You probably remember the play. It was the 2014 Popeyes Bahamas Bowl and Central Michigan trailed Western Kentucky 49-42 with one second left. The Chippewas had the ball at their own 25-yard line, so all there was to do was chuck it deep and hope they could lateral their way into the end zone.
Rush dropped back and heaved it to Kroll, who caught it at the Western Kentucky 26 and made the first of three laterals that resulted in a Central Michigan touchdown. The difference? The Chippewas went for a two-point conversion, which was a Rush fade pass to Kroll that fell incomplete. As Kroll put his face to the turf in disappointment, Western Kentucky celebrated a 49-48 victory.
This time, there was no PAT needed and Rush, Kroll and the Chippewas got to celebrate victory as Rush completed a 42-yard pass to Kroll, who then lateraled to Corey Willis, who ran the final 9 yards to the end zone to complete a 30-27 upset victory over No. 22 Oklahoma State on Saturday at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma. It’s a play that has sparked controversy because of an officiating gaffe, but it’s still a once-in-a-lifetime play.
“I’m floating,” Central Michigan coach John Bonamego told ESPN.com after the win.
Here’s an inside look at how it went down:
Oklahoma State ball, fourth-and-13 at the Central Michigan 41-yard line, :04 remaining (Oklahoma State leads 27-24)
During a timeout, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy calls for quarterback Mason Rudolph to just heave the ball into the air to run out the remaining time, so Rudolph drops back and throws a pass to the left sideline, aimed at nobody in particular -- no Cowboys receivers ran pass patterns -- and the time ticks off the clock. Game over, right? Not exactly.
The officials huddle and decide to throw a flag for intentional grounding.
“I never really thought of intentional grounding being called at that time in the game,” Gundy said afterward. “We talked about it for about 20 seconds there at the end, for him to get the ball and just throw it out of bounds.”
“I told the team, 'That part's on me,' because I was the one who made that call. As much time as we put into end-of-game situations, [intentional grounding] never really crossed my mind.”
The game should have ended there, according to the rules, but it didn’t. The officials gave Central Michigan one untimed down ... and did the Chippewas ever take advantage of it.
Central Michigan ball, first-and-10 at its own 49-yard line, :00 remaining
Central Michigan offensive coordinator Morris Watts calls the plays from the press box, and while the officials were huddling about whether to call intentional grounding on Oklahoma State, Bonamego was preparing for the possible last-gasp chance.
“I was telling him, ‘I think we're going to get a play,’” Bonamego said of his conversation with Watts over the headset. “'Let's get a play ready to go.’ He's in communication with offensive staff and we knew what we were going to run when we went to line up. We knew what we were going to do.”
Rush and Kroll have experience in this type of situation thanks to that Bahamas Bowl ending. The question was, with the ball near midfield, whether to try that again or go directly for the end zone. You can go for the end zone “if you can get it there,” Bonamego said.
“There are two schools of thought,” Bonamego said. “If you throw it in the end zone it becomes a jump ball. But if you can get the ball completed [short of the end zone] and run at the defense, then you have a chance to get it going with a lateral and a run. They [the Cowboys] were playing everybody deep along the goal line ... it’s one of those plays that you see run half a dozen times any given weekend in college or the NFL at the end of a half or end of the game, but most of the time it doesn’t work.”
Fortunately for the Chippewas, it did work.
Rush took the shotgun snap, dropped back, then stepped up to the Central Michigan 42 before heaving the ball down the right side of the field toward Kroll. In front of Oklahoma State defensive back Ramon Richards, Kroll caught it at the Oklahoma State 9-yard line. Richards was right there and had his arms wrapped around Kroll -- in fact, Kroll actually fell into Richards as he came down with the reception -- but before Richards could pull Kroll to the ground, he lateraled the ball to Willis, the trailing receiver.
"It starts with the completion and the awareness of the receiver downfield,” Bonamego said. “For Jesse to find Corey on the lateral was great awareness.”
And Willis trailed properly to be in perfect position to catch the lateral.
“He was at the right point, almost directly stacked on him,” Bonamego said. “It was a two-handed, shovel-pass kind of lateral.”
Even Gundy was impressed with the execution.
“The ball traveled at least 40 yards and then to catch it and accurately flip it to the guy [is impressive],” Gundy said.
Added Gundy: “When he threw the ball, I thought it was going to be short. The first thing that comes to all of our minds is, ‘Just let him catch it and let’s tackle him and you’re in good shape.’ He punched the ball back and it was a big-time play.”
Willis gets credit for running 9 yards to the end zone, since that’s where Kroll caught the ball, but in reality, he caught the ball at the 11 -- and that doesn’t account for the real estate he covered going horizontally, which was quite a bit to beat the Oklahoma State defenders to the goal line.
There were five upright Cowboys defenders in the area (Richards, who tackled Kroll, was the sixth), but most of them had their momentum going toward the near sideline in pursuit of Kroll. When Willis caught the lateral and went toward the far sideline, he had most of that group already beat; at least two had to turn and reverse field.
“I feel like if I don’t make that play I will never live that down for the rest of my life,” Willis told reporters afterward. “I’m just feeling like I had to do my job. Jesse made the biggest play. He had to go up with two guys. All I’ve got to do is run to the end zone.”
The last man who had a chance to catch him, Oklahoma State defensive back Keenen Brown, did indeed catch Willis at the 1, but Willis extended the ball across the goal line before hitting the ground.
“I don't know how big ... he's not very big,” Bonamego said of the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Willis. “He thinks he's 6-7, 300 pounds. He's that type of character. He's a supremely confident kid. You couldn't probably pick a better person for the ball to end up with in that situation.
“It starts with O-line up front and everybody that's involved in the route. Football's a game of blocking and tackling and throwing and catching. We made the throw, made the catch and were able to finish the run. Great finish to a great football game.”
Officials had to review whether Willis broke the plane of the goal line before hitting the ground.
"I don't know how long it was but it felt like three hours,” Bonamego said. “And honestly, at that point, what was going through my mind was, 'However this turns out, we gave ourselves a chance, our kids showed a tremendous amount of poise and whatever you want to say, they kept themselves in the game and gave themselves a chance to win the game.' Even if it had gone the other way and we lost out, we were proud of the effort.”
And Bonamego is correct: The Chippewas were in this game throughout the second half, even after falling behind by two touchdowns early on.
“That's the kind of thing that's overshadowed,” the second-year coach said. “There was a point in the game we were down 14-0. We came back and took the lead and it went back and forth. If we don't play well down the stretch, don't play great defense, then this is all a moot point.
“That's the exclamation point and the play that everybody will remember, but I look at it for the entire fourth quarter and how we played, the belief that we had that knowing that we could beat that team. For us, we played them tough last year at our place ... it really starts there. Everything starts and ends with your attitude.”