- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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Think of a football game as a movie. Not movies that depict football games, such as "Friday Night Lights" or "Any Given Sunday" or even "Horse Feathers," the Marx Brothers vehicle that spoofed the ills of recruiting nearly a century ago.
(Groucho as university president: "And I say to you gentlemen that this college is a failure. The trouble is we're neglecting football for education.")
No, the game is a movie. The touchdowns are the stars, the plays that the ticket-buying public paid their $10 to see. In the public eye, touchdowns make the game, just as stars make the movie, especially today, when movies rarely get made without stars.
The plays that set up the touchdowns are the supporting roles. They support the stars, as in, the stars would be unable to stand without them. Every once in a while, the supporting actors steal the movie: Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in "The Fighter," Robin Williams in "Good Will Hunting," Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas," Jennifer Hudson in "Dreamgirls." Without them, the movie wouldn't make the impact it does.
With that in mind, we are here to nominate the best actors in supporting roles -- not the plays that produced the touchdowns that won the game, but the plays that led to the touchdowns that won the game, or stopped the touchdowns that would have won the game, or the plays that didn't produce points but won the game anyway.
Many of the plays take place on fourth down in the fourth quarter, adding a touch of drama and a dollop of desperation. Almost all of them carry a wallop: the element of surprise or importance or whimsy -- or all of the above.
Texas stunned Arkansas in the 1969 showdown because Longhorns coach Darrell Royal had the guts to tell quarterback James Street to throw deep on fourth-and-3 at the Texas 43. Tight end Randy Peschel caught the 44-yard pass and became a legend. Texas won on the road 15-14 and went on to the national championship.
Four years later in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame pulled a similar stunner. On third-and-9 from the Notre Dame 3, clinging to a 24-23 lead over Alabama, Irish quarterback Tom Clements threw deep to tight end Robin Weber for a 35-yard gain and the first down that iced the victory and the national championship. Weber, a sophomore reserve on that squad, sells signed prints of the play on the Internet.
Texas ended No. 3 Nebraska's hopes of a third consecutive national championship in the 1996 Big 12 championship game with an equally stunning fourth-down pass. On fourth-and-inches at the Texas 29, with the Longhorns leading the Huskers 30-27, Texas coach John Mackovic decided not to punt. But he also didn't line up and try to move the chains.
As the Longhorns lined up, Brent Musberger told the television audience, "No question what's about to happen." Well, no.
Quarterback James Brown rolled to his left and floated a pass to Derek Lewis, who had gotten 5 yards behind the unsuspecting Nebraska secondary. Lewis rumbled 61 yards to the Nebraska 10, and Texas scored on the next play to win, 37-27.
The most recent example took place in 2005. With No. 1 USC trailing at Notre Dame 31-28, Matt Leinart's fourth-and-9 pass to Dwayne Jarrett gained 61 yards to the Irish 13. The magnificent execution of the play got lost in the controversy over the Bush Push, Leinart's quarterback sneak for the touchdown that gave the Trojans a 34-31 victory and extended their winning streak to 28 games.
Special teams provide plenty of great supporting roles. One of the greatest trick plays of all time, the puntrooskie that Florida State sprang at Clemson in 1988, makes this list only because LeRoy Butler's 78-yard run with the fake punt ended a yard short of the Tigers' end zone. The Seminoles kicked a field goal to win 24-21.
You could build an entire wing of this online museum dedicated to the two-point conversion, which didn't come into existence until 1958. Given that the sport is 142 years old, the two-pointer barely has reached middle age.
The two-point conversion catapulted Boise State among the sport's national powers when the Broncos used a Statue of Liberty play in overtime to defeat Oklahoma 43-42 in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
Without the two-point conversion, Miami would have two fewer national championships. The Hurricanes stopped Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the 1983 title. Four years later, Miami stopped Florida State on a two-point conversion to win 26-25. The teams went on to finish the season 1-2.
Too many of the plays that led to the memorable touchdowns are all but lost to history, or known only to the fans of the teams that played. Prime example: If BYU defensive back Bill Schoepflin hadn't blocked an SMU punt with 13 seconds to play, Cougars quarterback Jim McMahon would have had to throw a much longer Hail Mary to win the 1980 Holiday Bowl.
Thanks to Schoepflin's block, BYU took possession on the SMU 41. From there, McMahon threw to Clay Brown with no time remaining, concluding a 20-point comeback. The Cougars won 46-45.
There is no more celebrated goal-line stand than Alabama's stop of Penn State in the fourth quarter of the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Crimson Tide linebacker Barry Krauss knocked Nittany Lions fullback Mike Guman back at the top of his leap. Alabama fans remember just as clearly the tackle by defensive back Don McNeal of wide receiver Scott Fitzkee on second down. Fitzkee caught the ball at the 1 but never got to turn his shoulders into the end zone because McNeal drove him parallel to the goal line and out of bounds.
In 1946, Notre Dame back Johnny Lujack made the greatest play of the greatest game ever played without a touchdown. Lujack, the last man between Army fullback Doc Blanchard and a touchdown, tackled Blanchard at the Irish 37 after a 31-yard gain, a future Heisman winner (1947) stopping a past one (1945). The Irish and the Black Knights played to a 0-0 tie.
The fans of the defending national champion have their own favorite non-scoring play, when Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter caught Alabama tailback Mark Ingram from behind and punched the ball out of Ingram's left hand. The ball tightroped down the sideline 19 yards in a line straighter than a Baptist preacher and into the end zone, where corner Demond Washington recovered it, giving the Tigers possession. Auburn eventually came back from a 24-0 deficit to beat its archrival 28-27.
Then there's Roy "Wrong Way" Riegels of California, who picked up a Georgia Tech fumble in the 1929 Rose Bowl and ran toward his own goal line. Teammate Ben Lom chased him down and turned him around, but the Yellow Jackets tackled him at the Cal 1. Cal tried to punt out of trouble on the next play, but Georgia Tech blocked it out of the end zone for a safety, providing the margin in an 8-7 victory.
Riegels might be the ultimate example of the supporting actor who overshadowed the star.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
In some games, the plays that led to the touchdowns that won the game, or stopped the touchdowns that would have won the game, or the plays that didn't produce points but won the game anyway are the real stars.