Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features


» Futures: Ronnie Harrison

Though teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick gets more headlines, the other Alabama safety prospect in this year's draft deserves plenty of attention too.

24 Oct 2011

One Foot Inbounds: Ranking the Hail Mary

by Robert Weintraub

What do you think, two more reps on the preacher curls? Four more pullups? Just a smidgen more time in the weight room, and perhaps Wisconsin’s Mike Taylor manages to keep Michigan State’s Keith Nichol from pushing that Hail Mary grab over the goal line? Perhaps the Badgers manage to win in overtime, and remain unbeaten, thus going on to the BCS title game. Instead, they lost 37-31 to Sparty. Ironically, a program that has been built around brute strength may be out of the race for All The Tostitos because one of its players wasn’t quite strong enough.

The insane ending capped a week of every pundit in America picking Michigan State, mainly due to its defense and the fact that Wisconsin’s gaudy record and stats were built on a tissue-thin schedule. The Badgers scored two quick touchdowns, then took about 50 minutes off before a pair of late scores knotted the game at 31 and set up the Hail Mary drama. Russell Wilson didn’t hurt his reputation much, especially in the fourth quarter, as he made plays to evade Sparty’s relentless pass rush. MSU flipped end Marcus Rush from side-to-side to confuse Wisconsin’s blocking assignments, and they came at the Badgers with far more speed than any defense had thus far.

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema will probably get some undeserved static for using his timeouts at the end in order to try and get the ball back, a move that backfired when his defense twice couldn’t get off the field on big third downs. Anyway, hammering a coach for losing on a Hail Mary is the last refuge of the ultra-cynic.

Where does Kirk Cousins-to-Nichol rank on the all-time Hail Mary chart? Off the top of my head, I’d put it fifth, behind Doug Flutie-to-Gerard Phelan, Kordell Stewart-to-Michael Westbrook, LSU’s Miracle In The Bluegrass at Kentucky, and Jim McMahon’s Holiday Bowl prayer back in 1980. I’m sure there have been others, but none leap to mind -- and of course none that have been called short on the field and required replay to count. It certainly seemed to the naked eye that Nichol was in, so it was surprising the refs didn’t give it to him originally, especially at Spartan Stadium. But they got it right, touching off a wild celebration that probably is still ongoing.

We called for an overdue "Upset Saturday" in Seventh Day Adventure, and for most of the day we were treated by the football gods like bouncers would had we asked for entry to the club while wearing Bermuda shorts. But late in the evening, we slipped the beefy dude a fin and got in, as first Wiscy went down, then Oklahoma took the pipe at home against Texas Tech. Lightning delayed the game for almost two hours, which was approximately the amount of time the Sooners’ offense took off before belatedly getting in gear. By that time, the Red Raiders were ahead 31-7 en route to a 41-38 victory.

Tech ravaged the OU defense, who badly missed concussed middle linebacker Tom Wort, with crossing routes and savage downfield blocking. Teams have been complaining all season that Tech blocks illegally on many of its pass plays, and there was the occasional clip, but there were also decleaters like the one Eric Ward put on Javon Harris, leading to a big gainer. So long to OU’s 39-game home winning streak, its unbeaten season, and the potential of a massive Bedlam game in December.

The other undefeateds took care of bidness, including the other Sooner State power. Oklahoma State took care of Mizzou despite losing two of its top wideouts, 45-24. Running back Joseph Randle took the responsibility baton and ran for four scores. Missouri had a breath of life down 14 and in OSU terrain, but defensive linemen Jamie Blatnick (deflection) and Richetti Jones (juggling interception) combined to smother the Tigers' chances.

LSU was without its best running back and its best player, period, thanks to an ill-timed knock on the door from the pee-in-this-cup dude. The TMB crew (Too Many Ballers) scarcely noticed, obliterating Auburn 45-10. Alabama took the first half off, then dropped 31 unanswered points to win (and cover) against Tennessee. It will be interesting to see what effect that single bad half of football by Bama has on the spread when LSU comes to Tuscaloosa on November 5 (both teams are off next Saturday), and how much that line moves before the kick.

(Yes, I had a decent record in picks for once.)

