Saturday, Central Michigan beat a ranked Oklahoma State team on a Hail Mary on an untimed down at the end of the game, the most improbable and exciting finish the college football season has given us thus far.
A lot of the dialogue has centered around the critical refereeing mistake that allowed it to take place. The officials misinterpreted the rulebook, and never should have awarded Central Michigan the untimed down in the first place. Pretty much everybody realized this immediately, and even the officials and conferences admitted their error. By the rules of football, Oklahoma State should have won, and Central Michigan should not have even had the opportunity to execute a spectacular game-winner.
But, well, CMU did. You can’t overturn games that have already ended, so Central Michigan is the winner and Oklahoma State is the loser. And because we’ve talked so much about the refereeing mistake, we’ve kinda forgotten that HOLY CRAP THE PLAY WAS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING.
Cooper Rush threw the ball to Jesse Kroll, who caught the ball with four defenders converging on him. He lateraled to wide receiver Corey Willis, who was virtually unguarded and had a lane to run into the end zone.
The Chippewas knew Kroll was the most likely player to catch the ball; he’s 6’3, and he had the best chance to go up and snag a catch with the defense collapsing on him. But they also knew he wasn’t the most likely to score, because the defense knew he’d be an obvious target. It would be easier for him to catch the ball short of the end zone and lateral to a player who wasn’t being hounded by a horde of defenders.
"Pretty much the whole design of it was for me to catch it and pitch it back to [tight end Deon Butler] but that’s about the end of it," Kroll said in 2015. "After that, it was just playing football. Luckily, we were able to get the ball to Titus at the end and he found the goal line."
A Hail Mary isn’t as unplanned as you think. It’s scripted chaos, and in this case, Central Michigan followed the script perfectly.
But it’s not the first time these exact CMU players connected on a preposterous, lateraled Hail Mary touchdown to close a game.
Just two years ago in the inaugural Bahamas Bowl, the Chippewas converted on a similar play. Again, Rush was the quarterback, and Kroll was the person whose job it was to catch and lateral.
That touchdown was to make the score 49-48 after the Chips had trailed 49-14, but they missed a game-winning two-point conversion attempt. I was one of about five American journalists at the game, and it was one of the most incredible sports things I’ve ever experienced. I saw a lot of Central Michigan fans cry out of sheer bewilderment, and that was before the game even ended.
- two times Central Michigan needed a touchdown on the final play of a game,
- two times Rush dropped back and hurled the ball,
- two times Kroll got under it,
- two times he caught it amidst a crowd,
- two times Kroll quickly located his trailer,
- two times he accurately lateraled it while the defensive hordes tried to tackle him
- and two times Central Michigan scored when a touchdown seemed impossible.
I have two pieces of advice to dispense.
The first is for teams playing Central Michigan. If you’re up one score or less with the clock running out, know that they’re going to throw Kroll the ball.
But honestly, it seems like human attempts to stop Kroll from catching the ball will be futile. There can be three, four, five defenders around him, and he’s still going to catch that Hail Mary. So watch the trailing receiver, because he’s the dude who’s actually going to score.
The second is for NFL teams. I know Rush and Kroll aren’t high on your draft boards. Rush is a mid-round prospect, ranked as the seventh-best QB in the 2017 class by CBS. Kroll, despite a 6’3 frame and decent speed, isn’t considered likely to be drafted in any round.
But consider this: Your team is trailing by three points. There’s no time. Do you want the most conventionally talented players on the field? Or do you want Rush, college Hail Mary superstar, and Kroll, who transforms into an 8’7 unkillable Catchmonster when the ball is up in the air with the game on the line?
Rush and Kroll are the Hail Mary-est players in the world. And at some point, your team will need to pull off a Hail Mary. You're also gonna need either Butler or Harris to run it in, so just sign a bunch of Chippewas.