Forty names, games, teams, and little things that make the headlines in college football (“You Play to Win the Game” commemorative videos are available separately in Tempe):
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There have been 67 one-score games so far this season, which seems to be on par with most years. But it seems like we’ve had an inordinate number of games where the defense couldn’t hold the lead, or kicking play didn’t work in crunch time, penalty flags flew at an inopportune moment, or coaches temporarily lost their senses to have.
In other words, there were so many close games lost how won. And sometimes even the winners are shocked at how hard they tried to lose.
Prime example of the latter: Notre Dame (21) on Saturday. Rookie coach Marcus Freeman seemed to make little secret of his distress as his team’s seven-point lead over California began to be threatened in the final minute. “I keep trying to tell myself to enjoy it,” he said afterwards, but there was no immediate enjoyment of how close the Fighting Irish came to a 3-0 start.
After rallying in the fourth quarter to take a 24-17 lead, the Irish sent out their strong defense to secure the win with 1:03 left. Sure enough, Clarence Lewis intercepted Cal’s first pass of possession, which would have ended him — but linebacker JD Bertrand, a veteran playing in his 27th collegiate game, inexplicably aimed at the Golden Bears receiver, tipped the interception and held the game When in doubt. Six games later, Cal got a game-of-inches break when quarterback Jack Plummer was correctly demoted milliseconds before serving an end-of-game turnover. That gave Cal time for one last game.
Plummer’s Hail Mary to the end zone should have been knocked down. Instead, safety veteran Brandon Joseph, playing in his 28th college game, twice attempted to catch the ball instead of hitting it on the turf and twice had the ball knocked out of his hands to keep it in play. After the second bounce, the ball landed on the body of Cal receiver Jeremiah Hunter, who nearly made the catch while lying on his back in the end zone.
Conclusion: Even the experienced players are still young enough to do hard-to-understand things with the game on the line.
There are loads of other, oh no, they didn’t, tracks that didn’t end quite as well. The pressure on players, coaches and officials in these games is significant and can affect performance. A quick dash compendium of game losses while wondering if anyone can complete a game without it spiraling into panic and chaos:
Purdue (22) He probably set a record of sorts Saturday in Syracuse by finding a way to crush a great comeback win. After taking a four-point lead with 51 seconds left, the Boilermakers received two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that pushed the subsequent push-off back to their own 10-yard line. That gave the oranges the ball in midfield after the return. But Purdue was just getting started.
There was a third and 10 holding call. Then a third-and-10 interference call. Then Garrett Shrader completed his only pass of the drive, a 25-yarder seven seconds ahead of a receiver who was somehow single-marked and opened fairly easily against a defense that should have been covering the goal line. After that, there was an offside penalty from Purdue, which was denied, and two more personal fouls on the Boilermakers, which were accepted.
Seven penalties, six accepted, in the last minute of the game. While at least one of the flags was questionable, the responsibility rests with Purdue to shut up and play. Which coach Jeff Brohm confirmed on Monday. “The chatter has to stop,” said Brohm. “We just have to really, really stick to the book and keep our mouths shut and train and play football.”
State of Iowa (23) did his part to keep rival Iowa and his shaky offense in play until the final game on September 10th. The Hawkeyes had one final possession in the last half minute, and the Cyclones contributed an offside and a personal foul to help Iowa’s push into the target area. Iowa missed the kick from 48 yards to end the game, part of another subset of late-game disasters.
Special Team Disasters:
LSU (24) nearly pulled a rabbit out of a hat in the season opener against Florida, only to block the all-important extra point in the last game. Of course, two muted punts and a blocked field goal followed beforehand. (The Tigers were on the receiver end of a crucial special teams miscue Saturday against Mississippi State when the Bulldogs muffed a punt inside their own 10-yard line by a six-point lead.)
South Florida (25) was nine games into a really nice drive for a potential last-minute equalizing field goal against Florida — and kept alive hopes of what would arguably be the biggest win of Jeff Scott’s coaching career. Center then fired a groundball snap in shotgun formation, resulting in a 14-yard loss, and USF opted for a conservative run call on third and 20, throwing the load onto kicker Spencer Shrader’s shoulders. Still, he had a chance from 49 yards – and the keeper dropped the snap. Shrader executed the kick and miraculously came close to making it, but the game was lost.
East Carolina (26) had a few #CollegeKicker moments late to derail a North Carolina state excitement in the season opener. Owen Daffer hooked the tying extra point wide left with 2:58 left (the defending champion gave him the laces, a no-no) and then pushed the winning field goal wide to the right from 41 yards with five seconds remaining.
Southern Alabama (27) outwitted himself at UCLA on Saturday, contributing to a missed opportunity for another Sun Belt Conference upset this season. With a 31-29 lead and three minutes left, the Jaguars braced for a 39-yard field goal and then transitioned to a regular game. Ultimately, there was nothing regular about it: coach Kane Wommack put the ball in the hands of halter/third-string QB Tanner McGee, who last threw a pass in 2020; he sent the kicker deep on a pass route; He had a wing blocker and a tackle down the right side of the line, both of which seemed stumped and utterly upset as UCLA rushers ran past them. Bottom line: a sack and an 11-yard loss that paved the way for the Bruins’ winning field goal.
Wommack told a cellphone station on Monday that if he had had to repeat fourth and second place again — like with his starting attack on the field — he would have approached it in a more conventional way. Wommack said standout running back La’Damian Webb has braced himself but there are options other than the multi-stage debacle he endured.
Troy (28) similarly found a way to reconsider himself while trying to hold on to a lead late on the road. The Trojans were 28-24 at Appalachian State when coach Jon Sumrall opted for a deliberate safety rather than stepping out of his own end zone. While that brought the Mountaineers within a field goal of the win, the decision to parry the ensuing free kick from Troy’s 20-yard line might have been more important. Troy’s average kickoff length the previous season was 63 yards, and he threw just 46 yards — and he was thrown 13 yards on top of that, destroying any advantage the Squib had. That put App State within prayer range for the Ave Mary that followed, and we all know how that ended.
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This was the biggest culprit for bloated leads late in the game, as teams seemed to struggle to get the approach right – soft coverage that gives up too much ground underneath, or more aggressive coverage that can give up deep plays. But, hey, it’s not just a college thing. NFL teams blew away several leads on Sunday when their defense couldn’t leave the field.
The defense staged joint fourth-quarter collapses from Purdue-Syracuse and even more so in App State-North Carolina. But these are not the only examples.
State of Florida (29) There was certainly something special about giving up 99 yards to a previously hopeless LSU offense on the last drive in the Superdome. (This collapse was saved by the aforementioned PAT block.) And teams play Indiana (30) conspired to keep the Hoosiers 3-0 with a few late defensive flops.
After starting 21 of 42 against the Illinois defense, Connor Bazelak completed seven of his next nine passes to march Indiana inside the 10-yard line and set up the winning touchdown with 23 seconds remaining. On Saturday, Western Kentucky repeated Illinois’ role in keeping Indiana undefeated by conceding a 90-yard drive to the tie in the last minute, including four penalties (one was disallowed).
“It’s hard to win football games,” Freeman said Saturday after finally winning one. It seems increasingly difficult to defend a late lead.
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