7 plays that altered the course of this college football season

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (“Macarena” recordings sold separately in Colorado, where the Buffaloes are one-hit wonders, going 4-9 to 10-2 to 5-6 the past three seasons):

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Why do coaches preach effort and focus on every single play? Because you never know which one could tip the balance between winning or losing a game — and, ultimately, affect the outcome of an entire season. Some of it is simply luck — the football gods smiling on one team or frowning on another at a key moment. But sometimes it’s one great effort (or one great gaffe) that can end up playing a huge part in shaping the national landscape.

The Dash looks at six plays in particular that have resonated:

Sept. 2: The sack of Deondre Francois (21). The situation: Alabama was on its way to a 24-7 win over Florida State in a heavily hyped season opener in Atlanta when blitzing safety Ronnie Harrison hit the Seminoles quarterback in the legs from behind. The fallout: Francois went down with a left patella tendon injury that ended his season, triggering the beginning of an awful year for FSU. At present the offensively inept Seminoles are 3-6 and in danger of posting their worst record since 1975, the year before Bobby Bowden arrived.

Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison (15) injures Florida State QB Deondre Francois (12) early this season. (AP)
Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison (15) injures Florida State QB Deondre Francois (12) early this season. (AP)

Sept. 3: The non-interception by Texas A&M (22). The situation: UCLA trailed the Aggies 44-24 midway through the fourth quarter in Pasadena when Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen heaved one deep for Darren Andrews. But Aggies defensive back Deshawn Capers-Smith was between the two and appeared to have a fairly easy interception. Yet the ball went right through Capers-Smith’s hands and then directly into Andrews’ arms for a touchdown instead of a game-sealing pick. The fallout: As Fox’s Gus Johnson presciently said on the broadcast after that play, “Uh-oh!” Eight minutes later, UCLA had completed the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NCAA history, which triggered an enormous backlash on embattled A&M coach Kevin Sumlin — including a public call for his firing from a school trustee and racist hate mail to Sumlin’s house. His job might still be in jeopardy if Texas A&M had won that game, but losing that way and the resulting tumult poisoned the season from the start.

Sept. 9: The sideways run by Brandon Wimbush (23). The situation: Notre Dame led Georgia 19-17 midway through the fourth quarter and was facing a third-and-3 at its own 32-yard line. Quarterback Wimbush kept the ball on a run to his left and had daylight for a drive-sustaining first down, but instead inexplicably went east-west at the last instant and was tackled for a gain of two, just short of the sticks. The fallout: Notre Dame punted, and Georgia drove for what would be the winning field goal with 3½ minutes left. With a first down there was no guarantee of an Irish victory, but it would have improved their chances — and an Irish victory would have made them undefeated and Georgia the team with one loss heading into last Saturday. Thus undefeated Notre Dame could have endured a loss and stayed in the national title chase whereas Georgia would have two losses and be all but eliminated from playoff contention.

Oct. 7 and 14: The hero catches of Darrell Langham (24). The first situation: Trailing Florida State 20-17 with time running out, quarterback Malik Rosier threw a sideline back-shoulder pass to Langham, who had just three catches on the season to that point. The fallout: Langham made the catch while heavily covered, turned and fell into the end zone with the winning touchdown with six seconds remaining to keep Miami’s undefeated record intact. The second situation: Again trailing in the final minute, this time against Georgia Tech, Rosier faced a fourth-and-10 and threw to the right sideline for Langham again. The ball was deflected into the air and Langham caught it while falling inside the Tech 15-yard line, keeping the drive and game alive. The fallout: Miami won on a field goal with four seconds left, and today is 9-0.

Oct. 28: The blocked punt by Ohio State (25). The situation: Penn State led Ohio State in Columbus 35-20 with 11:49 remaining. The Nittany Lions were punting, hoping to pin the Buckeyes deep in their own territory. Instead, Denzel Ward rushed unimpeded off the right edge and smothered the punt, giving Ohio State possession in plus-territory. The fallout: The Buckeyes’ first blocked punt in two years turned the game irrevocably in their favor, with J.T. Barrett leading a stirring rally for a 39-38 victory. Without that block, Penn State remains in the playoff chase and Ohio State is out of both the national title and Big Ten title picture. (Coincidentally, it was a blocked field goal last year by Penn State that beat the Buckeyes and propelled the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten championship.)

Nov. 4: The illegal shift by North Carolina State (26). The situation: Facing a fourth-and-10 from the Clemson 28 with 18 seconds left, quarterback Ryan Finley fired a strike for a completion inside the Clemson 5-yard line. But the play was called back on an illegal shift when the Wolfpack wide receivers to the left of the formation could not get set on the line of scrimmage before the snap. Finley was intercepted on the next play to end the game. The fallout: N.C. State still might not have scored, but it would have had a golden opportunity to tie the game and play for the win in overtime. If the Wolfpack had won that game, they would have won the ACC Atlantic and ended Clemson’s bid for a repeat national championship.


Two weeks ago, The Dash offered a list of two-loss teams that could blow up the College Football Playoff. Three of the four have done some damage, as Penn State, Washington and Georgia can attest. But now it’s time to freshen that list for the next two weeks, with extra weight given to teams that will catch highly rated opponents at home:

Michigan (27). Spoiler opportunities: at Wisconsin on Saturday, home against Ohio State on Nov. 25. This is the grand chance for the Wolverines to make something of a disappointing season to date. They’re 8-2, but haven’t beaten anyone of note — not a single one of those eight opponents has a winning record at the moment. Now comes a chance to single-handedly detonate the Big Ten’s playoff hopes, first against undefeated Wisconsin in Madison and then against rival/nemesis Ohio State in the Big House. There isn’t much reason to believe erstwhile third-string quarterback Brandon Peters can lead the Wolverines to enough points in either game, but the opportunity exists — especially if counterparts Alex Hornibrook (interceptions in seven straight games) and J.T. Barrett (four picks against Iowa) beat themselves. Dare to dream, Wolverines.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, center, speaks with quarterback Brandon Peters in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Maryland in College Park, Md., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, center, speaks with quarterback Brandon Peters in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Maryland in College Park, Md., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Auburn (28). Spoiler opportunity: Alabama on Nov. 25. The 8-2 Tigers completed Phase I of their SEC takeover Saturday by routing Georgia in shockingly easy fashion. After what should be a maintenance workout against Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday, it’s time for the Iron Bowl. And as noted in the Dash First Quarter, Alabama’s vaunted defense has been depleted by injury and is showing some vulnerability. Given what running back Kerryon Johnson was able to do to Georgia (167 yards rushing and 66 receiving), Auburn should go into that game with plenty of hope.

South Carolina (29). Spoiler opportunity: Clemson on Nov. 25. After what should be a breather against Wofford on Saturday, the Gamecocks (7-3) can get down to the business of trying to beat their in-state rival for the first time since 2013. It’s worth noting that in those three consecutive losses to Clemson, Deshaun Watson was the opposing quarterback — and he’s not around anymore. That, plus home-field advantage, are two good places to start. But any upset scenario is going to require quarterback Jake Bentley to stop throwing the ball to the other team (five interceptions in the last two games).

Georgia Tech (30). Spoiler opportunity: Georgia on Nov. 25. Another rivalry game, another home-field advantage, and there is the added wrinkle of the Bulldogs having to cram for the Yellow Jackets’ option attack. Tech coach Paul Johnson is only 3-6 against Georgia, but he’s won two of the past three and all but one of those nine meetings has been competitive. He’s also 1-0 against Kirby Smart, winning between the hedges last year. Georgia had better play with more poise than it did at Auburn — both against Tech and this Saturday against Kentucky.