Miami beat No. 22 Duke 30-27 on an eight-lateral, 97-yard kickoff return with the clock at triple zeroes. Plays this unbelievable come along once per eon or so.
Miami had a 0.1% chance to beat Duke before last play of game 3rd most improbable comeback over last 10 seasons pic.twitter.com/K17dHEt8ra— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 1, 2015
Miami fans deserve to feel ecstatic after an unreal win. Miami's players were all in the right places. The ball bounced in all the right ways. And the Hurricanes stormed into the end zone for a win one week after the worst loss in program history and the firing of head coach Al Golden.
And Duke fans deserve to feel jobbed. (At least on the game-deciding play, which the ACC has now admitted the officials botched. Duke drew 18 fewer flags than Miami in the rest of the game.) When Cal beat Stanford, there was confusion, but there was also the knowledge nobody could do anything about it. There was just one TV camera pointed at the field, and the concept of video review was decades away. What the refs said was gospel.
On this play, the refs were able to review what happened, and did, spending about 10 minutes looking at every detail. At one point, an official came out to announce their findings ... and announced they weren't ready yet. Eventually, they overturned one bad call, even though they might not have been allowed to overturn it. And they didn't address another error.
"The Return" pic.twitter.com/htqW25kHZZ— Miami Hurricanes (@MiamiHurricanes) November 1, 2015
Duke squibs the kickoff. Dallas Crawford comes up with it at the 25-yard line.
With the clock at zeroes, Miami needs to take the ball to the end zone, and Crawford can't do it by himself. So he tosses it to the other side of the field. Many teams have tried this before, but it almost never works. Miami's name for this play is Desperado.
Lateral No. 1: Dallas Crawford to Corn Elder
Elder tries to take it upfield, but runs into a wall.
He has to retreat, and flips the ball up.
Lateral No. 2: Corn Elder to Jaquan Johnson
The ball takes a hop. Johnson tosses it back.
Lateral No. 3: Jaquan Johnson to Mark Walton
Walton takes the ball upfield, but runs into trouble.
Lateral No. 4: Mark Walton to Jaquan Johnson ... HERE'S WHERE THINGS GET WEIRD
Walton makes the bad decision to run into a gang of Duke defenders.
Walton barely shovels the ball away.
Does Walton's knee touch the ground? Duke fans think so.
Picture from Duke's official website during the return. Hi-res image. pic.twitter.com/5sgHxPEORq— Adam Rowe (@BlueDevilLair) November 1, 2015
So did Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.
Cutcliffe: "The guy was down."— Joe Ovies (@joeovies) November 1, 2015
If Duke fans want to gripe, this is the part they should gripe about. It really, really looks like Walton's knee is down with the ball. (UPDATE: The ACC has now admitted the knee was down, and the Blue Devils should have won.)
So why didn't refs make the call? A couple things to keep in mind:
- The refs didn't have this hi-res photo when they were reviewing. They had the significantly grainier version from the broadcast.
- And just because a guy's knee is down and the ball is touching his hand doesn't mean he's down. If Walton isn't considered to have control as his knee touches the ground, he's not down. We've seen replays in which a guy isn't considered down because the ball is slightly jostling out of his hand, leading to a fumble. Just because this is a lateral doesn't make the standard any different.
So that's why refs might not have ruled him down. That said, his knee looks down.
The ball skips along the ground, and Johnson manages to get it.
Lateral No. 5: Jaquan Johnson to Tyre Brady
Johnson is still being hounded by the same dudes who were hounding Walton. He shovels the ball.
Lateral No. 6: Tyre Brady to Corn Elder
Johnson's lateral bought some time, and Brady has a moment to compose himself and toss it across the field.
You might remember Elder from earlier in the play, about 40 yards upfield. Three times on this play, Elder was smart enough to figure out how to make himself ready for the ball behind the play on the opposite side of the field from the guy with the ball, allowing Miami to switch the field and make things better. This is the second. This is foreshadowing.
Elder works a little bit back to the left sideline, and turns and throws.
Lateral No. 7: Corn Elder to Dallas Crawford
Crawford is ALLLLL the way on the other side, and he's the guy who makes this play.
He makes one guy miss.
And then he winds around long enough that six -- six! -- Duke defenders are huddled around him.
