SEC: espn the magazine

Week 12: A Tide-turning catch

November, 19, 2013
Ricardo LouisShanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsRicardo Louis is listed fourth (at best) among wide receivers on the Auburn depth chart.
For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our "Story of the Season" double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week's biggest moments and tell you why they'll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.

Throw me the ball.

As Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall looked at his teammates in the huddle, the situation at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday was bleak. To be more specific, it was fourth-and-18 at your own 27 with 36 seconds to go and you’ve just blown a 20-point fourth-quarter lead to Georgia and you’re about to get knocked out of the BCS race bleak.

The play call from first-year coach Gus Malzahn was for Marshall to find sophomore wideout Sammie Coates somewhere in the middle of the field on a dig route. You know, play it in the middle, get the first down, stop the clock and keep marching. After all, Coates had entered the Georgia game ranked second in the nation by averaging nearly 25 yards per catch.

But as the Tigers broke the huddle, it wasn’t Coates who shouted to get his quarterback's attention. "Ricardo Louis looked me in the eye and said, 'Throw me the ball,'" Marshall recalls with crystal clarity.

Wait ... Ricardo Louis?! The same Ricardo Louis who's listed fourth (at best) among wide receivers on the Auburn depth chart? The sophomore who'd had two games with negative receiving yards? And whose only touchdown catch had come against Western Carolina?

Actually, that Ricardo Louis hadn't shown up on this day. The Louis who suited up against Georgia played a pivotal role in the 117th edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. His pair of beautiful, short-side speed sweeps had resulted in 66 yards rushing and set up two Auburn touchdowns. He'd also hauled in 58 yards receiving to that point in the game. Finally, his still-young career, which had been highlighted more by mistakes (such as running into running back Tre Mason on a would-be handoff, squashing a drive and spurring UGA's stunning fourth-quarter comeback), was showing hints of the promise that he'd arrived with from Miami as the No. 21 recruit in the country.

Yes, he was feeling it. And he wanted everyone to know they should take advantage of this suddenly fortuitous night. He'd bugged Malzahn and his staff on the sideline, promising that if they gave him the ball, he'd make a big play. He said the same to teammates. Now he was telling his quarterback.

Hey, it wasn’t that crazy. He was just repeating what he'd already been told.

"I always dreamed about making a great play in a big game," Louis said Saturday night. "Coach Malzahn said at the beginning of the week, he was like, 'Ricardo is due for a great play in a big game!' And he was right."

He was. But as Malzahn watched the play develop after the snap, he wasn't thinking about any midweek premonitions. He was waiting to watch Marshall lob a first-down pass to Coates, who had started in the slot and was open, cutting across the middle. Instead, Marshall cocked his arm and uncorked a much longer pass from his 27 well into Georgia territory.

"I went through all my reads," Marshall said. "[Louis] had a step on the defender, and I had to deliver the ball. He just came out with an awesome catch."

It was not an awesome throw. It was short. So short that not one but two Georgia defenders had a play on it. For the Dawgs' sake, they will always wish it had been only one. The ball went through the hands of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and off the pads of Tray Matthews ... into the hands of Louis ... who ran into the end zone, giving Auburn a 43-38 victory and establishing his place in the annals of War Eagle lore.

So what was the sudden SEC folk hero thinking as the most ridiculous bounce since The Immaculate Reception landed in his gloves? “I thought I was going to drop it ... for real.”

He didn't. What dropped were the heads of the Georgia coaching staff, some of whom collapsed to the turf in disbelief, one last kick in the groin for a team that has experienced a year full of them. Nearly the same reaction probably happened in nearly every corner of the SEC, from Tuscaloosa to both Columbias. Had the ball fallen incomplete -- which it very well might have had it not been touched -- then Alabama would’ve instantly clinched the SEC West and essentially the same thing would've happened for Missouri in the East. And keep in mind that all of this happened when it looked as though Florida might have a chance to beat South Carolina. (That didn’t happen.)

So now the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30 might end up being one of the biggest in the history of the series, with an SEC and perhaps even BCS championship at stake. The Missouri Tigers still have the Gamecocks breathing down their necks with no margin of error against Ole Miss or Texas A&M. (South Carolina is done with its conference slate.) Meanwhile, Auburn’s dream season rolls on and Georgia continues its walk through the haunted house it entered in early October.

Throw in what are suddenly Pac-12 and Big 12 round-robin elimination tournaments, and it’s hard to think of another single play that had such a profound impact on so many current and former BCS hopefuls. Oh, and toss in the fact that Auburn didn't enter the AP Top 25 until Week 8 ... and then the goofiness of the play itself ... and, well ... Mr. Louis?


Yeah, that.

Week 4: Wake-up calls

September, 24, 2013
Byron JonesDavid Hahn/Icon SMIMichigan survived a nail-biting game against what was supposed to be a pushover team.
For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.

"WELL, it was a win ... that’s about all I’ve got."

You can't blame Michigan coach Brady Hoke for being speechless at his postgame news conference, as if he’d just gotten off a roller coaster. UConn certainly wasn't billed as the Top Thrill Dragster, but the Huskies shook up the Wolverines like an old, half-broken down ride that isn’t supposed to knock the breath out of you -- except that it does.

It didn't help that Hoke had to survive a nail-biter over what should have been a pushover opponent just one week earlier. On Sept. 14, Michigan needed a stop on the game’s final play to hold off lowly Akron 28-24. Then college football’s winningest program barely made it out of East Hartford alive, edging the Huskies 24-21. Yes, the same UConn that opened the season with a loss to Towson, an FCS opponent, by 15.

“You can’t give the ball away,” Hoke said, speaking of his team’s eight turnovers in two weeks. “We’ve got a major league problem and we’ve got to fix it, because that’s not going to win you championships.”

Ah yes, championships. By the time an overwhelmingly underwhelming fourth stanza of the 2013 season had finished late Saturday night, no fewer than three would-be BCS contenders nearly had their championship dreams crushed.

How close did they come?

Three yards, one finger and one toe.

  • At jam-packed Rentschler Field, where UConn welcomed Ray Allen and Derek Jeter and had to bring in more than 2,000 temporary seats to meet ticket demand, the Huskies hassled Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner all night. He threw two interceptions (one tipped) and fumbled away a snap. During one ridiculous five-minute stretch that ended the first quarter and started the second, UConn tied the score 7-7, recovered a botched punt that hit the leg of a member of Michigan’s return team, took the lead at 14-7 and then took the Gardner fumble 34 yards for a TD that made it 21-7.

  • The Wolverines clawed back to take the lead 24-21, but in the closing two minutes, UConn still had a chance to set up overtime or win in regulation. On fourth-and-29 from the Huskies' 33, quarterback Chandler Whitmer had receiver Deshon Fox tracked. The up-and-down Whitmer flicked a beautiful pass and hit Fox in the middle of tight coverage with a safety sliding over in a hurry. That safety, Jarrod Wilson, provided just enough help to drop Fox less than 3 yards short of a first down, which would have put UConn at Michigan's 41 with 1:43 remaining.

    Three plays prior to that pass, UConn already had been across midfield, but a pass for minus-2 yards, a false start penalty and a sack for a 12-yard loss had driven Whitmer back into his own territory. Reverse any of those plays, and that fourth down becomes a first down.

    “We’ve got an off week to work this out,” Hoke said as he departed for the bus and then the airport. “We’ll take 4-0. But we can’t keep counting on the breaks to go our way.”

  • Hoke didn’t know it, but he looked and sounded an awful lot like Georgia coach Mark Richt had earlier in the day, lumbering into a postgame presser as though he had sandpaper in his pants.

  • Anyone who has made a trip to Denton, Texas, recently knows that the North Texas football program has all the potential in the world. It's in a recruit-rich area with sparkling new facilities. But even the staunchest supporter of the Mean Green will tell you that coach Dan McCarney’s players still have a lot of work to do to meet that potential.

