Tuesday, December 13, 2011

sportscenter top ten

It's time to count down the top ten plays.  Of the season.  I wish I could do it all Sportscenter-style with highlights and witty commentary, but I don't even have the highlights yet and some of them, I never did.  So you'll just have to see it in your mind's eye.

These are the ten plays from 2011 that I thought were most influential on the season and in getting us to the Peach Bowl.  Keep in mind - there are literally over a thousand to choose from.  So you are highly encouraged to come up with some of your own if these don't satisfy, or you think there's an omission.  A lot of this comes from a quick-and-dirty memory search of my own gray matter - I figured if a play still resonates in December, it was probably that important.  Oh, and they all had good outcomes, or at least, non-bad ones.  So that one time we got totally sacked and threw an interception and fumbled and the other team scored twice on the same play and plus we got a 15-yard penalty for general principles, that didn't make the cut.

So here are this season's ten best:


-- Idaho's overtime two-point conversion attempt falls incomplete.

Lost in the final score, a narrow, 21-20 win for UVA, was that the Hoos basically dominated this game.  I'm not kidding.  We racked up almost 500 total yards, held Brian Reader to 17-of-41 passing, and Mike Rocco was efficient and took care of the ball.  But fumbles, missed field goals, and a blocked punt that was taken back for a touchdown almost turned the game into a disaster.  Idaho scored on their first possession of OT, and like all upstart WAC-snacks who smell a win, went for the all-or-nothing proposition.  But the UVA defense forced Reader from the pocket and then knocked down his pass attempt to preserve the win.  A true team effort.  I almost feel like this one should be higher - we definitely don't go to the Peach Bowl at 7-5 with that loss to Idaho, and who knows what the psyche of the team might have otherwise been like?  The score masked a much better game than appearances would have it, but fortunately, it was only a veil rather than an ugly black cloud.


-- Mike Rocco passes to Tim Smith for 34 yards in Tallahassee

In front of a sold-out and hostile Seminole crowd - it is never any different in Tallahassee - UVA had played an outstanding game on defense but only had a 13-7 deficit to show for it.  The offense had been largely motionless, other than a second-quarter drive capped by a gorgeous Rocco-to-Jones TD toss.  With 1:53 to go, the Hoos needed another comeback drive and a touchdown, or the game would simply go down as a moral-victory-but-there's-no-such-thing.

UVA started at their own 25, but the speed in which Rocco marched the team downfield was stunning.  On 2nd-and-1 on the second play of the drive, he found Tim Smith open downfield for a 34-yard pickup, the longest Rocco pass play of the night.  That hushed the crowd and changed the dynamic of the drive - UVA still had a minute and a half to score and now had the ball on the Florida State 32.  The rest was too easy; Kevin Parks would punch it in three plays later with entirely too much time on the clock, giving UVA a 14-13 lead and setting up one of the wildest finishes to any college football game in recent memory.


-- Chase Minnifield pick-six

Against Duke, UVA was having a very chippy game; it was turning out nastier than anyone had expected, and the score was (controversially) tied, 14-14, at halftime, and Duke would receive the second-half kick.  On the fourth play of the half's opening drive, however, Cam Johnson cam roaring around the edge, abusing Duke's Takoby Cofield for the umpteenth time that day, and forced Sean Renfree into a poor read and a hurried pass.  It was too far ahead of the receiver, and it settled easily into Minnifield's hands, who ran untouched into the end zone to give UVA a 21-14 lead.

Duke would soon tie it up, aided by an out-of-bounds kickoff and a 51-yard pass to the red zone, but the pick-six energized the Hoos, and when the offense finally got a hold of the ball, they would answer the Duke TD with one of their own for a lead they'd never relinquish.


-- Rodney McLeod picks off Danny O'Brien

Playing for bowl eligibility in College Park, UVA had just scored a 3rd-quarter touchdown to take a 21-13 lead, after trailing in the second quarter.  Maryland was trying to respond, and they began their drive with a 39-yard pass play to set themselves up in Virginia territory.  But on second down following that, Rodney McLeod picked off Danny O'Brien to end the threat.

There is often a turning point in a football game, or rather, in this case, a screw-it point.  Maryland's season was already in the toilet, and in fact, they were smack in the middle of a season-ending eight-game losing streak.  UVA scored relatively easily after McLeod's interception, and the game's only other tally was a score-padding field goal early in the fourth.  Psychologically, the Terps were done after McLeod's pick, his first of three, and UVA would have that coveted sixth win for bowl eligibility.


-- Matt Conrath destroys the handoff

It was a dead heat, for me, between this and Conrath's field-goal block that came a few plays later.  I chose this one because it's the single awesomest thing a defensive lineman can do: tackle the quarterback as he's handing the ball off, or even before.  Nobody expects it.  Nobody coaches with that in mind.  Even with a field goal block, teams are trained up on 1) how to avoid it in the first place and 2) what to do if they occur.  It's a waste of practice time to say, OK guys, here's what you must do if the quarterback fails to execute the handoff because there's a bad man in the backfield.

