The play came in late because coaches were still trying to weigh the risk versus the potential reward. It was fourth-and-4 at the LSU 29-yard line, and Syracuse had sent Riley Dixon, its senior punter, onto the field.
No, the Orange weren't punting, nor were they kicking a field goal.
They were going to gamble.
Dixon had practiced the fake field goal earlier in the week, but as the seconds ticked off the play clock, he looked to his holder, Ryan Norton, for support.
“He just said, ‘Let’s go,’ and it took off from there,” Dixon said.
The snap went to Norton, who pitched to Dixon, who darted outside around the right end. He’d been a quarterback growing up, and he already was responsible for the biggest touchdown throw of Syracuse’s 2014 season (more on that later), so his first instinct was to throw. He looked downfield but found no one open. Instead, he saw green turf ahead, so he tucked the ball and ran.
Dixon assumed he already was past the down marker when he found LSU cornerback Kevin Toliver waiting. The rest was instinct.
“I don’t know what was going through my head, but I guess my first instinct was to jump over him, because that’s what happened,” Dixon said.
Dixon hurdled the LSU corner, legs splayed wide, landing a yard further downfield. As it turned out, that yard was crucial.
“I didn’t realize I was that close to the first-down marker,” he said. “I had to actually jump to get it.”
Dixon bounced back to his feet in celebration, bumping LSU’s Jamal Adams in the process. Adams threw his arms in air, begging for a penalty flag, but Dixon was oblivious. The celebration was on.
“I got up and was pretty excited,” Dixon said. “That was visible.”
It was the first time LSU had coughed up a first down to a specialist in more than a decade, and so the aftermath on social media was predictable, with fans singing Dixon’s praises across the country. The 6-foot-5 punter has been a fan favorite at Syracuse for years, and in the midst of the Orange’s dismal 2014 campaign, the #DixonForHeisman meme became one of the year’s highlights.
The Heisman love is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there’s some merit to the hype.
In Syracuse’s opener last season, Dixon tossed a 1-yard touchdown on a fake field goal in overtime that helped secure a 27-26 victory over Villanova. In doing so, Dixon became the only specialist in the past decade to throw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter or overtime of a tie game.
A month later, in a loss to Notre Dame, Dixon was handed the ball on a fake punt and rushed for 42 yards.
It was two plays in a three-win season, but they mattered. His TD against Villanova accounted for one-sixth of all the touchdown passes Syracuse would throw last season. His scamper against the Irish was the fourth-longest run by any Orange player.
“It wouldn’t have sustained so long if Riley wasn’t actually really good,” said Sean Keeley, author of the Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician blog that started the Heisman campaign. “You could make a strong case he’s been our game MVP on multiple occasions, and the fact that he’s been involved in a few memorable plays has only added to the legend.”
@espn @SportsCenter how about the Syracuse punter with the hurdle #SCtop10 #dixonforheisman— adam charen (@iNSAN3M3N4NC3) September 26, 2015
Fournette is the second best player in the Dome right now #DixonForHeisman— Scott Isaacs (@ScottIsaacs) September 26, 2015
We're setting our targets too low with #DixonForHeisman. time for #Dixon2016— Mike Held (@TheMikeHeld) September 26, 2015
And so Dixon’s hurdle for a first down in what was arguably the biggest game at the Carrier Dome in years was cause for celebration.
Dixon said he’s aware of the online love fest, and he appreciates it. He just tries not to pay it too much attention.
“I do appreciate all the support from anyone who participates,” he said. “It means a lot to me. But I’m just keeping focused on my job, and that’s being a punter and helping out my teammates the best I can.”
That’s the type of humility fans want from their Heisman candidates, of course.
For Dixon, the Twitter celebration didn’t match the excitement his parents shared after the game. They’d been watching him punt for the past six years, and he was grateful for the chance to show off something more.
“They were happy for me and excited,” Dixon said. “It was the same from my friends. My phone was blowing up, people seeing me on TV doing something other than kicking a football.”
To be sure, Dixon knows how to kick a football, too. He’d been a quarterback at Christian Brothers Academy high school in Syracuse, until it was clear he wouldn’t win the starting job. In the midst of his sophomore year, he decided to play around with kicking, and he was an instant hit.
“I teed up a couple footballs and ended up crushing a couple field goals,” Dixon recalled. “The next year I was kicking and punting on varsity.”
That led him Syracuse, where he has been a three-year starter at punter. Last year, he had 12 kicks downed inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, and his work kept the Orange in a handful of games when their offense proved ineffective. Even against LSU, it was his foot that did the bulk of the damage. Dixon averaged nearly 46 yards per punt, including a 56-yarder following Syracuse’s opening drive.
But, of course, that’s the normal stuff. Legends require heroism to grow, and Dixon may still have a few tricks up his sleeve.
“The [coaches] know I’m an athletic kid, and I’m capable of doing things other than just kicking the ball,” Dixon said. “But that’s always top secret.”