    Yet there they were, between the hedges, tied 21-21 with the No. 9 Bulldogs in the middle of the third quarter. The rain was beginning to pour. The Mean Green was a team ready to believe and the Dawgs appeared to be a team ready to go home. Then quarterback Aaron Murray led his team on an eight-play, 53-yard drive that he capped with a keeper for the go-ahead score.

    “Hey, we’re fine,” he told his teammates. “Just play ball and have fun.”

    And they did. In fact, the next drive (12 plays for 95 yards) was even prettier. But it nearly ended in disaster. On second-and-goal from the 4-yard line, receiver Chris Conley ran a picture-perfect, inside-to-outside route and was headed to the right-front pylon as Murray turned and flicked the ball toward the corner. North Texas’s Zac Whittlefield is a great athlete, a converted running back who is now an All-Conference USA candidate at cornerback. He hadn’t bit on Conley’s fake. In fact, he’d used it to set up a great inside move that put him on the goal line between Murray and his target.

    Whittlefield had a read on the ball floating toward him and actually appeared to take a quick glance downfield to see the open lane for what could be a 100-yard pick-six. He timed his leap and extended his left arm upward. He swiped and made contact. It wasn’t going to be a pick, but it was definitely going to be batted down. The pass hit three of Whittlefield's fingers -- he needed it to hit one more.

    Instead of being slapped to the turf, the ball dropped straight down … and into Conley’s hands. Whittlefield, assuming he'd broken up the pass, was stunned when the Georgia crowd erupted and he turned to see Conley celebrating. Down two scores, the wind out of its sails, the Mean Green lost 45-21 and Georgia’s one-loss title hopes kept floating.

  • Two nights prior, the coach who pinned that loss on Georgia, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, had also arrived to his postgame Q&A looking as worn out as Hoke and Richt. The Tigers had just survived an unquestionably ugly, 26-14 Thursday night win at NC State.

  • The initial volley of questions didn’t center on Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd’s accuracy issues (his season-best 64.9% completion rate looked good on paper but not in person) or even the importance of earning the team’s first ACC win and avoiding, for a week anyway, talk of "pulling a Clemson." Instead, reporters immediately asked about one specific play.

    Down 13-7, Wolfpack receiver Brian Underwood electrified Carter-Finley Stadium with an 83-yard touchdown reception, setting up a chance to lead the third-ranked Tigers by a point (or more) with 7:31 remaining in the third. But line judge Richard Misner ruled that Underwood had stepped out of bounds at the Clemson 47-yard line. When the whistle was blown, the play was instantly dead, meaning that it couldn’t be reviewed from the replay booth.

    Within minutes, ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads had vanished from the NC State press box. He was off to the instant replay booth so he could see all angles of the play. The former back judge knew that, regardless of whether the play could be officially reviewed, he needed to know exactly what it looked like, especially as the ESPN TV booth continued to question the call and NC State fans kept booing every scoreboard replay.

    It was a rare instance when freeze frames and replays contradicted one another. Multiple shots seemed to prove that Underwood had stayed in bounds. But at least one appeared to show the right side of his foot barely over the line. In the end, Rhoads explained, even if the whistle hadn’t blown, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to overturn the on-field ruling.

    Just three plays later, NC State quarterback Pete Thomas fumbled. Five plays later, Clemson went up 20-7. The Pack never recovered, physically or mentally.

    As Swinney took his seat in the press room, he unknowingly spoke for many of his fellow coaches, not to mention thousands of fans, when it came to summing up a gross, sloppy Week 4 filled with mismatches, miscues and malaise from coast to coast. Yes, in the end nearly all of the teams that were supposed to win did. But like Clemson, most of them seemed uneasy, unsatisfied and anxious for Week 5.

    “Glad to get that one over," Swinney said. "We can’t load up the buses soon enough.”

    ESPN The Magazine