Jarvion Franklin hollered up at the offensive linemen standing over him Saturday night in Buffalo with an important question. He lay flat on his back in Western Michigan’s end zone, having just scored his third touchdown on his 37th carry of a game he’ll never forget.
“Yo,” he gasped. “Is it over? Is it over?”
The Broncos’ record-setting 71-68 victory over Buffalo was, his linemen confirmed, finally over after seven full overtime periods. The two teams combined for the most points ever scored in a college football game and tied the mark for the most overtimes ever played -- not that many on the Western Michigan sideline had any clue how long they had been playing or even kept track of whether Buffalo had a chance for yet another rebuttal by the time the disorienting marathon came to a close. Franklin wasn’t sure either.
First-year head coach Tim Lester said he couldn’t tell from his viewing angle if Franklin had clearly crossed the goal line on the play. He corralled his team on the sideline until the referee confirmed the game had ended. By that time, there wasn’t a whole lot of stamina left for a raucous on-field celebration.
“Honestly,” Lester said. “If you would’ve (asked me after the game), ‘How many overtimes did you play?’ I would’ve said five.”
A day later, he was still replaying in his head a game that included more than 1,300 yards of total offense, two missed field goals that could’ve ended things, two quarterbacks catching touchdown passes and at least one viral video moment. “Everything that could happen happened,” he said.
Franklin said he and most of his teammates didn’t learn they had played seven extra frames until they arrived at the team bus and someone with a tome-sized box score filled them in. By then, the rest of the team was already buzzing about the thousands of retweets and social media likes that were adding up on the video of the game’s most memorable play.
Way back in the first overtime, Western Michigan tight end Donnie Ernsberger caught a touchdown pass to tie the game. His sister, Shalene, thought it was a game-winner. She hurdled the guard rails at UB Stadium and sprinted into the end zone to give Ernsberger a hug. Referees initially threw a penalty flag, assuming the extra celebrator must’ve come from the Broncos sideline.
“I was astonished she got down there so fast,” Ernsberger told the Buffalo News after the game. “... She was excited for her brother, and it just shows the family love we have.”
After discovering she was actually a charmingly excited and supportive sibling, the officials picked up the flag (much to Lester’s relief) and asked her to kindly find some other venue in which to watch the remaining six overtimes. Police decided her exuberance didn’t warrant any charges.
“It was hilarious,” Franklin said. “She ran right past me on the field and I was like ‘Girl, you’re crazy.’ I wasn’t mad. People were laughing and kind of got us a little more energized.”
Back on the bus, Lester stopped by Ernsberger’s seat and asked him what it felt like to have a famous sister for the night. He just smiled and shook his head.
The energy boost was well received, though, for a team that would run 99 offensive plays before the day was done. Lester said around the third or fourth overtime he had to start demanding his starters sit down between series rather than watch the excitement from their feet on the sideline. It was one of a handful of the unexpected realities a coach encounters when trying to manage what amounted to roughly an extra half of football.
The players had to pound Gatorades with added electrolytes to stay hydrated, and after a couple hours all those fluids had to go somewhere. Lester said he and his staff coordinated bathroom breaks for their players to make sure no one was in the locker room when his side of the ball was taking the field.
Both coaches at times used their timeouts as if they were playing a basketball game, waiting to see what formation their opponent showed on a crucial two-point play before stopping the clock to adjust accordingly. And why not? The scoreboard, into the 60s for both sides by then, looked much more like it should be hanging above a hardwood court.
Lester said the tension peaked at each of those post-touchdown attempts. Each team is required to go for two after the second overtime period -- a rule designed (unsuccessfully in this case) to keep games from continuing for too long as a stalemate. Western Michigan had practiced a pair of two-point plays during the week. They had to come up with a third one on the spot.
The Broncos' only successful conversion came on a direct snap to Franklin, who then pitched the ball to wide receiver Keishawn Watson on a reverse. Watson had the option to run it in or throw a pass to quarterback Jon Wassink. He opted to keep it himself.
Was Buffalo running out of play calls, too? Lester’s not sure, but he had a pretty good guess after watching the Bulls use an almost identical play on the very next possession.
“They ran the same damn play. It was hilarious,” he said. “I had to tip my cap to their offensive coordinator. They ran the same play we did, and we both hit it.”
Three overtimes and 33 points later, Franklin plowed his way into the end zone to push the Broncos to 2-0 in conference play and 4-2 overall. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief and headed to the locker room in search of another Gatorade. He was one of the last players to reach the bus and learn about their place in the records books.
It was a little after 10 p.m. when Franklin dropped his tired body into an airplane seat in Buffalo. He set about trying to respond to the flurry of text messages filling his phone from family and friends. The wheels of the plane had not been off solid ground for long when Franklin closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.