Boise State’s players were practically invisible in those uniforms against the blue turf, so it's no surprise they beat Air Force 37-26. K-State demolished Sunflower State rival Kansas 59-21, and Houston embarrassed Marshall 63-28 (the Herd found an alternate route to their main goal: seeing Houston's backup quarterback). Stanford was extremely impressive in crushing Washington 65-21. Andrew Luck continues to be a Heisman frontrunner more on rep then actual 2011 greatness, as he was content merely to hand off and watch as the Cardinal steamrolled the Huskies for 446 yards on the ground, a school record. With USC winning impressively at Notre Dame 31-17, a Luck vs. Matt Barkley showdown at the Coliseum is next week’s marquee matchup.

Finally, Clemson continues to be the nation’s most impressive and varied offense. A 35-point third quarter sent North Carolina reeling, and showed off the Tigers’ entire quiver. Tahj Boyd threw for three scores and ran for a fourth. His first touchdown pass was as perfect a back shoulder throw as I’ve seen this season, on the money to Brandon Ford. Then Boyd found Sudden Sammy Watkins for his weekly explosive play: a skinny post that covered 42 yards. Finally, Boyd went over the middle to his superb tight end Dwayne Allen for another six. Clemson ran in a fumble for the rub-it-in score. Final? 59-38. Clemson’s defense isn’t championship quality, but who wouldn’t love to see the Tigers get a crack at any of the big name unbeatens?

Or even Wisconsin or Oklahoma.


  • What, you really thought I’d start this section with anything other than the LSU of Central New York? My ‘Cuse crushed the life out of West Virginia 49-23 on Friday night. Yes, Syracuse put more points and had the same margin of victory over the Mountaineers as did LSU earlier this season. Last year, when SU beat WVU, it was part-fluke, part-sterling-defensive-effort. This time around, the Orange destroyed West Virginia in all phases. One particular play was repeated with great success throughout the game. Quarterback Ryan Nassib, who has improved to all-conference level play, faked a zone read handoff and pulled the ball from the runner’s belly, then instead of running, he threw it to an invariably wide open tight end on a wheel route. Syracuse tight ends put up ten catches for 104 yards and four touchdowns in the game, with Nick Provo first among equals.
  • Still time to get your Orange Bowl tickets, friends.
  • Question: Was the fake ref in the wild UCLA-Arizona game actually Rick Neuheisel? It would make sense for the embattled coach to put on a disguise and lose himself in the wild brawl that followed, for when you lose 48-12 to a team that just fired its coach, there shouldn’t be any way you keep your job or your seat on the plane ride home. I would have told Ricky to hit Avis and drive back to SoCal.
  • Speaking of the hot seat, clearly there was no reason to can Houston Nutt until Ole Miss tangled with Nutt’s old team, Arkansas. Indeed, the Rebs went out to a 17-0 lead -- as anyone who has pre-gamed in the Grove at Oxford can tell you, the scene there can re-order a team’s priorities, especially when kickoff is at 11 a.m. local time. The Hogs woke up and scored 29 straight, holding on to win 29-24. Now, Mr. Nutt can be shown the door.
  • Oregon defeated Colorado 45-2. Any time a team is held to a deuce, it warrants a mention here.
  • Shout out to East Carolina QB Dominique Davis, who completed his first 26 passes in the Pirates’ 38-35 win over Navy. He had hit ten in a row to end last week’s game, giving D-squared a crazy 36 in a row. The previous record in one game was 23, held by Tee Martin, who won a BCS title, and Aaron Rodgers, who won a Super Bowl. I see a UFL championship in Davis’ future.


1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Boise State
4. Oklahoma State
5. Stanford
6. Clemson
7. Oregon
8. Kansas State
9. Arkansas
10. Wisconsin
11. Oklahoma
12. Virginia Tech
13. Michigan State
14. South Carolina
15. Houston
16. Texas A&M
17. Nebraska
18. Texas Tech
19. Michigan
20. USC
21. Arizona State
22. Southern Miss
23. Georgia
24. Penn State
25. Syracuse (OK, fine, Cincinnati)


1. Five Big Boys, OL, Stanford.
Can’t single out any one player on the Cardinal offensive line, which destroyed Washington for 446 yards on the ground.

