Friday, September 24, 2010

September 24, 1994: Rocket Left

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Kordell Stewart started toward the sideline, but was waved back to the huddle. There wasn't really much to talk about; the scoreboard showed the whole story, including what had to happen next. No. 7 Colorado trailed No. 4 Michigan 26-21 with six seconds left in the game. So, easy decision. The Buffaloes needed a touchdown on this play, and they needed to go 64 yards to get it. Not many plays in the playbook for that one.

The play has different names depending on which team is calling it. Colorado called it "Rocket Left," but it has been known as everything from "All Go" to "55 Flood Tip." In reality, it's a Hail Mary, a play where the quarterback throws the ball as far as he can and prays.

Nobody likes Hail Mary plays before they happen. The team that's forced to run the play, the ones who are losing and are painfully far away from the end zone, is sick that it's all come down to this one final, long-shot play. The players might be thinking about the one play they didn't make earlier in the game that, if played differently, would have prevented them from throwing up a prayer.

The defensive team isn't too comfortable, either. Though leading, and seemingly in an advantageous position with one play left in the game, they know they are one miracle play from a devastating loss, one flukey bounce away from the wrong kind of immortality.

Likely the only people excited about an upcoming Hail Mary are the neutral fans, the ones who don't have a vested interest in who wins as long as they get a good game. With this matchup between two top-10 teams on national TV, the number of people in that category was probably pretty large.

Kordell Stewart also probably didn't care what the people at home thought. He just wanted to get the ball away in time. So he looked around the field one more time, stood under center, and took the snap. He backed up in a traditional seven-step drop, took a few more steps back to avoid a pass rusher, set his feet, and fired.

And here's the amazing thing: The majority of Hail Mary plays start from right around midfield, maybe a little bit on the wrong side of that line, because any further and it's a question of whether the quarterback can get the ball to the end zone. But when Stewart let the ball fly, his back foot was on the Colorado 26 yard line, and when it came down, it had reached the goal line. That means he threw the damn ball 74 yards in the air, at the end of a tough, hard-fought game, with all the pressure you could imagine riding on the throw. And not only that, it hit one of his receivers in stride. Amazing.

Of course, a Michigan defender was right there, too, and the ball bounced up rather than down, one of those bounces that defensive coaches have nightmares about. Then in a flash, a player in white streaked toward the floating ball...

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