ESPN’s team of college writers and reporters has seen some things. In a world where collegiate athletics are on indefinite hiatus, denying us not only March Madness and spring football but also iconic events such as baseball’s College World Series and softball’s Women’s College World Series, our group was enlisted to reflect on the top players, teams and performances that have marked its members’ many decades of collective coverage. All college sports were on the table, but much like their MLB colleagues, our writers were bound by one rule — they had to have seen the moments they were recounting in person.
Up next in our weeklong series — the incredible plays our group witnessed across the collegiate landscape.
Ivan Maisel: I was in the stands for The Play. I covered the Kick Six. I saw Reggie Bush defy physics. I watched Tommie Frazier break umpteen tackles by Florida on his 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. But when I think about the best play I ever saw, I think of Kordell Stewart’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook as time expired to give Colorado a 27-26 victory at Michigan in 1994. A desperation call, a Hail Mary pass, a game-winning touchdown: the best execution of a play I ever saw.
Myron Medcalf: Kris Jenkins. Villanova. 2016 national title game. I think that will be my answer forever. If he’d just thrown up a 40-footer to beat North Carolina, seconds after Marcus Paige hit a big shot to tie the score, we would have been impressed, but the development of that play — Ryan Arcidiacono bringing the ball up the floor, Daniel Ochefu setting him free with the backscreen and a trailing Jenkins nailing the most impressive NCAA tournament shot since Christian Laettner — was incredible. I remember trying to figure out what I’d just witnessed as I ran toward the North Carolina locker room for a postgame piece. It was wild.
Ryan McGee: That’s easy. T.C. Williams Titans vs. Marshall, when Sunshine and Rev ran Fake 23 Blast with a Backside George Reverse. Wait … that wasn’t real, was it? Sorry. Since this quarantine started I’ve been watching every sports movie on Disney+ over and over.
Mark Schlabach: Sorry, McGee, this one wasn’t fiction. In 2001, Georgia played its first big road game under coach Mark Richt at Tennessee. The Vols scored on a long touchdown to take a 24-20 lead with 44 seconds to go. The Bulldogs took possession at their 39-yard line, and freshman quarterback David Greene completed three passes to reach the UT 6 with 10 seconds to go. After a timeout, Greene faked a handoff to tailback Musa Smith and then dumped a pass over the top of the defense to fullback Verron Haynes for a stunning 26-24 victory. The play — P44 Haynes — produced one of legendary play-by-play announcer Larry Munson’s most famous calls: “We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose. We just crushed their face.”
Mechelle Voepel: It was actually a timeout to reset a play. North Carolina trailed Louisiana Tech 59-57 with seven-tenths of a second left in the 1994 national championship game. The Tar Heels were going to lob inside for their 6-foot-5 center, Sylvia Crawley. But inbounds passer Stephanie Lawrence saw that was well-covered, and called a timeout. Asked postgame how she kept her head and made that decision, Lawrence said she had been inbounding the ball for years and, “I never get nervous anymore.”
Coach Sylvia Hatchell then decided to go for broke, and called a play where team star Charlotte Smith was to get the ball beyond the arc — even though she had made just 8 of 31 attempts from 3-point range all season. But she swished it, and North Carolina went from defeat to national championship. It goes back to Lawrence calling the timeout, and then making a perfect inbounds pass to Smith. I asked Lawrence years later about her “never getting nervous” comment, and she laughed and said whenever she watches the end of that game now, she’s incredibly nervous.
Chris Low: It was my first game at The Big House, and given the way Michigan lost that day in 2015, I might never be invited back. The game was for all intents and purposes over. Michigan led 23-21 with 10 seconds to play and had only to punt the ball away from midfield. But punter Blake O’Neill mishandled the low snap, tried to pick the ball up, and it landed right in the waiting arms of Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson, who returned the fumble for a winning, 38-yard touchdown on the final play of the game.
Watts-Jackson, a redshirt freshman, had never even touched the football previously in a college game, and adding to the drama, dislocated and fractured his left hip as he was tackled while diving into the end zone and then mobbed by teammates. Watts-Jackson’s hip was reset, and he was immediately taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. On the bumpy ride there, Dr. Mike Shingles, Michigan State’s orthopedist, looked down at Watts-Jackson and said, “I know you’re hurting, but you just won the game.”
On Oct. 17, 2015, while leading with 10 seconds remaining in the game, Michigan botched a punt, resulting in a Michigan State touchdown and a miraculous Spartans victory.
Jeff Borzello: I had a really lucky string of games in the 2018 and 2019 NCAA tournaments, seeing Jordan Poole‘s buzzer shot to get Michigan past Houston 3 feet in front of me and then getting most of Virginia’s run in the 2019 tournament. But just like in Wednesday’s installment of this series, I have to go back to the Virginia-Purdue Elite Eight game for this one, too.
The Boilermakers were up three with 5.9 seconds left in regulation and they fouled Ty Jerome — who promptly made the first free throw. Jerome missed the second, but Mamadi Diakite tipped the ball back and Kihei Clark retrieved it in the backcourt. Nearly everyone in the arena expected Clark to launch a desperation half-court heave, but he instead rifled a one-handed, 40-foot pass to Diakite, who quickly attempted a short jumper to tie the score and send the game to overtime. Virginia went on to win that game and the national championship, becoming the ultimate redemption story.
Adam Rittenberg: This one won’t register for most, but mention “Victory Right” to a Northwestern fan and they’ll immediately know what you mean. I covered the 2000 Northwestern team for the student newspaper, and witnessed several incredible finishes as the team won a share of the Big Ten championship. A week before outlasting Michigan 54-51, Northwestern went to the Metrodome and struggled, trailing Minnesota 35-14 before a furious fourth-quarter rally. The game appeared headed for overtime, but Northwestern won on a 45-yard Hail Mary as time expired. Quarterback Zak Kustok heaved the ball toward the right corner of the end zone, where Kunle Patrick, a former volleyball player, deflected the ball to teammate Sam Simmons for the score.
On Oct. 28, 2000, with the score tied and few seconds remaining, Northwestern’s Zak Kustok heaves a Hail Mary pass, which gets batted into the air and hauled in by Sam Simmons, giving the Wildcats the miraculous win over Minnesota.
Northwestern rehearsed the play, “Victory Right,” at the end of every Thursday practice. “I’ll bet you we hit it 80% of the time,” coach Randy Walker said. The play worked again in 2001 to set up a winning field goal against Michigan State. Sadly, the proposed headline for my Minnesota game story — “Hail Mary, Hail Yes” — never made it to print.
Joe Lunardi: Grant Hill threw a touchdown pass and Christian Laettner called game.