2. Barkevious Mingo, DT, LSU. This slot could similarly have gone to the entire defensive front, or Tyrann Mathieu’s replacement Ron Brooks, who had a pick-six. But when you sport a name like Mingo does, the benefit of the doubt heads your way.

3. David Amerson, CB, NC State. Two more picks for the national leader in interceptions. Amerson has eight now, and that last one was a pick-six that iced the Wolfpack’s 28-14 win over Virginia.

4. Jerry Franklin, LB, Arkansas. The severely underrated Franklin is among the top active tacklers for an SEC career. He added seven more to his total, including a big safety, in the win over Ole Miss.

5. Kourtnei Brown, DE, Clemson. Brown scored on a fumble and an interception return in the Tigers rout of UNC.

Posted by: Robert Weintraub on 24 Oct 2011

17 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2011, 8:35pm by Lance


by andrew :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 1:17pm

For me the ultimate Hail Mary would have to be Staubach to Pearson. I mean, its where the term comes from. Even if as a Vikings fan I am forced to swear it was OPI.

I'm assuming you meant college only though... otherwise I'd go off on a tangent about Ahmad Rashad next...

by Eddo :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 1:17pm

Oklahoma's loss really, really helps Boise State. If Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State at Bedlam (I assume Oklahoma will be favored, if things hold up as they are now), then it will be awfully tough to keep an undefeated Boise State team out of the BCS Championship game against the LSU-Alabama winner.

It will help that Clemson doesn't have the pedigree of Boise State (in 1999, would anyone have believed that sentence would be true one day) and that the computers absolutely hate Stanford and the weak Pac-12.

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 2:11pm

Why would Oklahoma be favored in that game if things hold up as they are now? The Cowboys will be hosting that game and they'd be undefeated playing a Sooner team with a loss. Also not sure of the relevancy of who would be favored, given the BCS would only care about the result.

by Eddo :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 2:39pm

As things stand right now, I think the perception is still that Oklahoma is the "better" team (NOT "more deserving of a high ranking"), and thus would be favored.

If OSU dominates teams from now until then, while Oklahoma struggles with some lesser teams, then I could see that changing.

And to be honest, I thought Bedlam was played at a neutral site. That definitely weakens my stance.

by Yinka Double Dare :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 2:36pm

I think Stanford will be in front of Boise by the end of the season if they're both undefeated. Boise's SOS will get worse while Stanford still gets Oregon, USC, Notre Dame and (if still undefeated) almost certainly Arizona State in Pac 12 title game. Only wretched Oregon State is going to do damage to their computer profile. Boise has putrid New Mexico and UNLV squads on their schedule, and no one on the schedule with as good a profile as Oregon or USC.

I would love love love to see Luck versus the Bama or LSU defense. Less interested in seeing Oklahoma State or Clemson vs. the SEC champ.

by Eddo :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 2:41pm

I do think it will be close with Stanford, since their schedule does get much tougher. However, I also think it's much more likely they'll lose at some point (which goes hand-in-hand with the schedule).

by The Voice (not verified) :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 3:19pm

The Tide didn't take the first half off. They were busy wearing down the TN DL and LBs, which is why they were able to blow them out of the water in the 2nd half. TN has some talent, but no depth, and Bama game-planned accordingly. Maybe some quick strikes would have yeilded more first half points, but if you are pretty sure your game plan of grinding your opponents up and taking advantage of their poor depth is going to work, and if you throw a lot you may not be able to wear them down, why take the chance? Safer and surer to do it and have some criticize your poor first half abilities.

by Tom Gower :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 3:21pm

Surprised me by pulling out McMahon, a game that's not really on my radar. The one I thought might mention you didn't was Drew Tate in the bowl game against LSU.

I'd have to really sit down and study the computer rankings to be sure, but my guess is that if a one-loss OU beats an undefeated Oklahoma State, they'd make the BCSCG over an undefeated Boise unless the pollsters pull a 2006 and decide they want to see Boise. That's ignoring the other potential participants, mind you.

by Eddo :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 3:46pm

I'm not sure if that would surprise me or not. On one hand, it's Boise State vs. an AQ-conference team.

