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Wolverines

Where was the band?

How Michigan's game of hot potato nearly worked

December 30, 2005

BY MARK SNYDER

FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER

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Mike Hart prepares to flip the ball to Jason Avant -- the third of seven final-play laterals. Avant eventually would lateral the ball three times. (TOBY JORRIN/Associated Press)

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SAN ANTONIO -- For those who kicked in a television, threw down the remote control or switched to Jimmy Kimmel just before the end of Wednesday night's Alamo Bowl, you missed near-history.

Michigan almost won on a lateral-filled play that might be the most talked-about in college football this season, especially for a play that led to nothing.

It was reminiscent of California's kickoff return against Stanford in 1982, when the ball was lateraled five times and a Cal player ran through the Stanford band for a 25-20 victory with no time left.

But typical of this U-M team, a near-victory ended in a 32-28 loss to Nebraska.

Two seconds remained when the 20th-ranked Wolverines began the final play at their 36, facing second-and-10. Here's what happened on the seven-lateral play:

  • Quarterback Chad Henne took the snap and passed 13 yards to wide receiver Jason Avant, who lateraled to wide receiver Steve Breaston.

  • Breaston ran with the ball, crossed midfield and then threw it back to running back Mike Hart, who returned it to Avant.

  • Avant passed it across the field to wide receiver Mario Manningham, who ran back across the field before throwing to Avant, who retreated to Michigan's 28. Avant then threw the ball high in the air -- but still backward -- to center Mark Bihl.

  • Bihl couldn't hold the ball near the 26, which caused Nebraska players on the sideline to erupt and pour onto the field, thinking the game was over.

  • But Hart picked up the loose ball at the 20, ran a bit, then lateraled it to tight end Tyler Ecker at about the 25, where he began to run up the right side, away from the rushing Nebraska players.

    Although a few U-M people were on the field in the chaos, the U-M players mostly ran along their sideline, cheering on Ecker, who finally was hit near the Nebraska 18 by cornerbacks Titus Brothers and Zackary Bowman.

  • Ecker landed out of bounds with his hand at the Nebraska 13, ending the game.

    An official was running with Ecker, indicating that the ball was still alive.

    Had Ecker turned his head, he would have seen Breaston running behind him, waiting for a lateral. Television replays showed that Breaston could have cut left and reached the end zone virtually untouched -- had he gotten the ball.

    The ending didn't sit well with U-M coach Lloyd Carr. Nebraska had way too many players on the field, but no penalty was called.

    "It was obvious that was a violation of the rules," Carr said.

    Some U-M players thought an ineligible Nebraska player came off the sideline to make the game-ending tackle, but that wasn't correct. Brothers and Bowman were on the field at the start of the play.

    Nebraska linebacker Corey McKeon said he found the play "tiring."

    "You think you've got a guy down, and he throws it 40 yards across the field, and you have to run that far," McKeon told the Associated Press. "It's kind of a pain in the butt. But it was smart by them. They needed to get into the end zone, and they were doing everything they could to do that. It was desperation. We'd do the same thing."

    U-M's final statistical total on the play: A net gain of 51 yards (67 yards forward, 16 for loss). Each player's final numbers, according to Alamo Bowl statisticians:

  • Henne received credit for one completion for 51 yards.

  • Avant was credited with the reception for a total of minus-3 yards on his three touches.

  • Breaston had no gain.

  • Manningham lost 13 yards.

  • Hart gained five in his two touches.

  • And Ecker gained 62 yards.

  • But Ecker, Breaston, Manningham and Hart were not given a catch.

    By Free Press calculations, however, Breaston should have been credited with seven yards and Avant with minus-10.

    Contact MARK SNYDER at 248-351-3688 or msnyder@freepress.com.

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