This year’s road to the College Football Playoff has kept football fans on an emotional rollercoaster. With triumph and heartache at the epicenter of every game teams, coaches, and devoted fans have experienced their fair share of highs and lows. While some players ended their seasons with a hard fought victory and others move forward from a toughening loss, these bittersweet moments commemorate an unforgettable year with memories that will last a lifetime.
Now that we National Signing Day is upon us, with the promise of future college stars coming to the forefront, let’s take a quick look back at the best moments this year. But before that, a quick rundown of some honorable mentions.
Malik Hooker’s Juggled Interception (OSU vs. Bowling Green) Sept. 3, 2016; Lamar Jackson’s Hurdle (Louisville vs. Syracuse) Sept. 9, 2016; Nyquan Murray’s 92-Yard Orange Bowl Score (FSU vs. Michigan) Dec. 30, 2016
10. The Miracle in the Trenches (Army vs. Navy) Dec. 10, 2016
In one of the most iconic matches in college football, the Army-Navy rivalry was once again renewed and it did not disappoint. Having lost 14-straight appearances to the Midshipmen, the Black Knights had their eyes set on breaking this tenured streak and add to its 7-5 season, Army’s best record since 2010.
After a 14-0 advantage at the half, the Knights found themselves trailing by three with 12 minutes left in the game. Junior Ahmad Bradshaw took matters into his own hands helping lead an 80-yard drive down the field only to take it in himself for a score.
After a 3-and out and the ball back within Army’s hands, the junior quarterback converted a decisive 3rd and a yard to seal the victory. What seemed like an ordinary yard was the difference maker in rewriting history between these two well-respected teams.
9. Heisman Hopeful’s Punt Return (Michigan vs. Rutgers) Oct. 8, 2016
There are a handful of football players who’ve earned the respect of being called a dual-threat athlete. As someone who can line up on both sides of the field, you must be able to think, perform, and outsmart your opponent. Michigan great Charles Woodson earned this role during his three years in Ann Arbor and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as current Wolverine Jabrill Peppers has evolved into his protégé.
As a defensive back and punt returner, Peppers’ ability to read offenses and return balls resembled the former Heisman winner himself. His punt return against Rutgers stands as compelling evidence.
Starting from the 43-yard line, the junior lit up the Scarlet Knight’s secondary. In a span of eight seconds, Peppers eluded three tackles, spun past a defender, and dodged underneath another for the score. While the return was eventually called back, this play showed flash, versatility, and athleticism.
Turning heads with all these ingredients, the Heisman finalist will sit along his fellow maize and blue alumni Woodson and earn his stripes as a Heisman finalist this season.
8. Noah Brown’s Field Day in Norman (OSU vs. Oklahoma) Sept. 17, 2016
A packed crowd in Norman, Oklahoma, two AP-ranked teams, and a Saturday night game on prime time television; what more could you ask as a college football fan?
After a 59-17-blowout victory the week prior against Louisiana Monroe, No. 14 Oklahoma thought it’d have no problem taking care of business on their home field once more. But wide receiver Noah Brown and the No. 2 ranked Buckeyes had other plans in mind.
On the final play of the second half and a 28-17 lead, quarterback J.T. Barrett threw a high pass to the end zone giving his OSU teammate a chance to make a play. With man-to-man coverage against a smaller defender, the 6’2” Brown caught the ball fastening it to the back of Sooner’s Michiah Quick all the way down to the ground for the score.
This touchdown catch and three more by Brown epitomized the end result of this crucial nonconference matchup as the Sooners struggled to get things going their way falling to the Buckeyes 45-24.
Brown’s field day and top-10 highlight kept Ohio State’s playoff chances alive and No. 2 ranking intact.