Yet that is precisely what happened against Duke.  The setup: It's a scoreless game, and it's Duke, and much to everyone's chagrin, Duke is only one of two teams that have beaten us all three of the previous losing seasons.  I mean, you hate that VT does it but they're really good.  Duke is Duke.  So it chafes that Duke has been on our case.  UNC, Maryland, Miami, GT - we've beaten them at least once, but not Duke.  So here we are in a scoreless game, the defense has just made a big third-down stop, and Duke punts - and our returner makes a really nutty, boneheaded decision, muffs the punt, and hands Duke the ball in awesome field position.  And they start moving the ball.

Then, on first down, Matt Conrath makes a mess.  He completely disregards his blocker and roars into the backfield, slamming into Sean Renfree as he tries to execute a basic handoff.  Renfree fumbles, Duke recovers - but 2nd and 15 is too much to overcome, and Duke tries a field goal.  Which Conrath also destroys.

The UVA offense then marched smartly down the field, and instead of Duke taking a 7-0 lead, it's UVA with the opening salvo.  Instead of "here we go again" it's "get off my lawn."  The entire sequence, by the way, convinced the Duke coaches that it was Conrath, not Cam Johnson, who needed to be double-teamed, and Johnson spent the rest of the day proving that yes, he needed to be double-teamed too.


-- Perry Jones and the slant-six

Against Miami on Thursday night, UVA was trying to get out of a rut.  In an attempt to salvage the season, Mike London had announced that the QB platoon was no more, and the results thus far into the game had been very positive.  But Miami had just turned a short pass to Tommy Streeter into a 51-yard touchdown, and was threatening to move into the lead, with the score 20-14, UVA.  On the subsequent drive, Virginia faced a critical third down deep in its territory, and the Miami crowd was sensing punt.  So was the Miami defense; and not only that, they were sensing run.  Miami loaded the box to stop what it thought would be a handoff.

But UVA had no intention of running.  UVA's pre-snap motion telegraphed the defense to Rocco, and with a linebacker - Miami's James Gaines - trying to cover Perry Jones in the slot, the read was easy.  Rocco threw the slant on a dart, and the target found bullseye - a beautiful throw.  Gaines gambled on the knockdown and lost, and with no safety help over the top, Jones was free to sprint the final 75 yards to the end zone.  UVA scored on the 2PC to earn a 28-14 lead, and every one of those points later came in handy....


-- Laroy Reynolds on fourth and ballgame

Course, that touchdown was looking awfully fragile by this time.  Miami sliced the deficit in half on the ensuing drive, and a three-and-out drive that started on our own eight-yard-line resulted in fantastic field position for the Canes.  They started just the other side of the 50, and churned their way to the UVA 15, eating up time as they went.  I'm pretty sure 90% of the UVA fanbase was dreading the very idea of overtime; you hate to go when it's you that's blown the lead.

The defense put Miami in its second fourth-down of the drive at the 15-yard-line, and with about two minutes to go, it was basically fourth-and-ballgame.  With two minutes and change left in the game, it was obvious that if Miami failed to convert, even if they got the ball back they'd have precious little time and no timeouts to work with.  If they did convert, they'd be just 13 yards or less from the end zone and able to work at whatever leisurely pace they desired.

Miami called a second straight handoff to Mike James, pulling their right guard and intending to power-run off-tackle to pick up the first.  But Laroy Reynolds was either blitzing that very spot, or read the play quick enough to look like it.  He blew past the tight end assigned to block him and smothered James in the backfield with a perfect tackle.  Miami did indeed get another chance at the ball after UVA picked up only one first down, but Reynolds's play put all the pressure back on the Canes, and essentially preserved the win for UVA.  It would be the first win of a season-making four-game win streak.


-- FSU's Bert Reed doesn't quite haul it in

I'm not going to cheat and call a whole series of plays one for the purposes of this list.  Otherwise the whole FSU drive could go here.  In picking the catch that wasn't, the most disservice is done to Bill Schautz and Drequan Hoskey, whose picture-perfect, textbook defense was responsible for two pass breakups.

But in the wildest finish of the season, how can we pick any other play but the one we stared at for ten minutes?  The circumstances of the play put everyone on opposite sides of sanity; UVA coaches were insisting that the Florida State receiver had made a perfectly good catch, and FSU wanted the catch by their own player overturned and ruled incomplete.  The entire drive had been a Chinese fire drill from the start and generally an example of poor clock-management by the FSU sideline.  Left with no timeouts, and on the edge of field goal range, the Seminole coaches called for a sideline pass.  A quick strike that would see the receiver catch the ball, gain a couple of cheap yards, and his momentum carry him out of bounds, stopping the clock and allowing kicked Dustin Hopkins plenty of time to set up his game-winning field goal.