Lateral No. 8: Dallas Crawford to Corn Elder
At this point, Miami is in almost the same position it started in. Look back at the first lateral:
And now here's the last one:
Still Crawford, a high school QB, throwing from the right side, still Elder catching on the left.
The difference? The first time, he was facing a disciplined kicking unit. This time, Crawford is throwing with Duke's defense scrambled after nearly 30 seconds of laterals. There are dudes behind him. There are dudes on the ground.
Miami players said after the game that when they practice this situation, they only do the first lateral and then improvise. What they did here was stay alive long enough to replicate that first lateral: A toss from one talented guy to another on the other side of the field. This play succeeds because Miami was able to get the thing they were trying to set up at the start, but in a much more favorable situation.
This time, Elder has a convoy
"I saw it. I saw it coming," Elder would tell ESPN. "Once I got it, I saw the open lane and I knew something special was happening."
And since Crawford had drawn six defenders to himself, that convoy matches up body-for-body.
David Njoku throws a huge, legal block
Mark Walton makes an unnecessary, possibly illegal block
Remember Walton, the dude whose knee possibly went down earlier? He was almost Miami's goat again. With Elder clear, Walton threw himself at Breon Borders:
The referees flagged this and called it a block in the back. Is it? It looks like Walton gets him from the side.
But the refs ruled it a penalty on the field, and judgment calls like blocks in the back typically aren't reviewable. But the referees reviewed. Eventually, they said this:
This means they overturned the judgment call. How? That's not clear.
There is an "egregious error" rule, which allows refs to change anything, even if it's not typically reviewable. It's the same rule refs used to add a second in the 2009 Big 12 Championship.
But using that rule here seems problematic. Semantically, it's tough to say this error is "egregious." And according to the rulebook, refs technically aren't allowed to use that rule for fouls like this.
The official claimed video review wasn't used to overturn the foul, that they simply picked up the flag after discussion during the midst of this 10-minute long review. That seems weird!
Overall, it's good that the refs chose not to issue an errant flag. That shouldn't have been a penalty, and eventually it wasn't. But the way they went about it seems questionable at best.
More college football for you
A thrilled Miami player sprints onto the field, helmet off, right before Elder gets into the end zone
First of all, no, that's not a penalty that would've changed anything. A player running onto the field that doesn't interfere with the play at all is assessed as a dead ball penalty. And only players on the field are required to have helmets, not guys sprinting onto the field.
Even if the referees had called a penalty on this guy for running on the field, it would not have wiped the touchdown off. But more importantly, you and I and the guy sprinting on the field without a helmet were lucky enough to witness a miracle.
That guy reacted the right way, by losing all sense of time and place and rules and just letting the euphoria carry him. If you're choosing to react by pointing out that his presence 30 yards away from the play for a split-second is worth negating one of the most incredible plays any of us have ever seen, you're reacting the wrong way.
Please use the next few years of your life attempting to track down as many members of the Stanford band as possible and ordering them to apologize to you. It won't do any good, but at least you'll have the satisfaction of letting people know you didn't enjoy the thing everybody else enjoyed.
Except Duke fans. Who can complain about the knee.
* * *
The controversy will not die. Cutcliffe's postgame press conference focused on bad officiating.
"I'm gonna tell you like it is. I thought the guy was down, and I think pictures will prove me right that he was down, if you wanna review it when he lateraled the ball," he said.
Duke will reportedly pursue "answers" from the league.
Duke seeking answers from ACC office. Already. At high levels. Not sure what can or will be done, but don't think this is going unchallenged— Stephen Wiseman (@stevewisemanNC) November 1, 2015
Even if the ACC finds the refs did something wrong, options are limited. It can issue an apology or punish its referees. (UPDATE: The ACC has said the refs made bad calls, and suspended four.) It won't come out and say this game is now a Duke win and a Miami loss, because that would permanently undermine the ability of referees to issue rulings on a football field.
What won't die is the memory of this play. The Michigan State play from a few weeks ago was just a bobble and a bad decision. Last week's Georgia Tech victory was just a blocked field goal and a fast guy. Hell, even the second-most famous game-winning lateral return, the Tennessee Titans' Music City Miracle, was just a single toss.
This took eight tosses, a bushel of luck and refs missing one crucial detail. But it all came through for the Canes, just a week after the program hit rock bottom. Not even wrestling scripts things this unlikely, but in college football, it happens.