However, two things work in Boise State's favor: (1) they have a sustained period of being a top-ten team and appearing in BCS bowls and (2) they defeated Oklahoma itself in a BCS bowl. The second point, obviously, only applies to a choice between them and Oklahoma. There would definitely be a backlash there, in that you can't say, "Well, Boise State hasn't proven they belong", when they actually beat the team that would be edging them out. Plus, there is the narrative of a total underdog getting to go up against an SEC team once and for all. Voters have an affinity for narrative.

I think that if Boise State is one of two undefeated teams, they make the BCS championship. If there are more than two, Boise State will most definitely will not make it ahead LSU, Alabama, or Oklahoma State; their standing vs. Stanford will depend on the subjective impressiveness of the two teams' future wins; if it's just against Clemson, I would think Boise State would make it. Non-traditional-power teams from weak AQ conferences do not have an automatic ticket; remember, TCU, NOT Cincinnati, was poised to play Alabama two years ago had Texas fallen to Nebraska.

by Will Allen :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 4:04pm

Wisconsin's loss has as much to do with getting two kicks blocked than it does a Hail Mary completion. Having said that, it sure seems to me that Wisconsin did not have their best leapers on the field when leaping is what is called for, although I don't know their personnel that well. It sure looked like a linebacker or somewhat bulky safety who badly misjudged the ball. Combine what is perhaps bad situational coaching with the aforementioned two blocked kicks, and it is safe to say that Sparty was much better coached than Bucky in that game.

by nuclearbdgr :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 4:12pm

Will- the guy who jumped too soon and missed knocking down the ball was the starting WR Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers were missing both the starting SS and his backup b/c of injury.

by PHn (not verified) :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 4:39pm

Scenario I'd love to see: Oregon beats Stanford, Sooners beats OSU, but Clemson and K-State both win out. It's unlikely, esp. the bit about K-State, but entirely possible.

Then you've got a presumably undefeated SEC squad and your choice of Boise St., Clemson, or K-State. Hee hee.

by navin :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 4:59pm

Well, since the Big 12 is the highest rated conference according to the computers, I'm guessing that KSU would easily make it in over the other schools. Plus, their second half schedule is fairly difficult so they would probably deserve it.

by navin :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 5:12pm

Also, checked some lines for those interested:

Oklahoma pick OKLAHOMA STATE
ALABAMA (home) -5 LSU
STANFORD -2.5 Oregon
BOISE ST (home) -17 TCU
LSU -13.5 Arkansas
Alabama -18.5 AUBURN
Clemson -1.5 SOUTH CAROLINA (was South Carolina -3 a week ago)
STANFORD -12 Notre Dame

Basically, the LSU/Alabama winner is almost guaranteed to go undefeated. Clemson is likely to lose with games against Georgia Tech, South Carolina, and probably Virginia Tech remaining.

Alabama would be a 16.5 favorite over South Carolina, LSU would be a 14.5 favorite.
Virginia Tech would be a 1 point favorite over Clemson

by dbostedo :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 7:37pm

Given the earlier result this season, in Blacksburg, I'd think Clemson would be favored over Virginia Tech.

by Roscoe :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 8:16pm

Nothing is ever guaranteed in the SEC.

by Lance :: Mon, 10/24/2011 - 8:35pm

Oklahoma pick OKLAHOMA STATE

This is entirely unsurprising, and I'd expect this to more or less be the line when the two actually meet in a few weeks assuming no other losses, injuries, etc.

As betting lines reflect in some part popular opinion, and as OU has an incredible heritage and fanbase vs. OSU, and as OU holds OSU in true contempt, and their fans would love nothing more than to salvage their season by ruining OSU's, I totally expect heavy betting on the OU side, despite the home field, and despite this season's previous results.

And you know what, as a guy who grew up in Stillwater and who is a T-shirt OSU fan-- I'd NEVER bet OSU to win in such a game. We are cursed and will never beat OU in a meaningful game. So yeah, I'd take OU in a pick game every day of the week.