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Breaking down Western Michigan’s incomprehensible lateral play vs. Ball State

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A 62-second play featuring 16 laterals and a field storm created perhaps the most bizarre finish in college football history.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 12 Western Michigan at Ball State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From the time of the snap until the moment the whistle blew, the play lasted 62 seconds. Perhaps the final play of Ball State’s 30-27 win over Western Michigan was the most bizarre finish we’ve seen in college football history. The ball was exchanged 16 times, the population of the field was over 100 people at its peak, and nobody knew who won for several minutes following the conclusion of the play.

Here’s a full breakdown of the madness which ensued Saturday in Muncie, IN:

No Hail Mary?

First off, Western Michigan snaps the ball on the final play of the game from its own 49-yard line. Kaleb Eleby (#5) can sling it 51 yards with ease. Earlier this year, head coach Tim Lester said of Eleby, “Arm strength wise, he’s as good as I’ve ever had and it allows us to use the whole field, especially nowadays where defenses are picking and choosing what they’re gonna take away, they know the easy throws.”

Western Michigan has the most talented receiving corps in the MAC. The Broncos also are equipped with a jump ball specialist in 6’4” wideout Jaylen Hall. Going against the wind likely played a major factor, but the fact that they didn’t elect to go for a Hail Mary here is jarring. Instead, they gave us arguably the most ridiculous, memorable lateral play in college football history.

Play background

Western Michigan lines up in a traditional four verticals set. D’Wayne Eskridge (#1) is the lone receiver to the left. Three receivers are spaced out to the right of the line — tight end Luke Sanders (#83), slot receiver Skyy Moore (#24), and wideout Jaylen Hall (#11), from left to right. Ball State counters with a 3-man rush, a cornerback in press coverage on Eskridge, and seven defensive backs in deep zone.

Quarterback Kaleb Eleby, in shotgun next to running back La’Darius Jefferson (#3), handles the snap. Eskridge, Sanders, and Hall commit to running streak patterns for about seven yards, while Moore stays home and remains in the vicinity of the line of scrimmage. The left and right tackles mishandle their assignments, but even before the pass rush gets to Eleby, he immediately directs his focus toward Moore and dumps off a screen pass.

The laterals gain steam

One thing to note — every Western Michigan player that touches the ball pitches it rugby style, with the exception of two. Eleby and Moore throw their laterals like actual quarterback passes. Moore, the original recipient of the pass, was an all-conference high school quarterback at Shady Side Academy in Western Pennsylvania, and the quarterback background was evident on this play.

Anyway, Moore is the first recipient of the ball and has an entire pasture of running room to his right side. Given his speed, he could pick up 20 yards in his sleep, potentially 30 with Hall serving as a lead blocker in front of him. Instead, Moore immediately mails the ball across the field to the running back, Jefferson.

Swinging the ball to the left wasn’t the most effective decision at the time due to Ball State’s higher concentration of defenders on the weak side of the field, and upon seeing a defender in front of him, Jefferson quickly pitches it back to Eleby. Then, Eleby sends it back to Moore while getting absolutely leveled for the first time in the play. But what happened next was surprisingly not disastrous.

A lineman enters the equation

Lateral plays usually go sideways when linemen get involved. This was not the case here.

Whether Moore’s pass here — which was indeed a backward lateral because it was thrown from the WMU 49 and caught at the WMU 48 — was intended for guard Mike Caliendo (#61) is yet to be determined. Caliendo cuts in front of Jefferson and makes an athletic grab at the 48-yard line. A Ball State defender comes in with a full head of steam, but the All-MAC lineman efficiently pitches it back to Eleby to keep the play afloat.

Western Michigan makes its only mistake

The next two laterals just move Western Michigan increasingly distant from the original line of scrimmage. Eleby throws it to Sanders, who subsequently pitches it to Moore. Then Moore, with his high school quarterbacking abilities on full display, fires an impressive pass to Jefferson from far beyond the right hash to the opposite side of the field. One problem — Moore’s throw originated from the WMU 33 and Jefferson corralled it at the WMU 34. A flag is thrown for an illegal forward pass, but it’s likely that the 22 players on the field are unaware of the yellow laundry.

