Photo: Matt Cashore / USA Today Sports

7 Season Changing Plays

Five weeks from today, we’ll be recapping the first full Saturday of college football. No matter which college campus you visit, it’s easy to feel the excitement in air.

Are you ready?

Just in case you’re still in Major League Baseball mode, here is a list of seven season-changing plays to get you fired up about college football.

7 – Ed Reed’s Strip Six (Miami at Boston College, 2001)

Yes, it’s true that this one might not belong on the list. Even if the Hurricanes had lost this contest, they probably would have played in the BCS title game at the end of the 2001 season.

Of course, the now-defunct system had a knack for getting things wrong. A potential BC upset might have knocked Miami down just far enough in the human polls to keep the Hurricanes out of the BCS National Championship Game, which was the 2002 Rose Bowl.

Fortunately, the ‘Cane defense eliminated any potential debate by coming up with a timely play. With just 30 ticks left on the clock, Boston College had moved the ball to the Miami 9-yard line. As Brian St. Pierre dropped back to throw a quick slant over the middle, defensive lineman Matt Walters intercepted a tipped pass. After he’d lumbered down the field for 11 yards, Reed alertly stripped the ball from his teammate and raced 80 yards for the backbreaking score.

This heads-up play kept the Hurricanes undefeated, propelling them to a crystal football under first-year head coach Larry Coker.

6 – Sirr Score (1998 Big 12 Championship Game, Texas A&M vs. Kansas State)

The only thing Bill Snyder hasn’t done during his successful tenure in Manhattan is to take the Wildcats to the BCS National Championship Game.

It nearly happened in 1998. After Texas A&M erased a 15-point fourth quarter deficit, it looked like Kansas State had the upper hand in overtime. After all, the Aggies — trailing by a field goal — needed a touchdown to win, and were faced with a difficult 3rd and 17 at the KSU 32.

That’s when lightning struck. Just trying to pick up a few yards to set up a makeable field goal for a tie, A&M quarterback Branndon Stewart fired a quick slant to Sirr Parker. Parker managed to make a defender miss, stretching a 12-yard gain into a championship-winning score.

The loss not only knocked K-State out of the top spot, it kept the Wildcats out of a BCS bowl game.

5 – Notre Dame’s Goal Line Stand (Stanford at Notre Dame, 2012)

Perhaps the most controversial play on this list, it’s definitely one of the most memorable.

Let’s be honest: Not everyone actually agreed that the Irish kept Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor out of the end zone. In fact, two of The Student Section’s editors wrote a scathing piece about how Taylor crossed the goal line.

For the record, I was not one of them (scroll all the way to the bottom :) ).

Here’s how it all went down. Faced with a 4th and goal inside the Irish 1, the Cardinal handed off the ball to Taylor, who ran behind the right side of the line. After he was hit behind the initial line of scrimmage, Taylor kept his legs moving, and kept fighting towards the end zone.

As commentator Mike Mayock correctly points out in this clip, no one knows when the official(s) blew the whistle. Only the players on the field know for sure what happened.

However, after instant replay failed to overturn the call, Notre Dame remained undefeated and ultimately played Alabama for the national championship.

Had the call gone the other way, it might have been the Cardinal facing the Crimson Tide for all the marbles.

4 – Dyer’s Remarkable Run (2011 BCS National Championship Game)

While most coaches will tell you that one play doesn’t determine who wins the national championship, they would probably make an exception in this case.

With Auburn and Oregon tied at 19 with just 2:07 to play and the BCS title on the line, Michael Dyer took a Cam Newton handoff and appeared to be stopped at the Auburn 46.

But, he wasn’t down. Realizing that he hadn’t heard the whistle, Dyer got off an Oregon defender and raced to the Duck 23. This alert play set up the winning field goal, and gave Auburn its first (official) national championship since 1957.

3 – The Miracle at Jordan-Hare (Georgia at Auburn, 2013)

With all due respect to the “Kick Six” – one of the most exciting walk-off TDs of all time – this play was the one that saved Auburn’s season. Without it, the Iron Bowl would have been just for pride.

In perfect candor, it looked like the Tigers were going down in this one. Known more for its vaunted running game than its passing attack, Auburn faced an impossible 4th and 18 with just 25 seconds to play. Nick Marshall chucked the ball as far as he could, attempting to hit Ricardo Louis, who was double covered by Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews. Harvey-Clemons accidentally knocked a potential pick from Matthews’ hands, inadvertently deflecting the rock to Louis, who took it to the house for the deciding score.

As a result of the play, Auburn remained in the SEC West race, setting up a winner-take-all contest with Alabama in the Iron Bowl. You know the rest of the story.

2 – Kenny Wheaton’s Pick Six (Washington at Oregon, 1994)

This play is near the top of the list because it put the Ducks on the map.

Back in the mid 1990s, Washington was the team to beat in the Pac-10. While Oregon had a 24-20 lead in this contest, the No. 9 Huskies were driving for the game-winning score. With just 1:05 remaining in regulation, UW quarterback Damon Huard fired an out route to what he thought was open man. Instead of making the tackle and keeping the receiver in front of him, Wheaton — an Oregon cornerback — jumped the route, and took an interception 97 yards the other way for a score.

This exciting turn of events – dubbed the “Most Improbable Finish To the Football Game” – put the Ducks in the driver’s seat in the Pac-10 race. Oregon would go on to win the conference, and play in its first Rose Bowl since 1958.

More importantly, the victory let the entire conference know that the Ducks were a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12).

1 – Flea Kicker (Nebraska at Missouri, 1997)

The true sign of a season-changing play is how it affects the teams in the game. In this case, the outcome of a single play impacted all of college football since it resulted in a split national championship.

Of course, the hotly debated “Who’s No. 1?” question almost never happened. Missouri had grabbed a 38-31 lead with 4:39 to play. Faced with a 3rd and 10 from the Missouri 12, Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost fired across the middle for wingback Shevin Wiggins. The ball hit Wiggins in the chest, and looked like an incomplete pass. However, after the ball touched a Tiger defender, Wiggins kicked the ball up the air, keeping the play alive. Husker receiver Matt Davison alert caught the ricochet, putting the team within a PAT of overtime. Nebraska would convert the PAT and go on to win the game in overtime, 45-38.

While Tom Obsorne’s squad dropped to No. 2 after this controversial finish, the fact that the Cornhuskers came through this game unblemished would propel them to an undefeated season. After thrashing a Peyton Manning-led Tennessee team 42-17 in the Orange Bowl, Nebraska convinced enough coaches the elevate Big Red to the top spot over unbeaten Michigan. To this day, Wolverine and Husker fans still argue about which squad had the better team.

Terry P. Johnson

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.

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