For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
"WELL, it was a win ... that’s about all I’ve got."
You can't blame Michigan coach Brady Hoke for being speechless at his postgame news conference, as if he’d just gotten off a roller coaster. UConn certainly wasn't billed as the Top Thrill Dragster, but the Huskies shook up the Wolverines like an old, half-broken down ride that isn’t supposed to knock the breath out of you -- except that it does.
It didn't help that Hoke had to survive a nail-biter over what should have been a pushover opponent just one week earlier. On Sept. 14, Michigan needed a stop on the game’s final play to hold off lowly Akron 28-24. Then college football’s winningest program barely made it out of East Hartford alive, edging the Huskies 24-21. Yes, the same UConn that opened the season with a loss to Towson, an FCS opponent, by 15.
“You can’t give the ball away,” Hoke said, speaking of his team’s eight turnovers in two weeks. “We’ve got a major league problem and we’ve got to fix it, because that’s not going to win you championships.”
Ah yes, championships. By the time an overwhelmingly underwhelming fourth stanza of the 2013 season had finished late Saturday night, no fewer than three would-be BCS contenders nearly had their championship dreams crushed.
How close did they come?
Three yards, one finger and one toe.
At jam-packed Rentschler Field, where UConn welcomed Ray Allen and Derek Jeter and had to bring in more than 2,000 temporary seats to meet ticket demand, the Huskies hassled Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner all night. He threw two interceptions (one tipped) and fumbled away a snap. During one ridiculous five-minute stretch that ended the first quarter and started the second, UConn tied the score 7-7, recovered a botched punt that hit the leg of a member of Michigan’s return team, took the lead at 14-7 and then took the Gardner fumble 34 yards for a TD that made it 21-7.
— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) September 22, 2013
The Wolverines clawed back to take the lead 24-21, but in the closing two minutes, UConn still had a chance to set up overtime or win in regulation. On fourth-and-29 from the Huskies' 33, quarterback Chandler Whitmer had receiver Deshon Fox tracked. The up-and-down Whitmer flicked a beautiful pass and hit Fox in the middle of tight coverage with a safety sliding over in a hurry. That safety, Jarrod Wilson, provided just enough help to drop Fox less than 3 yards short of a first down, which would have put UConn at Michigan's 41 with 1:43 remaining.
Three plays prior to that pass, UConn already had been across midfield, but a pass for minus-2 yards, a false start penalty and a sack for a 12-yard loss had driven Whitmer back into his own territory. Reverse any of those plays, and that fourth down becomes a first down.
“We’ve got an off week to work this out,” Hoke said as he departed for the bus and then the airport. “We’ll take 4-0. But we can’t keep counting on the breaks to go our way.”
Hoke didn’t know it, but he looked and sounded an awful lot like Georgia coach Mark Richt had earlier in the day, lumbering into a postgame presser as though he had sandpaper in his pants.
Anyone who has made a trip to Denton, Texas, recently knows that the North Texas football program has all the potential in the world. It's in a recruit-rich area with sparkling new facilities. But even the staunchest supporter of the Mean Green will tell you that coach Dan McCarney’s players still have a lot of work to do to meet that potential.
Yet there they were, between the hedges, tied 21-21 with the No. 9 Bulldogs in the middle of the third quarter. The rain was beginning to pour. The Mean Green was a team ready to believe and the Dawgs appeared to be a team ready to go home. Then quarterback Aaron Murray led his team on an eight-play, 53-yard drive that he capped with a keeper for the go-ahead score.
“Hey, we’re fine,” he told his teammates. “Just play ball and have fun.”
And they did. In fact, the next drive (12 plays for 95 yards) was even prettier. But it nearly ended in disaster. On second-and-goal from the 4-yard line, receiver Chris Conley ran a picture-perfect, inside-to-outside route and was headed to the right-front pylon as Murray turned and flicked the ball toward the corner. North Texas’s Zac Whittlefield is a great athlete, a converted running back who is now an All-Conference USA candidate at cornerback. He hadn’t bit on Conley’s fake. In fact, he’d used it to set up a great inside move that put him on the goal line between Murray and his target.
Whittlefield had a read on the ball floating toward him and actually appeared to take a quick glance downfield to see the open lane for what could be a 100-yard pick-six. He timed his leap and extended his left arm upward. He swiped and made contact. It wasn’t going to be a pick, but it was definitely going to be batted down. The pass hit three of Whittlefield's fingers -- he needed it to hit one more.
Instead of being slapped to the turf, the ball dropped straight down … and into Conley’s hands. Whittlefield, assuming he'd broken up the pass, was stunned when the Georgia crowd erupted and he turned to see Conley celebrating. Down two scores, the wind out of its sails, the Mean Green lost 45-21 and Georgia’s one-loss title hopes kept floating.
Two nights prior, the coach who pinned that loss on Georgia, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, had also arrived to his postgame Q&A looking as worn out as Hoke and Richt. The Tigers had just survived an unquestionably ugly, 26-14 Thursday night win at NC State.
The initial volley of questions didn’t center on Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd’s accuracy issues (his season-best 64.9% completion rate looked good on paper but not in person) or even the importance of earning the team’s first ACC win and avoiding, for a week anyway, talk of "pulling a Clemson." Instead, reporters immediately asked about one specific play.
Down 13-7, Wolfpack receiver Brian Underwood electrified Carter-Finley Stadium with an 83-yard touchdown reception, setting up a chance to lead the third-ranked Tigers by a point (or more) with 7:31 remaining in the third. But line judge Richard Misner ruled that Underwood had stepped out of bounds at the Clemson 47-yard line. When the whistle was blown, the play was instantly dead, meaning that it couldn’t be reviewed from the replay booth.
Within minutes, ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads had vanished from the NC State press box. He was off to the instant replay booth so he could see all angles of the play. The former back judge knew that, regardless of whether the play could be officially reviewed, he needed to know exactly what it looked like, especially as the ESPN TV booth continued to question the call and NC State fans kept booing every scoreboard replay.
It was a rare instance when freeze frames and replays contradicted one another. Multiple shots seemed to prove that Underwood had stayed in bounds. But at least one appeared to show the right side of his foot barely over the line. In the end, Rhoads explained, even if the whistle hadn’t blown, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to overturn the on-field ruling.
Just three plays later, NC State quarterback Pete Thomas fumbled. Five plays later, Clemson went up 20-7. The Pack never recovered, physically or mentally.
As Swinney took his seat in the press room, he unknowingly spoke for many of his fellow coaches, not to mention thousands of fans, when it came to summing up a gross, sloppy Week 4 filled with mismatches, miscues and malaise from coast to coast. Yes, in the end nearly all of the teams that were supposed to win did. But like Clemson, most of them seemed uneasy, unsatisfied and anxious for Week 5.
“Glad to get that one over," Swinney said. "We can’t load up the buses soon enough.”