7. Grant Haley’s Blocked Kick (Penn State vs. Ohio State) Oct. 22, 2016
With a sea of white and over 107,000 in attendance, Penn State’s home-field advantage was taken to another level this year packing out “Happy Valley” against 6-0 Ohio State. A 21-7 deficit wasn’t the sweetest cup of tea for the Nittany Lions early on in the game, but a 4th quarter rally and touchdown run by quarterback Todd McSorley helped spark up his team now just trailing 17-21 with 9 minutes to go.
An 11 play, 59-yard drive by the Buckeyes after was not enough to extinguish the fire. Left with a critical 4th and 7 and 4:39 to go, Head Coach Urban Meyer was faced with a tough decision to trust his offense or settle for a field goal.
The play clock winded down to its final seconds and walk-on kicker Tyler Durbin rushed to the left hash mark for a 45-yard attempt. Quickly setting up with only two seconds to spare, Durbin’s sent the kick up in the air but only to be batted down by the Lions’ Marcus Allen.
Ricocheting downfield and scooped up by Grant Haley, the Penn State corner returned the ball 60 yards staggering into the end zone.
With it’s first lead of the ball game and some much needed momentum, a three point advantage was all Penn State needed to seal the victory. On a long 4th and 23 with 1:23 to play the Lions took Barrett down in the backfield, ending the game and handing Ohio State an unpredicted upset.
A blocked kick and defensive stand allowed the unranked team to steal what was arguably the most important game of the season and key win in front of the College Football Playoff Committee.
6. Jourdan Lewis’ One-Handed Grab (Michigan vs. Wisconsin) Oct. 1, 2016
If the ball-hawking presence of Jabrill Peppers wasn’t enough to consider Michigan an elite defense last year cornerback Jourdan Lewis can be another reason to take this into account.
In a statement game Week 6 against No. 8 Wisconsin the senior defensive back made one of the most breath-taking interceptions college football fans have ever seen and he did it with style.
The Wolverines took a slim 14-7 advantage midway into the 4th quarter. Looking to keep a stagnant Badgers’ offense at bay Michigan pinned the Badgers deep in the back of it’s end zone with 2:23 to go. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook took the Badgers’ last shot launching the football downfield.
Up for grabs, Lewis defied the laws of physics hanging in the air and cradling in a one-handed interception to put the nail in the coffin.
In one of it’s biggest matches of the year against a Big Ten opponent, the Michigan came away victorious and a College Football Playoff favorite thanks to the go-ahead play by Lewis.
5. Saquon Barkley’s Rose Bowl Run (Penn State vs. USC) Jan. 2, 2017
In what developed into an offensive duel between the two hot-ending teams, No. 9 USC and No. 5 Penn State gave us one of the finest Rose Bowl matchups in recent memory thanks to offense, back and forth scoring, and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.
With the Trojans holding on to a slim 27-21 lead, the sophomore running back lined up behind the his own 21-yard line knowing a play needed to be made.
Watching the line collapsing before him, two jukes and a lateral sweep from one side of the field to the other was all Barkley needed to return what seemed like a broken run up the gut into a 79-yard feast and Penn State touchdown heading into the 3rd quarter.
While a heartbreaking field goal stood in between a Rose Bowl victory and potential Game MVP award for Barkley, this big run encapsulated the utter beauty and talked about moments the Rose Bowl has been prized for.
We’ve seen stars of the past like Reggie Bush and Vince Young make game-changing plays and leave their imprint in one of college football’s most renowned bowl games; this year was no different with Barkley’s electric performance. 194 yards and two touchdowns were not enough to spare the Penn State tailback a 52-49 loss, but yet in still, sufficient enough to provide Rose Bowl fans with a memory of a lifetime.
4. Jajuan Jennings’ Hail-Mary Catch (Tennessee vs. Georgia) Oct. 1, 2016
Sophomore Jajuan Jennings had a quiet two catches for 28 yards to show for heading in to the final moments of his Tennessee Volunteers versus Georgia Bulldogs game. While this subtle performance didn’t stand for much, little did he know it was leading up to the biggest moment of his career.
