Ten seconds left. Western Kentucky has called their final timeout, and decided to sky punt the ball to try and kill time from the clock in order to seal victory form the jaws of victory. The punter does his job and the ball sails into the brisk Bahamas wind and eventually, the ball drops. That's where it went wrong for the Hilltoppers.
The gunners on the play over ran the ball and noticed the ball was sailing towards the endz one, end to end. They rushed back and attempted to try and push it out of the end zone, but to no avail. The referee blew the whistle, and when the clock stopped, there was exactly one second of game time on the clock for Cooper Rush and the Chippewas, who had suddenly poured it on in the fourth quarter. The respective offense and defense took the field, and the sparse crowd that was there at the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium were on their feet and screaming.
In order to truly appreciate this particular moment, we've got to go back in time a little bit. Let's start on December 26th, 2012. The now-defunct Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl at Detroit's Ford Field was to witness the Central Michigan Chippewas face the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. WKU was newly-minted FBS after surviving the required transition seasons, and would be playing in their first bowl game in program history, replacing the vacancy left by a B1G team after a successful season in the Sun Belt. CMU was nearby in Mt. Pleasant, and looked to cap off the season with a win in front of the home fans, with some of their key offensive contributors, including Titus Davis, suspended for conduct detrimental. Despite WKU being a six point favorite in the game, the advantage was decidedly with Central, as the home crowd made up for over half of the announced attendance.
CMU jumped out to a quick lead thanks to two unexpected Andrew Flory touchdowns, but WKU kept fighting back and had eventually come within three points of the Chips at the end of the game. Instead of going for the field goal, the Hilltoppers decide to go with the hot hand and go for six. With the ball inside the 5-yard line, on 4th down, with 1:30 left on the clock, Kawaun Jakes handed the ball back to Antonio Andrews. Andrews ran up the middle, gained a yard, and then was pushed back by the Chippewas defensive line. The game was over, and the entire sideline and the fans behind them erupted, myself included.
Fast-forward 728 days later to Christmas Eve of 2014. WKU and CMU are once again slated to face one another in a bowl game, this time in the balmy paradise that is Nassau, Bahamas in the Popeye's Bahamas Bowl. WKU was favored by 4 coming into the game after surprising many in C-USA with an overtime 67-66 performance against the undefeated and ranked Marshall Thundering Herd. CMU, meanwhile, was ailing from a heartbreaking loss to hated rival Western Michigan. Once again, a key offensive contributor found trouble, as Thomas Rawls, the starting running back, was left back in Mt. Pleasant due to what was called "an academic issue." It was quite the neutral field at the Bahamas, as each team only had a handful of fans at the game, with two-thirds of the crowd being local Bahamians with no rooting interests.
The game started at a fast clip, with three touchdowns within the first eight minutes of the first quarter. It quickly got out of hand. At the end of the first half, Western Kentucky showed no mercy on the Chippewas, using a 44 second drive to push their lead to an astounding 42-14 over the ailing Chips. The atmosphere on Twitter could not be more chilling for Central fans. I had even given up on the prospect of a Central win, and I am known for my eccentric fanaticism throughout campus. Tweets like this one were common:
What the hell was that?! *Click* *Runs away*— Cornelius Rosan (@neilandsports) December 24, 2014
Suddenly, CMU found themselves in the same situation as WKU two years before: down to an opponent that seemed unstoppable and having to rally back. WKU came within three points two years before; could CMU do the same?
There was extremely-cautious optimism after CMU surprised the Hilltoppers with an onside kick, eventually recovering it. It evaporated once CMU went three-and-out. A bad punt by Ron Coluzzi later, and suddenly, the 'Toppers had the ball at the Chippewas' 21 yard line. WKU scored just a split second later, a running play to Anthony Wales, extending the lead to 49-14. This is where the rally began.
WKU 49, CMU 14 8:55 3Q
Saylor Lavallii and Devon Spalding had largely been ineffective in relief duty for Rawls, so it was up to fourth-stringer Martez Walker came into the game. CMU was forced to punt after running only five plays on a largely ineffective drive. It looked to be more of the same difference from the previous five possessions, four of them ending in punts (the other was halftime.)
