One year ago, Miami’s miracle return against Duke capped an emotional week

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It’s a cool Halloween night at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, and Duke has just taken a 27-24 lead over Miami with six seconds to play in the 2015 edition of the teams’ annual ACC Coastal matchup.

For the Blue Devils, holding a lead against the Hurricanes is somewhat uncharted territory. In 10 prior meetings with Miami since the ‘Canes joined the ACC, Duke had lost nine times by an average of 18 points per game. In six of those losses, Duke never led, and in one in which it did, it was early, and only by virtue of a gimme field goal after Miami fumbled the opening kickoff at its own 8.

The other two losses did feature a hint of hope, followed shortly thereafter by the usual disappointment. In 2008, the team’s first year under current coach David Cutcliffe, Duke sat on a 10-point second-half advantage before allowing five straight touchdowns. Then in 2009, Duke led 16-10 in the third before giving up 24 unanswered points over the final 23 minutes.

This time was going to be different, though — and how could it not be? Win probability formulas put Miami’s chances of victory somewhere around one tenth of one percent, given the circumstances. The game, for all intents and purposes, was over.

But then, thanks to one of the most miraculous and controversial game-ending plays in college football history, it wasn’t.

*****

To say the Miami football program was in turmoil in the days leading up to their biennial visit to Duke would be putting things lightly.

The ‘Canes were coming off a 58-0 home loss to No. 6 Clemson — the most lopsided defeat in the program’s 90-year history. Miami’s administration had seen enough. Coach Al Golden was fired the next day, replaced in the interim by tight ends coach Larry Scott.

“We took the time to acknowledge what had happened, to let them talk about it, let them vent about it, let them get it all out,” Scott, now the tight ends coach at Tennessee, told FOX Sports recently. “And then we rallied around each other, rallied around the idea that life is about change, and that it’s not what happens to you, but how you choose to deal with it.”

To make matters worse, the team was also still reeling from the unexpected death of Dana Smith, the mother of star cornerback Artie Burns. Smith’s sudden passing of a heart attack at age 44 the week prior had devastated the players, making it harder for many of them to focus on football.

“When you’re talking about dealing with the human emotion, it’s a very tough thing, especially when you’re talking 18- to 22-year-olds and there’s 115 of them,” Scott said. “So you have to rely on some of your leadership and some of the coaches in the room, but you also have to really take the time to bring it all back to real life.

“Life presents people with challenges at times when you’re really not ready for them. And it was a teachable time for us all, as mentors, to draw these young men to something that was actually bigger than the game — to rally around each other and play the game they’ve been playing since they were very young, and to just let this be their release from it all.”

After a scoreless first quarter, Miami scored two quick touchdowns to go up 14-0 on Duke midway through the second and subsequently took a 14-3 lead into the half. In the third, the Blue Devils pulled within two thanks to a touchdown and a safety, but the Hurricanes responded once again and took a 24-12 lead on a Michael Badgley field goal with 5:54 to play.

Ordinarily, that would have been enough for Miami to escape with a W, but Johnell Barnes breathed life into the Blue Devils with a touchdown catch with 2:40 to go. Duke then got the ball back at its own 20 with 1:50 to play following a Miami three-and-out and a touchback, and 10 plays and 80 yards later, Duke took a three-point lead on a Thomas Sirk touchdown and two-point conversion.

“But the players wouldn’t give up on the week,” said Robert Wright, the former Miami grad assistant who took over the UM special teams unit after Golden, who also served as special teams coordinator, was dismissed. “They could have packed it in that game, and they could have packed it in when Duke scored late, but they just kept fighting.”

*****

The play Scott handed down to his return unit with six seconds to go was called “Desperado” and was originally designed not as an end-of-game Hail Mary, but as a trick play the Hurricanes hoped to use, at some point, to catch an opposing kickoff unit off guard.

Desperado was drawn up during training camp and had also been in the game plan the week before, against Clemson. It essentially asked a return man to field the ball on one side, start his return, then throw it across the field to a second player who would hopefully be uncovered on the opposite sideline. Except in this particular case, Miami knew Duke wouldn’t be kicking deep, so Scott tweaked the call, bringing in his “Magic City” package, which put better ball-handlers on the field as up-men, anticipating a Blue Devils squib.

