Michigan State’s game-winning fumble return for a touchdown—just as the clock struck zero—against rival Michigan marked one of the craziest endings to a college football game ever.
In case you missed it, the Spartans, despite out-gaining the Wolverines in total yards, never led until the final play—a botched Michigan punt. The punter mishandled the snap, tried to pick it up instead of falling on it, and instead fumbled the ball away and into the hands of Spartans cornerback Jalen Watts-Jackson, who ran 38 yards for the score.
As crazy as it was, it has some company for craziest ever endings. Here’s what it’s up against.
The ‘Statue of Liberty’ Conversion
The 2007 Fiesta Bowl between mighty Oklahoma and underdog Boise State is widely regarded as one of the best bowl games ever. Somehow, Broncos coach Chris Peterson had engineered his team to a quick start and Boise State held the lead until late in the fourth quarter, before things started to unravel—sort of.
A late touchdown by OU had finally evened the score with 1:26 left in the game. Then on the first play of the Broncos’ ensuing possession, quarterback Jared Zabransky threw his first pick of the day and it was a costly one—returned for a 33-yard score that seemed sure to take the life out of the Boise State sideline. But it didn’t.
Faced with a fourth-and-18 from midfield, Peterson reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a risky hook-and-ladder play—one that’s almost never seen in today’s game. But the play was run to perfection for the game-tying score, and in to overtime we went. After the Sooners’ Adrian Peterson put Oklahoma up 42–35 with his 25-yard run, the Broncos came right back with a touchdown of their own to tie the game—or so we thought.
Instead Boise State went for the win, electing for a two-point conversion, and pulled out another gem of a play—the so-called Statue of Liberty, which is just about as rare as the hook and ladder. Zabransky took the snap and faked a throw to his right while hiding the ball behind his back for an instant before running back Ian Johnson then took the ball from him and ran left for the stunning, game-winning score.
As if the Iron Bowl needed extra spice, the 2013 version not only had the SEC title on the line, but a likely spot in the BCS championship game was also on the line between the two longtime rivals.
Auburn (10–1) had surprised people by becoming a contender in head coach Gus Malzahn’s first season, while Alabama (11–0) was the two-time defending national champion.
The game was tied heading into the fourth quarter at 21, and after the teams traded touchdowns it appeared we were headed to overtime. But Alabama had the ball last and drove to Auburn’s 39-yard line with a second left. Instead of throwing the ball up for grabs into the end zone, though, Nick Saban elected for the 57-yard field goal—a decision he would soon regret.
Alabama kicker Adam Griffith’s kick would come up short and into the waiting hands of Auburn’s Chris Davis—who was standing near the back of the end zone. With nothing to lose, the speedy Davis brought the ball out, got a couple of blocks down the sideline, and was soon off to the races—untouched—for the shocking, game-winning touchdown.
The Fifth Down
Few noticed it when it happened—at least of those on the field. It wasn’t until soon after the game ended, which was played back in 1990, that one of the more egregious refereeing errors was discovered.
Down 31–27 with just over two minutes remaining, Colorado was situated at their own 12-yard line needing to find the end zone to keep their national championship dreams alive. With 38 ticks left, the Buffaloes had made it all the way to Missouri’s 9-yard line.
A 6-yard pass moved the ball to the 3-yard line, setting up first and goal, so the Buffs quickly lined up and spiked the ball to stop the clock. On second down, Colorado handed off to running back Eric Bieniemy, who gained just one yard before the Buffs players called for a timeout—and here’s where the extra down happened. Somehow in the confusion of running over to tell Buffaloes head coach Bill McCartney that it was his final timeout, the official never signaled third down and the down marker was never changed. Three plays later, Colorado scored on a quarterback sneak to win the game.
Known simply as “the play,” the game-winning kickoff return that Cal staged to beat rival Stanford in their 1982 classic is simply the craziest, most unlikely end to a game there ever was.
Stanford senior John Elway had just led the team to what looked like the game-winning field goal to put the Cardinal ahead 20–19 with just four seconds left.
Stanford then squibbed the kick, forcing Cal to return the ball, instead of being able to down it in the end zone. Their only shot at a touchdown would be to lateral the ball until someone finds some daylight to the end zone—easier said than done.
Cal’s Kevin Moen received the kick at the Bears’ 45-yard line, took a few steps forward, and then lateraled to teammate Richard Rodgers, who was near the sideline. Rodgers took a step forward before pitching to Dwight Gardner, a few steps behind him. Gardner ran into a sea of Stanford players and was nearly tackled, but pitched the ball back just as he was going down.
This is where it gets tricky. There were no lights at Cal’s Memorial Stadium, and it was late in the afternoon on a partly cloudy day, the light—or lack of it—came into play.
Stanford thought Gardner was down before he pitched it and their over-eager band started marching on the field, yet the refs hadn’t blown the whistle, so the play kept going.
Gardner’s lateral went back to Rodgers, who found some daylight in the defense and ran past midfield to Stanford’s 45 before pitching to Mariet Ford. Ford sprinted all the way to the 20 before a pair of tacklers converged on him, so he threw a no-look pitch behind him and into the hands of Moen—who originally fielded the kick.
The lucky lateral hit Moen right in the numbers, and all that’s left between him and the end zone is half of Stanford’s marching band (who inadvertently blocked Stanford’s players from catching), which Moen runs right over—and through—to score the game-winning touchdown.