- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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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.
"We play the game to win ..."
Brady Hoke's vocal cords sounded even more tired than usual as the Michigan coach stood at the podium on Saturday afternoon, moments after losing to archrival Ohio State 42-41. His answer was a response to the first question he faced -- and the one he'll keep hearing as his Wolverines trudge through their mid-tier bowl and into a cold Ann Arbor winter.
Going for two instead of kicking the PAT and likely heading to overtime? At home? In the Big House? With your offense performing at a season-best clip? With a chance to shoot down the Buckeyes' chances at a BCS title?
That's the scenario Hoke had presented to his seniors on the Michigan Stadium sideline. He'd left it up to them, though he was quick to absorb all the criticism after the final outcome. They wanted to go for it. So did he. Besides, they had the go-to, two-point play already dialed up. Always did.
From the moment quarterback Devin Gardner stepped into the shotgun position, the play -- like so many others during his amazing 451-yard passing and five-touchdown day -- had looked perfect. In reality, it looked too perfect. On both sides of the football.
Michigan initially lined up with two receivers stacked on the right side, led by 6-foot-5 Devin Funchess, who had just hauled in the touchdown pass that set up the situation. On the left side was the sneaky Wes Welker-like possession artist, 5-10 Drew Dileo. But before the snap, Dileo went into motion and jogged over to take his place behind Funchess and Jeremy Gallon, who already had 175 yards receiving on the day.
The moment Dileo took his position, Ohio State corner Tyvis Powell had to catch himself. He didn't want to reveal what had just popped into his mind, like some sort of heavenly transmission from Woody Hayes ... or at the very least a current OSU position coach.
"It's all thanks to Coach Coombs," said Powell, referring to the Buckeyes' demonstrative secondary coach, Kerry Coombs. Head coach Urban Meyer had let Michigan get set for the two-point try and called a timeout to discuss what the coaches had just seen. Coombs approached Powell, a redshirt freshman, and told him that there was no doubt the Wolverines would run one of two plays. It would either be a speed option, which had already led to a pair of Michigan touchdowns. Or the play would come out of a triple stack ... with Dileo, Powell's man, hiding in the third slot ... as the primary receiver ... running something short ... likely a pivot ... at the goal line ...
"It all started happening just like we'd seen on film and how the coaches said it would," recalled Powell, still sounding a little stunned by it all. But he didn't believe that's how the actual play would go down. It was too obvious, right? Wrong.
Even though Ohio State had four defensive backs guarding three receivers, it was a designed mismatch by Michigan. At the snap, Funchess made contact with Powell and was supposed to either screen him out or draw him into the back of the end zone to help the waiting safety. But Powell didn't bite. His eyes never left Gardner, whose eyes never left Dileo. Funchess had a size mismatch in the back of the end zone, and if Gallon had run a true out instead of a halfhearted block attempt on OSU corner Doran Grant, he would've had room to work on the outside half of the end zone.
But Gardner fired the ball into unexpected double coverage, where Powell stepped in at the goal line and made the interception. (Had he not, Grant was also waiting in front of Dileo, having slipped Gallon's shove.)
"He really threw the ball," said Powell, admitting he was "shocked" to see it come his way. "That's their bread-and-butter play on two-point conversions. All week that's what we practiced."
A couple of hours later, Powell was still gripping the Michigan football in his arms on the team bus. He was still grinning. But now he was watching Alabama play at Auburn on the bus TV. Like the game he'd just played in, this one seemed destined for overtime.
"There was a shot ... we had the wind behind us ..."
If Hoke's voice was hoarse, then Nick Saban's was like the inside of a gravel truck. Like Hoke, the Alabama coach had rolled the dice. Unlike Hoke, Saban's situation -- a 57-yard field goal with no time remaining -- seemed risk-free. Miss and go to overtime.
But what happened next -- Chris Davis' impromptu 109-yard kick return for the game-winning touchdown -- has sparked college football conversations in every corner of America, from stuffed-shirt academia to Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg on Monday morning's "The View."
It should be no surprise that perfection-obsessed Saban routinely addresses that very situation in practice, despite the fact that Saturday night's Miracle on the Plains was, according to the NCAA, only the fourth time a game has ended on a similar play. It should also be no surprise that Saban reminded his team as they took the field (like the Michigan two-pointer, after a timeout) to keep an eye on Davis, who was lining up in the end zone, more than half a field away from the line of scrimmage.
Of course, Auburn practices that play, too. No matter how rare it might be. That was made obvious by the beautiful wall of blockers that lined the left sideline to plow the road for Davis. At least three pancake blocks took place in Davis' line of sight. But while all that was going on, we all should have been paying more attention to the cornerback's left foot, which came within inches of stepping over the line and out of bounds at the 35 ... the 40 ... the 45 ... and pretty much every yard in between.
It was so close that a group of bitter Tide fans posted what they believe is photographic evidence that he did step out of bounds, along with a petition to have overtime played.
"It was closer than I thought," admitted Davis, who carried his game-winning football all the way home, just like Powell. "But I knew I was in."
Davis' white-line ballet was reminiscent of so many other moments in so many games this season that came down to inches. (Remember that missed Missouri field goal against South Carolina in double-OT? How much more interesting would the SEC title game be had it gone the other way?)
But as Lou Holtz reminds us each weekend on "College Football Final," every team that wins a national championship has to have one game in which they're lucky. Auburn now has two. Ohio State, on the other hand, hasn't needed much this year, at least not until Michigan.
Still, for these two teams to meet in Pasadena, Calif., in January, it will require ... lots more luck. They'll need Duke (perhaps second only to Auburn when it comes to 2013's out-of-nowhere teams) to work some magic in Charlotte, N.C., against Florida State. And they'll both need to make sure they aren't on the wrong side of luck in their respective conference title games.
But regardless of what happens this weekend, Tyvis Powell and Chris Davis will never have to buy another lunch in their home states. And Powell will always have his football. Davis is still searching for his.
He dropped it after crossing the goal line during the celebration. The last time anyone saw it, it was at the feet of fellow defensive back Robenson Therezie, one of Davis' escorts into the end zone, who stood over it signaling for a touchdown as the crowd started flooding the field. At one point it was thought that it had been retrieved and Davis was even handed a football that was believed to be the one. But it was not.
A crystal football in January would be a nice substitute.
— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) December 1, 2013
4dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough