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One of the wildest endings in football history, explained by the winning coach

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Three untimed downs, a near kick six, and more.

Old Dominion / Silas Walker

With 12 seconds to go, Old Dominion trailed WKU by a touchdown.

With nine seconds to go, the score was tied as ODU kicked off.

And then one of the strangest football endings ever happened.

Seeking a better sense of how it happened, SB Nation talked with ODU head coach Bobby Wilder on Sunday evening.

A WKU touchdown gave the Hilltoppers what figured to be a decisive lead with 1:37 left.

Old Dominion, 1-6 with an offense that ranked around 80th in yards per play, would have to drive 79 yards in 1:32 after an underwhelming kickoff return following the TD.

The Monarchs did. Their tying drive was a journey through football Narnia. Their first play was a completion for a loss of 1 yard. The second was a false start, because while the Monarchs rushed to the line, a receiver got lost and never stopped moving.

ESPN

ODU moved the sticks with a 3-yard run on fourth-and-2 after a tipped Blake LaRussa pass almost became a game-ending pick. The Monarchs spiked the ball at their own 32 with 34 seconds left.

ODU then completed 31-yard passes on back-to-back plays, the first to Keion White and the second to Isaiah Harper. (Remember Harper as you scroll down this page.) LaRussa then threw a 6-yard touchdown to Travis Fulgham.

The rest of this post is about how ODU won in regulation without going for 2.

With nine seconds left, ODU ran a pooch kickoff into what Wilder said was a 30-mile-per-hour wind gust.

WKU needed 30 or 40 yards in eight seconds just to try a prayer field goal to win. And with ODU in a prevent defense, it almost happened.

On the first play, WKU running back Garland LaFrance got the ball on what Wilder calls a “very basic inside zone play.” Normally, that gets bottled up quickly.

“We had our defensive line in, but then we had our linebackers at 15 yards, and we had all of our defensive backs at about 40 yards,” Wilder said.

LaFrance scampered 15 yards. Timeout, WKU, with two seconds left,

WKU coach Mike Sanford got creative. Instead of a Hail Mary, he called a hook-and-lateral like Boise State once used to beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But it didn’t work, because the receiver who had to catch the pass to start the play dropped it.

ESPN

Wilder figured his guys would’ve tackled whoever had the ball. They didn’t even need to, and that was supposed be the end of regulation.

But the referee flagged ODU nose tackle Pat Toal for a pretty weak-looking roughing the passer behind the play.

This was problematic for the Monarchs in two ways:

  • It created an untimed down. The game can’t end on a live-ball penalty on the defense.
  • It moved WKU up 15 yards, from its own 45 to the ODU 40.

So, out of nowhere, WKU had a 57-yard field goal to win the game. But ODU quickly made a plan.

There are two ways for a block unit to deal with a long field goal attempt. One is to try furiously to block it. Another is to force the kicker to hit the ball on a high trajectory, rather than let him hit a line drive.

ODU decided for the latter against Alex Rinella. The Monarchs had two tall defensive ends — 6’4 Oshane Ximenes and 6’6 Tim Ward — stand behind their tackles. And both jumped straight up, trying to force Rinella to hit a pop-up.

“So immediately through the kicker’s head, he’s thinking, ‘Damn, I’ve gotta get this thing up in the air, or it’s gonna get blocked,’” Wilder said. “All you need is just a little more trajectory on a 57-yarder. Don’t let him drive it, particularly with the wind.”

The jumpers are supposed to move up to the heels of the tackles, then go vertical. They’re instructed not to jump over the line, a 15-yard foul for leaping.

It worked. Rinella’s boot landed 5 yards short of the uprights.

But the game still wasn’t over, because ODU had 12 men on the field.

How the hell do you that? you’re wondering.

Fair question. The short answer: college football is messy. The long answer: ODU didn’t believe WKU would try that long of a prayer field goal instead of just heading to overtime.

“We thinking at that point, ‘There’s no way they’re gonna try a 57-yarder,’” Wilder said. “We’ve still got our prevent in. Then all of a sudden, they run their PAT/field goal unit out on the field, and in the confusion, we ended up with 12 men on the field.”

That gave WKU another untimed down and 5 more yards, setting up a 52-yarder to win. But it also gave Old Dominion time for another plan.

At the Monarchs’ Friday practices, they work on a kick-six play. It’s nothing anyone who watched the 2013 Iron Bowl hasn’t seen before, but ODU has Harper, Conference USA’s 2017 Special Teams Player of the Year. He ran back three kickoffs for touchdowns last year, and the Monarchs have long looked for opportunities to play the lottery with him back deep on long field goals.

“At that point,” Wilder said, “now that we knew, ‘OK, they’re trying to kick a field goal to win it,’ we put in our Harper Special play.”

(Every cool play in 2018 is called the Something Special. Blame the Eagles.)

ODU’s missed field goal return plan is elaborate.

  • The first thing is still an attempt to just block the field goal. But there are no jumpers trying to swat the ball away. The tackles just try to push both guards backward, into the holder. The jumpers are elsewhere in the formation, getting ready for ...
  • ... the second thing, per Wilder: “Our block unit goes to whatever sideline we’re on, and they set a wall on that sideline,” with blockers staggered every 5 yards. Two reasons it has to be the ODU sideline: 1) because the kicking team might absentmindedly jog off to its own sideline, and 2) because it’s easier for blockers to remember which way to run amid the chaos. “It may not seem like much, but in the heat of the moment, when the pressure’s on and the game’s on the line, that’s a lot to ask your players to try to process in that environment,” he said.
  • The third thing: If the kick’s short, Harper catches it and starts running.
The Monarchs build a wall for Isaiah Harper.
ESPN

WKU’s second game-winning field goal try was also short.

Harper had to make one man miss at about the ODU 25. He got a series of blocks that carried him across the 50, the Harper Special working to perfection. He eluded the WKU holder at the Hilltoppers’ 45 and appeared ticketed for a game-ending miracle.

But, incredibly, at around the 20, WKU lineman Mason Brooks — 6’6 and 280 pounds — caught up with Harper. He went out of bounds at the 17, following an 83-yard return.

After all of that, there’d be overtime.

Except the lineman who pushed Harper out of bounds grabbed his face mask. That meant a third untimed down.

Officials assessed it from the 17. If the play had ended there, ODU would’ve had a 35ish-yard field goal for kicker Nick Rice, who’d drained six in a row. But the penalty moved the ball up to the 9, and Rice only had to kick a 26-yarder to win. ODU felt comfortable kicking anywhere from 40 yards and in, Wilder said.

Even the chip shot was difficult, though. Wind was swirling, so much so that both goalposts were swaying. The kicker started the ball toward the right upright, and it still had to sneak inside the left to give the Monarchs a 37-34 win.

“The ball moved at least 10 feet, even on that short of a kick,” Wilder said.

All told, the game had 15 plays in the last 97 seconds, six plays in the last nine seconds, and three plays in the last zero seconds.

The NCAA doesn’t track records along those lines, but let’s just declare this one together: there’s no way all of that has ever happened before.

ODU moved to 2-6. The Monarchs’ two wins are the biggest upset of the season and the wildest finish I have ever seen in my life.

Their defeat of Virginia Tech as 28-point underdogs in Week 4 is comfortably the most shocking point-spread upset of the season.

“This is the craziest 2-6 scenario I’ve ever seen or heard of,” Wilder acknowledged.

“The euphoria after the game, the celebration was identical to Virginia Tech,” he added. “The locker room was identical to Virginia Tech. This one felt different because it happened on the road, it happened against a team we’d never beaten, and it happened in a game where at least a half dozen times in the last 1:32, we could’ve lost.”