Central Michigan just beat a ranked opponent for the first time in 25 years, knocking off No. 22 Oklahoma State 30-27 on a wild lateraled Hail Mary with no time on the clock.
The pass was from Cooper Rush to Jesse Kroll, but it ended up short of the end zone. So Kroll lateraled to Corey Willis, who had a lane across the length of the field and into the end zone for the game-winning score.
It’s definitely the best finish to a game this young season, and a meaningful result in a Week 2 schedule that was widely expected to be a dud. But it only happened because of a well-designed play -- yes, Hail Marys have designs — and a disastrous officiating decision that the referees have acknowledged was a mistake.
The Hail Mary is more organized than you think.
We often imagine because the idea of a Hail Mary is simple, the design is as well. But there’s more to the design than "RUN AS FAR AS YOU CAN AND I’LL THROW AS FAR AS YOU CAN." As my colleague Brian Floyd wrote last year, the Hail Mary is organized chaos.
On this play, Willis' job wasn’t to receive a pass in the end zone. His job was to trail Kroll for situations like this, batted balls and laterals. He probably had a better chance of scoring than a conventional QB-to-WR Hail Mary for a few reasons. For one, it’s hard to accurately toss a ball 50 yards. Cooper Rush has a hell of an arm, but it’s hard.
And on Hail Marys, once the ball goes up in the air, there’s a tendency for the entire defense to collapse around the receiver to break up the play. Oklahoma State did a good job on that: Kroll has four defensive backs swarming around him after he comes down with the catch, and those defenders were ready to drag him down well short of the end zone. But Willis didn’t really have anybody paying attention to him. He had a clean lane to paydirt.
Game-winning touchdowns on Hail Marys are often not actually scored by the intended receiver -- Michigan State’s trailing player was the one who caught the touchdown to beat Wisconsin, and Northwestern’s "Victory Right" play called for a tip.
And of course, Central Michigan used a string of laterals to score a critical late touchdown in the Bahamas Bowl in 2014.
The quarterback there? Cooper Rush. The guy who caught the first ball? Jesse Kroll.
CMU always knew this touchdown wouldn't be scored by the first guy to catch the ball. They'd done it before, and they knew they could do it again.
CMU only got to win the game because of a refereeing mistake
Oklahoma State had the ball with a few seconds left and a three-point lead. It was fourth down, but they correctly figured they could run out the clock instead of punting and potentially giving Central Michigan the opportunity to block the kick or return it for a touchdown.
So they did this:
Mason Rudolph dropped back, waited a second, and just hurled the ball as far as he could as the clock wound to zero. It resulted in a turnover on downs, but that shouldn't have mattered because the game was over.
Except the referees called international grounding -- accurate, the play was clearly intentional grounding. And extended the game by one play, awarding Central Michigan one untimed down -- and that was the wrong decision.
We often see an untimed down when the defense commits a foul on the final play of a half. But what happened here is the team on defense was awarded an offensive down because of a foul committed by the offense on fourth down.
Here’s the official rulebook wording on when referees are supposed to award an untimed down — we’ve highlighted the relevant part.
ARTICLE 3. a. A period shall be extended for an untimed down if...
1. A penalty is accepted for a live-ball foul(s) (Exception: Rule 10-2-5-a). The period is not extended if the foul is by the team in possession and the statement of the penalty includes loss of down.
Intentional grounding includes a loss of down, so the bold words apply. The foul was by the team in possession and the penalty included a loss of down, so the game should have ended.
Perhaps you're confused by the phrase "the team in possession." Oklahoma State was clearly in possession when the foul was committed. But does the turnover on downs make Central Michigan "the team in possession?"
Simply put, no, it does not. The phrase "team in possession" refers to the team that was in possession when the foul was committed, not the team that will be in possession on the play after the foul was committed. When the rulebook wants to say that something applies to the next team to put the ball in play, it specifies that with phrasing like "Team B will next put the ball in play." The rulebook does not do that here.
It's probably not the intent of the rule to allow a team to do what Oklahoma State did: They intentionally committed a foul to take valuable seconds away from Central Michigan. It logically makes sense that after the intentional grounding, Central Michigan should have gotten the ball.
But the rulebook is clear. And the officials clearly made the wrong decision.
FOX rules expert Mike Pereira said on air that he believed that the additional play was added in error. And Tim O'Dey, the referee for the game, said that he talked to the NCAA's national officiating coordinator after the game and came to the conclusion that he added the down in error. And the MAC has admitted the mistake, although they said they will not change the game's result.
Perhaps Oklahoma State shouldn't have committed intentional grounding -- if they'd had a receiver in the area, they would've won, and if they'd simply had the QB run around until the clock expired, they would've won. But they should have been able to depend on the officials to make the right call.
If the refs had followed the rulebook accurately, Oklahoma State would have won. They did not, and as a result Oklahoma State lost. That's about as bad of a refereeing mistake as you can have.
Of course, Oklahoma State could’ve just not allowed a touchdown on the untimed down, and we wouldn’t be talking about this, but, unfortunately for them — and the refs — they did.