Scott also knew there’d be no fooling Duke in this particular instance, considering that a Stanford-Cal “Big Game”-style lateral play was the only feasible way Miami might steal a victory. So as he sent his 11 onto the field, his parting message was simple.

“It was something we had worked a few times, a backyard, recess-type mindset,” Scott said. “When the game is on the line, you’ve just got to keep the ball moving enough to move it down the field and see if there’s an opportunity to pop one for a touchdown. So we just looked at each other, made the call and said, ‘This is what we’ve got to do. Let’s have fun with it and believe.’”

For many, that second part — actually, genuinely believing — might be tough to fathom, especially considering the task at hand and mood surrounding the Miami program at the time. But Scott says he had no choice but to hold out hope that the play might work.

“Deep down, you have to believe,” he said. “This is something that you spend time to cover and talk about, situational football. In this situation, it’s the last hope, the last chance we have, and if there is a chance, we want to make sure we have something in place that will give us an opportunity. And if you don’t believe that it has a chance to work, then why do it? Why just go through the motions?

“Our time in college football is always numbered,” Scott continued. “And if you designate five to 10 minutes of any practice to even discuss it, then you better believe in what you’re discussing.”

As expected, Duke kicker Ross Martin kept the kick short, and Miami defensive back Dallas Crawford corralled the ball at his own 25-yard line, near the right hash mark. After advancing five yards to the 30, Crawford, a former high school quarterback, turned and fired a pass back to junior return man and defensive back Corn Elder, who caught it near the 20.

After initially reaching the 33-yard line as time expired, Elder retreated to the 27, then flipped the ball underhand to true freshman defensive back Jaquan Johnson, who fielded it on a hop at the 22. Johnson evaded one Blue Devils defender, but was unable to move the ball upfield, so he pitched it back to fellow true freshman Mark Walton, a running back.

Walton started at the 15, then faked a pitch to freeze the three Duke defenders closest to him. The move allowed Walton to reach the 25, where he lateraled the ball back to Johnson as he was being tackled by Alonzo Saxton II.

High-res images later showed that Walton’s right knee appeared to touch the ground before he could flip the ball to Johnson, but officials let the play continue. Johnson then scooped the ball off the ground at the 21 and immediately tossed it back to sophomore wide receiver Tyre Brady, who caught it at the 19-yard line.

 

At that point, 20 seconds had passed since Crawford initially touched the ball, and Brady says by then he was confident the play would bear fruit — even though the Hurricanes were still 81 yards from the end zone.

“I knew it was going to work because the Duke defenders kept following each person we threw the ball to,” said Brady, who transferred to Marshall in January and is currently sitting out this season, per NCAA rules. “That’s what we wanted them to do, so when we saw that, we knew we had them. We just had to wait until the perfect time to set it up.”

After taking three steps back to the 17, Brady threw an overhand pass back to Elder, who was standing near the left hash at the 10-yard line. Elder then flung the ball back to the original returner, Crawford, who caught it at his own 3.

“When we put him in we said, ‘If you get the ball,’ — Dallas is smart, a fifth-year senior at the time — 'try and swing it out to Corn,’” Wright recalled of the original instructions. “‘And if you can’t, just try to keep going and keep working toward running that play again.’”

So 27 seconds after the play began, Miami started over from the beginning.

This time, Crawford followed a pair of blocks to get to the 15 before throwing a second spiral back to Elder, who caught it halfway between the left hash and the sideline at the 9-yard line. Except this time Elder — who had a 72-yard punt return touchdown earlier in the year against Bethune-Cookman — had numbers, and after a huge David Njoku block took out two Duke defenders, the race to paydirt was on.

“There’s a guy that believes,” Scott said of the tight end Njoku, at the time a redshirt freshman. “There’s a guy that wasn’t just out there going through the motions, thinking this doesn’t have a chance to work. There’s a guy that went out and said, ‘You know what, if I’m in front of the ball I’m going to block and if I’m behind the ball I’m going to stay behind it and put myself in a lateral position.’ So he took on the job and he believed, and obviously we saw the results.”

As Elder ran along the sideline, Walton and freshman linebacker Charles Perry each laid a block on a Duke defender, near the Miami 40 and midfield, respectively, leaving Elder with one man, Blue Devils running back Shaquille Powell, to beat. Elder then danced around Powell at the Duke 41, and looked upfield to find only grass between himself and a touchdown.

