With the late-afternoon Bahamas sun beating down on a Central Michigan team that had rallied from a 49-14 fourth-quarter deficit with four touchdowns to trail WKU 49-42 in the inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl last December, the Chippewas were 75 yards away from completing an improbable comeback with just that lone second remaining on the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium scoreboard.
The play before, WKU punted from the Central Michigan 41. The Hilltoppers’ punt rolled into the end zone, and after an illegal formation call on WKU during the punt, the Chippewas got the ball at their own 25.
One shot, one second.
What looked like chaos to those in the stadium and those watching on TV, was actually something carefully worked on since fall practice began and tried once before unsuccessfully by the Chippewas on the final play against Ball State earlier in the season.
“Every day, we practiced it, and the Friday before every game during our walkthrough, we’d go over it,” Central Michigan sophomore quarterback Cooper Rush said.
The play – “Buck Right, 72 Hurricane” – had three receivers to Rush’s right, one receiver to the left and one lone man in the backfield next to the quarterback. The three receivers on the right, senior wideout Titus Davis, junior receiver Jesse Kroll and senior tight end Deon Butler, would go three different lengths down the field, while senior wide receiver Courtney Williams headed down the left side of the field by himself. The only person in the backfield with Rush was freshman running back Devon Spalding.
“Titus was deep, Jesse was in the middle and he was our best jumper,” Rush said. “He would jump up and get the pass, and lateral it to Deon, who was five yards back.”
Rush took a low snap in the shotgun formation and began to scan the field as the final second ticked off the clock. Facing a three-man rush, he rolled out of the pocket to his right and flung the football down the right side of the field into a crowd waiting at the WKU 28-yard line.
In that crowd was Kroll, along with three WKU defenders, all jumping for the ball.
“Cooper put the ball up in a really good position,” Kroll said about the pass. “I was able to come back and get a running start. I was going to attack the ball and get it at its’ highest point.”
“I had to buy a little time in the pocket, and Jesse made the play,” Rush said.
Kroll out-jumped the group, and he managed to push ahead for a couple of yards, and with two Hilltoppers sandwiching him, he threw backwards to Butler.
“I knew there were guys all around me, so I didn’t have long before I had to get rid of the ball,” said Kroll. “There was a moment when I kind of looked at Deon, and we were five yards apart. There was nobody around Deon, and he had a chance to make this into a big play, so I pitched it to him.”
“After Jesse caught it, we looked each other in the eye, and I realized we had a chance,” said Butler. “I was trying to draw as many (WKU) players as I could because I am a big target. I know I can run a 4.4 (40-yard dash), so if I could draw a couple of people on me and just flip the ball back, i would buy some time.”
Butler had space to run in, and he used his speed to run toward the opposite side of the field as the crowd noise began to rise in anticipation. Defenders were trying to hem him in, and at about the WKU 18, it looked like he might be tackled and the game would end. In desperation, he shoveled the ball behind him, where Williams was waiting.
“Deon saw me more than anything,” Williams said.
“It was like basketball – you know that person is supposed to be there,” Butler said of Williams’ trailing the play. “It was one of those instances where you throw the ball back, and somebody has to got to be right there.”
Williams was right there, and he picked the ball up low off the ground. The attention Butler’s sprint got from the Hilltopper defense forced Williams to juke left before running right as eight WKU players were within a short distance of him in all directions. Spalding helped get Williams out of the jam by blocking one of the Hilltoppers nearby.
“Once I got the ball, it was a scramble,” Williams said. “I realized I couldn’t get anywhere going to the left, so I tried to make a move and get up the field after that.”
As Williams was trying to shake the defense, to his right a few yards away was Davis, the Chippewas’ most-dangerous threat in the game with six catches – three for touchdowns – who had gone the furthest downfield after the initial snap. As the play unfolded, Davis drifted back toward the action unchecked and backpedaled into position as Williams ran with the ball.
“I was trying to get into open space and get ready,” Davis said of his getting back to the ball. “I recognized, as everyone was chasing Deon, I had no one over in my area. Once Courtney got the ball, I was screaming his name, because I saw nothing but the pylon in front of me.”
“I heard Titus scream my name a few times, which led to me to find him,” said Williams.
Williams, now at the WKU 14, did hear Davis, and he flipped the ball in the air toward the center of the field. A WKU defender raced under the floating ball for a split second, but Davis caught it low at the 15.
“I didn’t want it to bounce, so I had to go down and scoop it,” Davis said about the final lateral. “It was going through my head that doing that was going to give them (WKU) a little more time to catch up.”
As he raced diagonally toward the goal line, two Hilltoppers were closing in.
“I had to take a beeline to the sideline,” Davis said. “As I was trying to take off and gain some distance on them, I thought I would be able to turn it upfield, and that’s when they pushed me. I was putting the ball into my hand to get ready to dive, and I was forced to dive earlier than I anticipated. The defender pushed me into my dive.”
“I hit the front part of the pylon barely, and I mean barely,” Davis said of the result of his final move. “I just hit it. Obviously, in the rules, that’s all you need to do. I looked at the referee to make sure.”
The pylon fell over on its side as Davis touched it with the ball, and his momentum rolled him into a sideline Popeyes sign as the officials signaled a touchdown.
“The unthinkable with one second left … has happened,” said a stunned Steve Levy, who was calling the play-by-play for ESPN on television. “This is insane. People are texting their friends all over the country to turn their TV on. You need to see what happened at the inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl.”
“That … Just … Happened,” came from the stadium PA announcer as the CMU sideline went into bedlam.
Rush had the best look at the eventual touchdown as it developed in front of him.
“When I saw Deon get the ball and he started running with it, I said, ‘Ok, we’ve got something going,’” Rush said. “Courtney made a great play to get the ball, and once Titus got the ball, it was unbelievable, and I knew we were going to pull this off.”
Replay confirmed the touchdown, and even though the ensuing two-point conversion to win the game did not go their way, what the Chippewas accomplished over 75 yards and 20-plus seconds will go down in Popeyes Bahamas Bowl and college football lore as one of the most exciting plays ever, selected as the top play of the 2014 bowl season by SportsCenter and a 2015 Best Play finalist at The ESPYS.
How will the Central Michigan players involved remember the game and the final touchdown, named “Hail Mary” in the ESPYS vote, and also known as the “Bahamas Relay” or the “Popeyes Prayer”?
“We’ll look back at the whole big picture about how lucky we were to go to the Bahamas, how awesome the trip, the game and everything leading up to the game,” Kroll said.
“It’s a memory I can hold on to for the rest of my life,” said Rush. “We all can.”
“I know we didn’t come away with the victory, but to have a play like that go down in history, and do it with a group of guys as special as they were, that’s all I can ask for,” said Williams.
“That’s what happens when you don’t give up,” Butler said. “Even though we didn’t win, I was so proud of that team. That is a prime example for any team to never give up, because you never know what is going to happen.”
“I will look back at it and know I was blessed to be a part of it,” Davis said. “It showed us who we were as a team, how we battled back and how we played to the very end, the last second.”
One second, no matter how long it takes, is all you need, especially if it’s the very last second.