Bert Reed was the target, and unfortunately for the Noles, Reed wasn't close enough to the sideline.  He dove for the ball with Laroy Reynolds providing quality coverage, and appeared - to the side judge anyway - to have successfully hauled it in.  Inbounds.  The clock ticked on, and expired before FSU could get their FG unit on.  Except - an excruciatingly long review concluded Reed didn't have control of the ball, and called the play incomplete.

The later events - an obscure penalty call on Virginia and a wide-left kick anyway - only served to add to the absurdery that was the final minute-and-six of that game.  But it's the overturned completion, with UVA's coaches herding their players back to the sideline and insisting it was a good catch by the other team, and the three thousand replays over four hours (in football-fan time) before any decision was made, is what really leaves the most indelible imprint.


-- Cam Johnson eats Edward Wright-Baker for dinner

As results go, beating eventual 1-11 Indiana by three doesn't rank too well.  But simply earning that win gave UVA several firsts - first road win for Mike London, first 2-0 start in however long - and had UVA not beaten the Hoosiers after starting the game so strongly, this, like Idaho also, could have been a psyche-killer.

UVA had had a 23-3 lead and then blown the whole thing and then some, finding itself down 31-23 in front of a suddenly delighted Hoosier crowd.  But Mike Rocco had put together a drive that still ranks as one of the season's finest, and capped it with a 2PC to tie the game at 31 - still, 96 seconds remained, and Indiana had driven the ball well enough in the second half that the crowd was plenty confident that they could work their way to field-goal range and seal it up.  Wright-Baker would eventually be replaced later in the season as IU's starting QB, but on this day he was a thorn, and in the second half had discovered how to make plays with his legs.  This latter skill was killing the Hoos.

Cam Johnson, therefore, decided he wouldn't get the chance.  Johnson roared past the left tackle and pounced on the unsuspecting Wright-Baker.  The sack was one thing - it would've forced Indiana to punt and given UVA a shot at winning.  But Johnson didn't only sack Wright-Baker, he ripped the ball free, and didn't even allow it the courtesy of bouncing on the ground.  Johnson landed on the IU 14-yard-line, ball in hand, with the referee emphatically gesturing the change of possession.  It was too fast for normal human eyes to register - first there was a beast in the backfield, and then it was UVA's ball.  Just like that.  Rarely does one single individual play directly lead to a win if it's not accompanied by the clock expiring, but this was the perfect example of such an individual effort.


-- Chase Minnifield hauls ass

This one goes here for sheer hustle.  Kids, this is why you hustle.  It matters.  It really does.

The setup: Bert Reed has just caught a pass from E.J. Manuel that traveled 15-ish yards in the air, and he's busting his butt to travel the rest of them between catch and end zone.  He's beaten his coverage, broken one tackle, and nobody is near him.  End zone is in sight, and Florida State will take a 17-7 lead.  That's not much, but in the context of a defensive struggle, yes it is.  It's like when a pitchers' duel is 1-0 and then suddenly it's 3-0.  It feels like game over.

Chase Minnifield is a hair faster than Bert Reed, though, and he was having none of this.  Minnifield sprinted for dear life after Reed, and caught up to him I mean literally just in time.  Any fraction of a second later and it wouldn't have mattered, but Minnifield was able to trip Reed up, and he came to earth at the 1-yard line.

Three plays later, FSU was two yards further back and kicking a field goal to stretch the lead to 13-7.  At the time, it felt like small consolation.  But the final score of the biggest win of London's UVA career was, as you'll recall, 14-13.  Turns out Chase Minnifield's hustle was the difference between winning and losing after all.


Coles said...

Awesome list - no beef over any of these. A few honorable mentions I'd throw in:

1. Greer's sack of EJ Manuel that preceded UVAs tying drive vs FSU.
2. Terrell's go-ahead OT TD vs Idaho (basically his only play of the year).
3. Burd's tight-rope TD vs Duke. Just a fun play.
4. Clifton Richardsons' beast-mode TD vs GT at the end of the first half.
5. Schautz' sack-strip-recovery vs. FSU early in the game.

How about a not-top-ten? 3rd and 24 vs USM comes to mind...

Anonymous said...

The biggest play of the season came with 8:02 left in the second quarter of the Miami game. We had just forced a turnover and recovered the ball at our own 23 yard line. Rocco broke the huddle, lined up and confidently fired an 11 yard completion to Tim Smith. The drive ended 6 plays later, when Perry Jones threw a 37 yard TD pass to Smith. This particular 11 yard gain wasn't important because it came after a turnover, because we desperately needed a first down, or because the drive ultimately resulted in points. Had the pass fallen incomplete, we probably still would have picked up the first down considering how we played on that drive. The play was so important because it was the fourth series of the game and Watford was on the sideline.

Brendan said...

I like the logic on that.

As for a Bottom 10, that might be fun. I'll keep it in mind but it won't necessarily be as high a priority. It'll take longer, for one, because I've tried to forget stuff like that. Plus, probably like three of them would be all of Duke's bomb-passes.

Anonymous said...

This was a cool idea for a blog post. Nicely done -- great memories!

Pete said...

No Perry Jones halfback option pass?