only sweetens the title.
Somehow, Jared Barnett rallied the Cyclones from the 17-point hole in the third to tie the game in the fourth, courtesy of a 7-yard touchdown pass to Albert Gray. Meanwhile, the defense held the point-a-minute Cowboys to a season-low 24 points in regulation while forcing a season-high five turnovers, the last one an interception off Heisman frontrunner Brandon Weeden in the second overtime. It was Weeden's third pick of the night, overruling 476 yards and three touchdowns from his right arm to seal his team's fate.
Three plays later, tailback Jeff Woody crossed the line for the winning touchdown, and the current coursing through Jack Trice Stadium spilled onto the field to commemorate both the highest-ranked victim in Iowa State history and utter chaos in the BCS standings. I hope Alabama at least sent a fruit basket to Ames for Christmas.
1. Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31.
Michigan opened the fourth quarter down 24-7, and the first three quarters probably hadn't been that close. Within five minutes the Wolverines had scored two touchdowns to cut the score to 24-21, setting up the wildest finish of the season.
Notre Dame responded to the threat by driving inside the Wolverine 10-yard line for what looked like an icing touchdown until a freak fumble by quarterback Tommy Rees gave the ball back with the ND lead still teetering at three points. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson promptly returned the favor by lobbing up an interception on the other end. The next time he touched the ball, though, Robinson took the Wolverines 79 yards in five plays for a go-ahead touchdown, a 21-yard screen pass to Vincent Smith with 1:22 to play. Rees responded with a four-play, 46-yard drive for what looked like the winning touchdown, a 29-yard strike to a wide open Theo Riddick that pushed the score to 31-28 with 36 seconds to go. Then it got crazy.
Here, instead of merely covering poorly, Notre Dame subsequently failed to cover Wolverine receiver Jeremy Gallon at all, incredibly freeing him for a 64-yard sprint to the Irish 16-yard line with eight seconds left for a) A couple shots into the end zone for the winning touchdown; b) A shot at a short field goal to tie; or c) A confused catastrophe that left 110,000 people contemplating mass hara-kiri. With every one of those people secretly fearing c), Robinson delivered the dagger: A 16-yard lob to Roy Roundtree to finish a rally simulcast from a 16-year-old's X-Box.
The loss was Notre Dame's third straight against Michigan on a death-defying touchdown in the final 30 seconds, and arguably the worst of the lot. The Irish not only blew a 17-point lead in a matter of minutes — and not only blew it again in the closing seconds — but for the second week in a row, they blew it with three turnovers inside the red zone. At 0-2, ND was effectively eliminated from the BCS picture; at 2-0, the Wolverines remained eligible for everything.