With the Bulldogs taking a 17-0 lead early on in the first half, Bulldog fans were anticipating a blowout win and snapping of the Vol’s 5-0 win streak.
But just like the majority of these SEC rivalries have panned out throughout time, a 4th quarter comeback run and pivotal catch were the deciding factors in turning this lopsided game around for the Volunteers.
With the game reaching it’s final seconds at 28-31 and the Volunteers down on the Georgia 43-yard line, quarterback Joshua Dobbs stepped out of the pocket and threw a desperate heave downfield.
In the end zone and swarmed by the Bulldogs secondary, Jennings timed the ball perfectly to secure a game-winning grab. Georgia fan’s hearts sunk in defeat and Volunteers’ Head Coach Butch Jones sunk to the ground in disbelief processing what just happened before him. The Volunteer’s remained unbeaten and Jennings walked out of Sanford Stadium with a performance he’ll forever cherish.
3. Central Michigan’s Lateral (Central Michigan vs. Oklahoma State) Sept. 10, 2016
They say miracles come far and few but for Central Michigan, it was a combination of luck and being in the right place at the right time that assembled a miraculous ending.
A controversial grounding call by Oklahoma State gave Chippewas quarterback Cooper Rush and Central Michigan one final shot at overcoming a 24-27 deficit. Rush threw a prayer down the field somehow connecting with receiver Jesse Kroll nine yards short of the end zone.
With a defender pulling him down, Kroll instinctively found teammate Corey Willis behind him and lateraled the ball. Willis, locked in a footrace to the other side of the field, got one step past his defender and dove for the end zone score just as time expired.
Whether intentionally executed or a series of fortunate events, this Hail Mary heave marked one of the most electrifying and game-ending plays of the season.
2. Curtis Samuel’s Double-OT Run (Ohio State vs. Michigan) Nov. 26, 2016
They call it the greatest rivalry in college football for a reason and this year’s game added to a collection of matches the people of Columbus, Ohio and Ann Arbor, Michigan look back on.
Tensions were expectedly high at “the Shoe” as No. 6 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State understood their bout was about bragging rights. With the score locked at 17-17 heading into overtime, quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and final Wilton Speight answered with a score each to force the game to an additional OT.
Double overtime however was all about OSU running back Curtis Samuel. After a pivotal 4th down conversion and fresh 1st and 10, the Bucks handed the ball off to their playmaker Samuel taking a cutback down the left side of the field for a 15-yard score. This go-ahead run ignited the scarlet and grey as fans stormed down to the field to celebrate their 30-24 victory in dramatic fashion.
Accompanying the marching band for their traditional “Carmen Ohio” song, this overtime win couldn’t help but feel exceptionally sweeter than the program’s 47 wins over the team up north before.
1. Deshaun Watson’s Goal Line Throw (Clemson vs. Alabama) Jan. 9, 2017
Every defending national champion has something to prove at the start of a new season, but this year it wasn’t so much about the champion Alabama Crimson Tide as it was for the runner up.
No. 2 Clemson’s loss to Alabama last year sparked a conscious fire that brewed throughout the season. With revenge and a rematch in sight, the Tigers stopped at no ends to achieve what they couldn’t last year: a national championship.
Getting their chance in early January pairing up against their SEC foes again, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson made sure this moment wouldn’t slip away from him.
After a 30-yard run by Alabama’s Jalen Hurts put the Tide up 31-28 with 2:07 to go, Watson rallied together for what would be his most important drive of the season. Starting from the Tigers’ own 32, the Heisman runner-up completed five passes to set his team up on the 2-yard line for a game-winning play.
With six seconds left and football fans on the edge of their seats, Watson bootlegged to the right of the pocket and delivered an out route pass to a wide-open Hunter Renfrow for the game winner.
Just like that, the defending champs had been dethroned and Clemson handed Bama Head Coach Nick Saban his first championship loss ever.
Redemption never tasted so good for the Tigers heading back to South Carolina this time with a title to vouch for.
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