WKU 49, CMU 14, 6:36 3Q
Western Kentucky once again marched down the field, as Brandon Doughty went 4/5 for 37 yards on the drive, with one 16-yard completion being called back due to unnecessary roughness. Alan Wales contributed to keeping the drive alive after that with a 32 yard scamper. On third down on the CMU 5, Doughty went to a one yard run. However, Doughty was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play, forcing a 15-yard penalty on the play. This created a 36-yard field goal try, which sailed left in a brisk wind.
WKU 49, CMU 14, 1:19 3Q
After two plays that failed to gain yards, CMU once again found itself on the ropes and facing 3rd and 10. Rush handed the ball off to Walker for a 12-yard gain. After that, the offense seemed to spring to life. The very next play, Joe Bacci caught a pass and ran 21 yards to get into Hilltopper territory. After an incompletion, Rush called his own number and ran for five yards. He then converted a third down with a pass to Jesse Kroll, who would prove to be pivotal later on in the game. On the very next play, Walker broke a tackle and ran 22 yards for a first down within the WKU red zone. Two plays later, Cooper Rush got his first touchdown of the second half on a connection with Titus Davis.
Western Kentucky went on to go three and out in the next possession.
WKU 49, CMU 21, 10:07 4Q
On 2nd and 8, Rush finds TE Mike Kinville for a 14 yard completion. On the next play, Walker runs for 11 yards to bring CMU to the outside of the red zone. After an incompletion, Rush would connect with Titus Davis for the second touchdown of both of their halves on a 23 yard touchdown off of a tipped pass. Davis had to spin away two defenders and stretch over the goal line in order to gain the score. Rush would set a career high with this touchdown, his fourth of the game.
WKU 49, CMU 28, 8:03 4Q
Anthony Wales gained a first down on the first play of the next drive with a 10 yard run, following it up with a no-gain. On 2nd and 10, the Hilltoppers brought in Willie McNeal for a spark, and boy did he provide one. He caught a quick pass just in front of the line of scrimmage and blazed his defender down the sideline for 56 yards. Only Tony Annesse and Joel Ostman had caught up to McNeal, and looked to bring him down. As McNeal fell to the ground, Ostman ripped the ball out of his hand and the ball bounced forward ten yards. The Chippewas defense soon surrounded it and Annesse picked it up with a platoon of defenders around him, gaining 27 yards on the play after nearly breaking out for a touchdown. Twice. It was one of the weirdest returns (and call of a return) I had ever seen.
WKU 49, CMU 28, 6:16 4Q
Walker ran for 19 yards in the first two plays of the drive to open up the defense. On 1st and 10, Rush could not compete the pass to Davis. On the next play, Rush found Anthony Rice for a five yard gain, setting up a pivotal 3rd and 5. Courtney Williams, who had been disappointing all season with only one touchdown in twelve games, stepped up big with a 28 yard reception for a first down. Then, Coach Enos befuddled everyone watching the game and pulled the hot-handed Rush for veteran backup senior Cody Kater, who up until that point, was best known for his glorious mane of hair. Kater immediately throws a strike on a crossing pattern to Jesse Kroll, who spun his way to the endzone for CMU. It was a glorious moment, but a late flag came in and Saylor Lavallii, the back protecting Kater on his TD throw, was called for holding.
Rush came back into the game and threw two daggers to Mike Kinville and Courtney Williams, the latter going for a 10 yard touchdown. It was Rush's 5th of the game, further expanding his career high.
WKU 49, CMU 35, 3:06 4Q
Western Kentucky got the ball again, but the Chippewas rushing defense, which had been much maligned the entire game, roared to life, stopping Wales twice and forcing an incompletion by Doughty, resulting in a three and out. Suddenly, things were getting crazy. Western Kentucky was about to punt the ball, when they were called for a false start. The penalty stopped the clock, and afforded CMU an opportunity to score again. The fans started to become optimistic again. Hell, a win might be possible.
