College Football’s Most Memorable Hail Mary Plays
When BYU backup quarterback Tanner Mangum threw a last second Hail Mary pass, which found Mitch Mathews for a game-winning 42-yard score at Nebraska Saturday, it became an instant classic.
Or at least it will become one.
Although there were better plays made by both teams, the one that most directly affected the outcome was simply a desperate prayer thrown into the end zone, with the hope that the Nebraska defense would provide an opening—and they did.
Normally, defenses are taught to make sure you don’t let a receiver get behind you—and Nebraska did just that—but they got too deep and Mathews found room in front of them and snuck in for the game-winning catch.
History says we’ll be replaying this rare, game-winning pass for years to come. Here are the other most memorable Hail Mary plays in college football to date:
1980–BYU/SMU: SMU held a 45–25 fourth-quarter lead with less than 3 minutes left in this Holiday Bowl classic before Jim McMahon and the Cougars mounted an incredible comeback. After a TD pass, BYU recovered the onside kick and scored quickly again to cut the lead to 45–39 with 1:58 left. They failed to recover a second onside kick, but the defense held and the ensuing SMU punt was blocked. With the ball at SMU’s 41, the Cougars had time for just three plays.
On the final play—still at the 41-yard-line—McMahon dropped back and heaved one into a sea of receivers and defensive backs in the end zone that was miraculously caught by Clay Brown to cap the come-from-behind win.
2002–LSU/Kentucky: Known as the The Bluegrass Miracle, Kentucky hit a field goal with 11 seconds left to take a 30–27 lead. After an LSU penalty on the return, the team started with the ball inside their 10-yard line with eight ticks left on the clock. For all intents and purposes, it was over—Kentucky had already started the celebration by pouring Gatorade on coach Guy Morriss. But the Tigers got a quick 17-yard pass that put them at the 26-yard line with 2 seconds remaining. LSU quarterback Marcus Randall threw up a prayer that bounced off two different Kentucky defensive backs’ hands finally falling into the waiting hands of LSU’s Devery Henderson—at the 15-yard line—who ran it in for the shocking score.
While LSU players celebrated the final score at one end of the field, Kentucky fans—unaware of what just happened—were tearing down the goal posts at the other end zone.
1994–Colorado/Michigan: Twenty years ago, Colorado was a major power in college football and quarterback Kordell Stewart and receiver Michael Westbrook were two of the program’s bigger stars. Michigan was still Michigan though, and playing this one at home made them the slight favorite in most people’s eyes. With 6 seconds left, and the Buffaloes trailing 26–21, Stewart, from his own 36, air-mailed the ball all the way to the end zone on the other side of the field where it was deflected into the hands of Michael Westbrook for the improbable catch.
1984–Boston College/Miami: The standard for all Hail Marys was established when 5-foot-10-inch Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie capped a wild, back-and-forth affair with this gem of a throw. The Eagles trailed the defending champions 45–41 with 6 seconds left at their own 48. Flutie was actually flushed from the pocket and made the throw from his own 37. Miami’s secondary underestimated the Heisman Trophy winner’s arm strength and allowed receiver Gerard Phelan to get behind them and into the end zone, where he caught the desperation pass.