Six seconds on the clock, three points down, game on the line. What do you do?
Call the play. Call “Desperado.”
Pretend you’re back on the playground, back on the street.
Improvise. Dance. Bob and weave. Chuck it to the open man. Toss it like a hot potato. Just keep the ball alive.
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The University of Miami football team conjured a miracle last year against Duke. Trailing 27-24, the Hurricanes made a kickoff return into a zig-zagging, five-star, 46-second escape thriller that will never lose its entertainment value. In one of the wildest finishes in college football history, a series of eight laterals involving five players culminated in Corn Elder’s 91-yard feint-and-sprint for the winning touchdown.
Elder, a senior cornerback, plays his last home game Saturday when UM (7-4, 4-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) meets Duke (4-7, 1-6) in a rematch. Coaches Mark Richt and David Cutcliffe are doing their best to downplay “The Play” as irrelevant to this season finale. But Elder loves reliving it and gets asked about it constantly. Like Thanksgiving leftovers, the memory doesn’t lose its flavor.
“It’s something you never think you’ll see, much less be a part of,” said Elder, the chief Houdini who touched the ball three times on the play. “It’s one of those things when you talk about it, you don’t have to exaggerate.”
The dramatic victory was extra sweet given the awful week that preceded it, starting with a 58-0 humiliation by Clemson — the worst loss in program history — in which quarterback Brad Kaaya sustained a concussion. Coach Al Golden was fired the next day. Artie Burns’ mother died on Tuesday.
So when interim coach Larry Scott and the demoralized Canes found themselves losing in Durham after 22nd-ranked Duke scored the go-ahead touchdown with six seconds left, there was only one thing to do. Reach up the sleeve and pull out the trick play.
Special teams assistant coach Robert Wright sent the call for “Desperado” down to the huddle from his perch in the stadium box. You’ve probably never heard of Wright, a 22-year-old economics major and graduate student assistant who had been a walk-on safety as a freshman. Wright, raised in St. Louis, where his father, Rick Wright, was team physician for the Rams, was a budding coaching talent, nurtured by Golden.
Golden was gone by then, but this remnant of his playbook was chosen for that moment in time.
“We practiced it and had planned to run it against Clemson the week before, but we fell so far behind,” Wright said. “We planned to run it earlier in the Duke game, but didn’t have the opportunity.”
It was a variation on a play the Tennessee Titans ran against the Buffalo Bills in the 2000 AFC playoff game called the “Music City Miracle.”
“Coach Golden brought his version of it from Temple. We ran it unsuccessfully against Maryland in 2011 and Virginia in 2013, and then we amended it slightly,” Wright said.
When asked how it was amended, he went into CIA mode.
“That’s proprietary information,” said Wright, now a grad assistant at Illinois.
Safety Dallas Crawford was inserted to initiate the play because he had been a high school quarterback. He caught the squib kick at UM’s 25-yard-line and threw the ball 15 yards across the field to Elder, who was determined to make up for what had happened on Duke’s previous drive, when he’d been flagged for two of UM’s three pass interference penalties. UM was penalized 23 times total — second most on record.
Elder charged forward, ran into a wall of defenders, scrambled backward and flipped the ball underhanded on a bounce to Jaquan Johnson, who tossed it to Mark Walton.
Walton tried to slash upfield but got tackled by the waist, and as he fell he shoveled the ball with his right hand to Johnson. Subsequent replays showed Walton’s knee was down before he got rid of the ball, but officials didn’t call it.
Johnson scooped up the skidding ball from the turf, and in lateral No. 5 bailed it with both hands to Tyre Brady, who then dumped it with a deft touch to Elder.
Elder, on the left side, playing keep-away, floated a throw to the right side to Crawford, who had retreated to the 3-yard line. Crawford gained 12 yards and was quickly surrounded by Blue Devils.
On lateral No. 8, Crawford again threw the ball across the field to Elder, who found an open lane and was freed by a David Njoku block. Elder juked past three defenders and accelerated into the open field as fans blinked in disbelief.
“The play was designed for one throw to Corn, and the players just made it up from there and kept it alive,” Wright said. “It was all due to their ingenuity. It was in their hands and they did an awesome job.
“Once they started lateraling, about 1,000 things had to go right. It was surreal. They were like a bunch of kids in the park. Pure creativity.”
Chaos continued as Elder and teammates collapsed in a jubilant heap in the end zone. The Hurricanes had won, 30-27. Or had they? Officials reviewed the play for nine excruciating minutes, at one point interrupting their evaluation to announce they were still evaluating. Elder’s touchdown was upheld.
When it became clear officials had made at least four errors on the play, ACC commissioner John Swofford suspended the crew and there were calls for the result to be reversed, but an NCAA rule states: “When the referee declares that the game is ended, the score is final.”
Final but never forgotten.
Many Thanksgivings hence, Wright and Elder can replay “Desperado” for their grandchildren. Just when you think things are hopeless, they can tell them, try a lateral.