WKU 49, CMU 35, 2:00 4Q
Cooper Rush came out dealing. Two passes completed on the first two plays, with Deon Butler (13 yards) and Jesse Kroll (35 yards) brought the ball to the Western Kentucky 7. After an incompletion, Rush scanned the field on 2nd and goal and found Anthony Garland for a touchdown score, bringing it to one score after the extra point.
WKU 49, CMU 42, 1:09 4Q
Western Kentucky just could not break the CMU defensive line for any sort of gain, and decided that they needed as much time as possible to run down instead, setting up the Chippewas at their 25 with one second left.
The Moment Before
No one saw this coming.
I chose CMU to win the game in our Hustle Belt Pick 'Em just a week prior. What were the chances of CMU winning the game in this situation? Just about none. Most people would have been satisfied just to get this far. But with one second left on the clock, it's hard to root against the near impossible no matter who you are.
Never turn off the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl! #MACtion— Lance Cartelli (@CasuallyGinger) December 24, 2014
Scoring a game tying 75-yard touchdown in a bowl game after a massive comeback would be the most #MACtion thing ever— Bill (@bflip33) December 24, 2014
CMU lets go— Antonio Brown (@AntonioBrown84) December 24, 2014
WKU 49, CMU 42 0:01 4Q
Rush has a three step set, but the protection breaks down on the right side of the line, causing him to bump into the defender. He feels this pressure and somehow slips his way out of it, stepping into the pocket and breaking out to throw a pass down the right sideline. Jesse Kroll times the jump correctly and pulls the ball down at the WKU 29 despite being covered by two corners and a safety close behind them running towards the play. Kroll is quickly tackled, but suddenly laterals the ball back to a speeding Deon Butler, who cuts up the middle of the field to gain more yards. Butler out runs the defensive backs initially, but is downed at the left side of the WKU 15. Or so everyone thought.
Butler manages to get the ball out, but it is a duck of a lateral and ends up bouncing on the ground, dribbling into the waiting arms of Courtney Williams, who with a block from Devon Spalding, is able to spring free for a few more yards before himself being tackled by an onslaught of red jerseys. Titus Davis has the alertness to fall behind the 15 yard line to collect the lateral and does so, running for perhaps the most important touchdown of his life. Davis has his eyes set on the right side pylon, and feeling the incoming pressure behind him at the two yard line, dives ball-first towards it. Davis knocks it over and rolls into an advertisement next to the referee. The referee flashed the touchdown signal, and the comeback was complete. Cooper Rush had thrown his NCAA bowl-record 7th touchdown, outpunching his sparring partner Brandon Doughty, who was the best statistical passer in the nation in the 2014 season.
THAT WAS THE MOST INCREDIBLE THING I HAVE EVER SEEN #MACtion— Cory Greenspan (@CoryGreenspan27) December 24, 2014
YES YES YES NO YES NO NO TITUS NO YES TIE GAME NO TITUS YES GAME SCORE TIUS YES EMOTIONS YES !!!?>!/1?!??1??!!!1 DID HE SOCREO WHAT LOU!!?— Hustle Belt (@HustleBelt) December 24, 2014
I can't believe this. #MACtion— Dustin Fox (@DustinFox37) December 24, 2014
This is a Christmas #MACtion miracle, you guys— David Wright (@DWright_10) December 24, 2014
MY HEART CANT TAKE IT— Adam Abraham (@AdamLAbraham) December 24, 2014
The Moment After
The fans were absolutely delirious. There were answered prayers and tears of ecstasy at the actual football game. There was probably crying in many homes around the nation. This isn't supposed to happen. There is no real way to react to any of this. There is no script on how to act for the "your team runs a Hail Mary and completes it for a game-tying TD after previously being down 35 points" situation. It was pure panic. It was an out-of-body experience. I was shaking. Dizzy. Faint, even. My mother, the most casual of casual sports fans, could only repeat "no f*ing way" as she saw the play unfold. The normally quiet and reserved Cooper Rush became the most enthusiastic player on the field as he eagerly sprinted across the field to meet Davis and the rest of his teammates as they celebrated in the end zone.