Moore was one yard away from another successful cross-field lateral pass, but still, the sequence progresses. Jefferson, no stranger to giving up the ball instantaneously, pitches it back to Eleby, who gets clipped from behind. It almost becomes a running gag as Eleby goes to the ground for the second time in the play. Before his knees touch the field, the quarterback gets a new player involved — Jaylen Hall, who receives Eleby’s pitch at the Western Michigan 22-yard line.

The ball is loose

Hall runs forward to about the 35-yard line and then tosses it to Jefferson. The running back sends it back to Eleby, the same player he has targeted on each of his laterals. Eleby, facing a charging Ball State defender, flings the ball backward toward Jefferson and misses him completely. The ball rolls back to the 19-yard line, and the player in the most favorable position to recover the fumble is wearing black and red — Ball State inside linebacker Jimmy Daw (#27). He dives over it, but never really gains full control with his hands.

The field rush

Offensive tackle Mark Brooks (#60) bulldozes into Daw and the pigskin flies out from under his body. But the instant before Brooks delivers the critical blow, Ball State’s players believe Daw recovered the fumble and ended the contest. The Cardinals’ elated sideline, ecstatic after ending a streak of 6-straight losing seasons, stormed their home turf to celebrate their first MAC Championship Game appearance since 2008.

Except the play wasn’t over. Eleby scoops up the loose ball at the 21-yard line, runs forward six yards, and gets devastatingly trucked. Luckily, he was able to pitch it off to his tight end Sanders before getting flattened to the ground. This time, Eleby’s helmet flew off, and it is unknown whether he even got up again for the remainder of the play.

Here’s a major issue. The play is still thriving, the whistle has yet to be blown, and there are roughly 100 Ball State players and staff members on the field. Some have their helmets on, some have their helmets off, and nobody knows who belongs on the field and what on earth is going on. Most members of the Cardinals roster just watch everything unfold with a front row seat to the action before halfheartedly jogging back to the sideline.

MAXIMUM CHAOS

One player from the Ball State sideline makes contact with Sanders, considers tackling him, and then refrains. If you’re wondering what happens in college football when a player on the sidelines makes a tackle, there’s actually a precedent. In the 1954 Cotton Bowl Classic, Alabama’s Tommy Lewis flew in from the sideline to tackle Rice running back Dicky Moegle at the 42-yard line. Moegle was rewarded a touchdown by the officials.

While it is unclear if Ball State was aware of that rarely utilized rule, a helmetless Hassan Littles (#16) approaches Sanders, slows him down, and then chases him down while enthusiastically directing his teammates to make a tackle. Two players that belong on the field, cornerback Amechi Uzodinma (#3) and outside linebacker Christian Albright (#9), wrap up Sanders like they’re recording a sack in the NFL Pro Bowl, without serious intent to bring him down.

Several Western Michigan players and coaches stroll onto the field, and Sanders pitches it to Moore. One member of the Broncos’ coaching staff acts like a third base coach and emphatically communicates to Moore to sprint toward the end zone. Moore follows orders and runs 56 yards to the end zone unobstructed.

The side judge and back judge put their hands up when Moore crosses the plane, signaling a Western Michigan walk-off touchdown. A successful touchdown stands as the official ruling before the penalty flag is addressed.

ESPN+ cuts out

How do you add chaos to THAT? Just cut out the live feed completely immediately after the touchdown.

Ball State wins?

Well, after about 5 minutes of not knowing who won the game, it was determined that one illegal forward pass by Western Michigan prevented the most absurd lateral play from resulting in a touchdown. Ball State, despite drawing arguably the greatest sideline interference penalty in history, still got to celebrate after downing Western Michigan, 30-27, while punching a ticket to Detroit for the MAC Championship Game.