The best (and worst) of the season. Today: The plays of the year. Merry Christmas.
10. Morris Claiborne slams the door. LSU's defense dominated every game this year except one, a Sept. 24 trip to West Virginia in which the Mountaineers racked up 533 total yards and had the top-ranked Tigers on the ropes after 90-yard touchdown drive cut the score to 27-21 near the end of the third quarter. For Mo Claiborne, that was close enough:
LSU dominated the fourth quarter in a 47-21 rout, and didn't allow another offense anywhere near three touchdowns the rest of the year. In fact, no other offense over the last nine games even managed two touchdowns.
9. Nebraska breaks out the quadruple option. For coaches and other football nerds, perhaps the most innovative play of the year came via the former standard bearer of the triple option, Nebraska, which befuddled Michigan in November with — count 'em — four different options on a third quarter touchdown run:
On a single play, the Corhuskers give quarterback Taylor Martinez the option of a) keeping the ball himself or b) handing off to tailback Rex Burkhead, based on Martinez's read of the play-side defensive end; if Martinez hands off, Burkhead then makes a second read based on the strong safety, allowing him to c) keep the ball himself or d) pitch to Ameer Abdullah on the outside. Michigan played the first three options perfectly. The fourth? Who's ever heard of a fourth?
Unfortunately, that was the only ace Nebraska had to play in a 45-17 shellacking.
The Gamecocks were outgained by more than 100 total yards in that game and generated just two touchdown drives to Georgia's five. But who needs offense when the defense and special teams are perfectly capable of manufacturing points of their own? Between Ingram's 68-yard rumble on the fake punt, Antonio Allen's 25-yard interception return in the third quarter and Ingram's second touchdown in the fourth — on a recovery of a fumble created by Jadeveon Clowney — Carolina manufactured three non-offensive touchdowns in a 45-42 win, and also put the USC offense at the Bulldogs' two-yard line after a long fumble return by cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
For the year, the Gamecocks scored seven touchdowns via defense and special teams, leading the run to a 10-2 finish despite a shorthanded offense that lost its starting quarterback and All-American tailback and finished 74th nationally in total offense. Ingram had three of those scores himself, and consensus All-America honors to show for it.
7. Look ma: One hand! Enjoy this gallery of one-handed gems by Coby Fleener (Stanford), Stedman Bailey (West Virginia), Nelson Rosario (UCLA) and Elvis Akpla (Montana State)?
The most impressive part? All four of those guys had other plays in the running for this list, and one of them actually made it (see below).
6. Michigan State goes deep. If you were scoring at home, the Oct. 22 slugfest between Wisconsin's balanced, high-scoring offense and Michigan State's suffocating, nasty defense ended in a draw. The Spartans hounded and hit Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, intercepting him twice, forcing him into a safety and holding the Badgers to a season-low 17 points after three quarters. In the fourth quarter, Wilson reclaimed the pedestal with a pair of long touchdown drives to tie the game at 31 with 1:39 to play. Both left looking a little worse for wear but with reputations intact.
For improbable, dramatic, heartbreaking physics, the Spartans won in a knockout:
Dec. 13: Best Upsets
Dec. 18: Most Overachieving Players
Dec. 19: Best Breakout Players
(Yes, they got the call right.) Wisconsin paid the Spartans back in only slightly less dramatic form in the Big Ten Championship Game, but not until they'd suffered another unlikely bomb at Ohio State that obliterated any lingering shot at a national title.
5. Nelson Rosario goes the full Prothro. In 2005, Alabama receiver Tyron Prothro laid out for an absurd catch in which he somehow pinned the ball against the back of the defender's helmet and hung on for dear life on the way to the ground, creating easily one of the most amazing highlights of all-time. In UCLA's season opener against Houston, Nelson Rosario staged a full-scale reenactment:
Rosario is the only player who appears on this twice (in a positive sense, anyway' see below), and the distinction is well deserved.
4. Joe Adams' pinball punt return. Arkansas' diminutive playmaker is no stranger to making opponents look ridiculous on punt returns, or whatever he happens to be doing at any given moment. But the winding now-you-see-him-now-you-don't runback he broke against Tennessee? Give me a break:
By my count, Adams broke seven tackles in a span of six seconds. But at least the Vols managed to lay a hand on him.
3. Aaron Dobson goes to his backhand. There are one-handed catches, and then there's what Marshall's Aaron Dobson did against East Carolina on Nov. 26, which was — scientifically speaking — impossible:
There's not really anything to add. Just keep watching.
2. Trent Richardson breaks ankles. Speaking of the physically impossible: Alabama lists running back Trent Richardson at 224 pounds. At maximum stride, he can achieve a footspeed upwards of 20 miles per hour. Objects that are that size, moving at that velocity, are not supposed to be able to do what Richardson did to Ole Miss defensive back Senquez Golson at the end of a 76-yard sprint on Oct. 15:
It's bad enough that Richardson broke tackles by Golson and two other unblocked Rebels at the line of scrimmage. That's unfair as a matter of an elite athlete easily outperforming inferior ones. The soft-shoe at the end is unfair as a matter of, like, gravity.
1. Eric Reid comes out of nowhere. Nov. 5. Undefeated, top-ranked LSU at undefeated, second-ranked Alabama. Tie game. Fourth quarter. Momentum firmly in Alabama's favor following one of Richardson's signature stampedes through the Tiger defense. With the ball at the LSU 28-yard line, Alabama decides to go in for the kill on a trick play, a reverse pass from Marquis Maze to tight end Michael Williams, who found himself running free behind the secondary for the first touchdown of the game.
LSU safety Eric Reid, playing man-to-man coverage against a shallow crossing route, wasn't even supposed to be there. But he was, and he turned in the biggest play in the biggest game of the year:
LSU's All-American cornerbacks, Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, could have taken up half this list by themselves. (Don't think I didn't look hard for a place for the Honey Badger's second jaw-dropping punt return in the SEC Championship Game.) But Reid's acrobatic, ad-libbed theft pushed the game to overtime, where Drew Alleman's game-winning field goal sealed the Tigers' place as the No. 1 team in the country and tilted their orbit onto a collision courser with the BCS title game.
Now: What does he have up his sleeve for Jan. 9?
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