But there was still more to come.
Head coach Dan Enos had a decision to make now: with no time left on the clock, what does he do for the extra point? Coach Enos is famously conservative in his playcalling, relying on a pro-style offense that can manage the clock. In any other game, he would have sent Brian Eavey out for that extra point. But this was not just any game. Titus Davis, who had just scored his fourth touchdown of the game, had injured his arm on the big play, and the momentum of the game had swung CMU's way. This was the freakin' Bahamas Bowl. His team had come back from 35 points down to pull within an extra point of achieving overtime. Now was no time to back down. He sent Eavey out for the PAT, but many of the players on the sideline (and some of the fans behind them) were screaming to go for the win. Enos yelled for Cooper Rush, and waved the field goal team off. Cheers elicited form the sideline and both teams went into a kneeling position on the sidelines. Coach Enos strided down the sideline, his blinding smile a mile wide across his face. He was confident that this could be done. And why not? He had just called fades to the corner, one of CMU's best red-zone conversion plays up to this point.
With Davis out, Enos decided to rely on his best route runners, Courtney Williams and Jesse Kroll, to get open and catch the ball. Williams lined up on the left, Kroll the right. Rush dropped back to pass, and sent up a teardrop rainbow to Kroll, who had started the magic on the previous play. Kroll jumped up a split second too late, and it bounced off his fingers. Wonderful Terry, the WKU defensive back covering him, swatted it out of his reach and landed on the ground triumphantly as Kroll hit the side of the endzone, crumbled in a heap, angry at himself for missing a catch that was known as his bread and butter. No flags came up afterwards. The game was over.
Bahamas Bowl recap: Western Kentucky tops the Chippewas 49-48
Mounting one of the greatest comeback efforts in football history, the Chippewas could not overcome a terrible first half as the MAC falls to 1-3 on the bowl season.
If there was ever a time that I had felt like I was about to cry about a football game, this was the time. But try as my unstable emotional state might, I could not produce tears. I couldn't even produce a sound. All that I could possibly do at that moment in time was stare at the screen, hands over my face, as Jesse Kroll pounded the ground with his hands and Saylor Lavallii looked on, wary of whether or not he should comfort his brother in battle.
As all those bright red jerseys congregated near the sky blue track surrounding the converted football field, I forced myself to turn away from the screen and finally released an expletive that I cannot write down. It wasn't supposed to end like this. This isn't how this goes. This is where the wily underdog is suppose to defy all of the odds and find a way to win despite impossible circumstances. This was a team I had grown up watching every week for four years. I went to classes with these guys. I watched these guys grow and develop. I had grown to love this team. The 2014 Popeye's Bahamas Bowl was supposed to be our moment, where everyone would remember how the Central Michigan University Chippewas came back from a (literal) .01% win probability and took home the victory, even without our best two players. The "Hurricane" play, together with this 2-point conversion was going to forever cement the 2014 Chippewas in college football lore, right next to Stanford/Cal's "The Play" and Auburn/Alabama's "The Miracle at Jordan-O'Hare II."
Instead, it became our "Friday Night Lights" moment. And no consolation prize will ever give Chippewa fans nearly the amount of satisfaction that that win could have brought to them.
At the end of the day, it is stories like this one that remind us why we love sports. They can be a microcosm of human culture. They can teach us lessons, inspire us to be our best selves, and unite us as people when something this cosmic happens. We always cheer for the little guy. We believe that something can be done, even when it does not look possible. For some reason, we always have this illogical faith that the little guy will find a way against insurmountable odds. Why do you think we all cheer for Rocky to beat Apollo, even though we've all watched the movie a million times? It's just human nature. And that's why we feel so sad or otherwise feel pity for Central Michigan, because they reached the top of college football's Mount Olympus and just couldn't cross over into immortality.
But we're all sure as hell going to remember the near-impossible rally that brought them there in the first place.