“I actually didn't even stay in the booth long enough to see him score,” said Wright, now a defensive grad assistant at Illinois. “I ran out of the booth to try to get to the field and ran into our video coordinator in the hallway. And, at Duke, their stadium is set up so that when you leave the coaches’ booth, you’re actually in the mezzanine, so there’s lots of fans there, watching us going crazy.”

Meanwhile, down on the field, an emotional Scott had rushed to the end zone to meet his players and join in the celebration of a 30-27 victory.

“You really can’t go back and explain what that was like,” Scott said. “As you’re standing there watching, you just keep saying to yourself, ‘Keep playing, keep playing, keep playing, keep playing,’ and then he breaks it and you go, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to score.’”

And then the whistle blew.

*****

Moments after declaring that the play, which had been ruled a touchdown, was under review, referee Jerry Magallanes announced to the stunned crowd that there had been a block in the back during the return.

The culprit was Walton, who took out one last Blue Devils defender, cornerback Breon Borders, as Elder sprinted toward the end zone. At the time of the block, which occurred at the 26-yard-line, Borders was no threat to catch Elder. Magallanes indicated that Miami would be hit with a 10-yard penalty — with the origin of the penalty depending on the result of the ongoing review — and the teams would play an untimed down to end the game.

If the rest of the play held up, Miami would have had an opportunity at a 53-yard field goal to tie, so the mood on the sideline wasn’t necessarily one of panic. But for a team that had endured one of the toughest weeks imaginable coming in, the impact was still devastating.

“It was the most intense period of time I’ve ever been a part of in a football game,” Scott said. “You’re sitting there and you’re waiting and you’re trying to control the emotions of your kids, who just went from the lowest of the low, to the highest of the high, to a flag on the field and feeling the lowest of the low again. Those young men had poured everything into that game despite everything that had gone on, and mentally they found a way to put themselves in a position to win it, and the fate was resting on that call.”

Eventually, Magallanes returned to the field and stated that, not only had Walton’s knee not been down earlier in the play, but Walton’s illegal block had actually come from the side, not the back. The touchdown was upheld, and the game was over.

“After the week that the players had and everything that went on, it made it that much more special,” Wright said of the win. “It was awesome to see the players celebrate and enjoy something, which they hadn’t done much that entire week. And it was exciting for them to kind of get out of all the uncertainty, the new head coach, coming off of a big loss, and bounce back and get a victory.”

Of course, the controversy didn’t end there. The following day, the ACC announced that it had suspended the Miami-Duke officiating crew for two games due to a “series of errors” on the final play of the game.

For starters, the league said, Walton’s knee was down prior to making the fourth of eight Miami laterals during the 46-second return, and the game should have ended there. In addition, the ACC determined that Walton’s block at the Duke 26-yard line was legal, but that a different block in the back, on freshman wideout Lawrence Cager at the Miami 16, had gone uncalled.

If properly called, the Hurricanes would have taken over for one play from their own 8 — this assuming that the officials still had not ruled Walton down at the 25.

Further, the league stated that Magallanes “did not effectively manage communication and properly explain” why the block in the back flag on Walton was picked up, as the impression to some was that the call came from the replay official, which it didn’t. And for good measure, officials also failed to penalize a Miami player for leaving the bench area and entering the field of play while the ball was still live. However, that particular call would have been enforced as a dead ball foul and would not have negated the score.

As he looks back a year later, however, Scott doesn’t get hung up on what could have or should have been called or what a loss might have meant for the rest of Miami’s season. (The Hurricanes won four of their final five regular season games after Scott took over, then lost to Washington State in the Sun Bowl.)

Instead Scott simply embraces the play for what it was: one of the greatest moments of his coaching career. And that, he says, is more than enough.

“It really re-energized me as a coach,” Scott said. “Because as coaches, sometimes we can get caught up in scheme and the pressures of putting a winning product on the field, and you really sometimes take for granted why we do what we do. And that’s to be a part of young people’s lives and have a positive effect on them as you develop them, not only as players, but as young men.

“So it helped me to reorganize my priorities,” he added. “Because sometimes with all of the other things going on, that can tend to be overshadowed, and having an opportunity to be a part of that actually brought it all back for me.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.