The 2005 Michigan football team was not good. They were mediocre. But in “The Almost Play” at the end of the Alamo Bowl, they became perhaps the embodiment of what makes football beautiful.
Chad Henne lined up to take the snap for the final season. The season had been over, for most, months before. Fans held out hope at the end of the year for a Rose Bowl birth and improbable share of the Big 10 championship, but it wasn’t quite right. Unrealistically or not, we had expected more out of this team. Sure, Chad Henne and Mike Hart were only sophomore and sure Braylon Edwards was gone for the NFL and all the other caveats that follow college football and its eternally shifting existence. The team is never settled; we spend every week obsessing over recruits from two years away, transfer rumors, and constant line-up changes and other behavior that makes the volatile NFL seem sane and comforting to us on a Sunday. But in August, the blinders come on, we force ourselves to remember players at their best, and we blot out the ugly truth sometimes.
So Chad takes the snap. He drops back in his semi-awkward gait, and fires a strike in to Jason Avant. Avant, while not the explosive danger of Braylon, was a rock of consistency. He’s not going to show up catching too many 70+ yard tosses in Philadelphia, and Braylon will always be on ESPN, but in 9 years you’ll be looking through your NFL preview and find Avant somewhere in there. It’s an experience you have every year with someone. BJ Askew? Shantee Orr? Who will forget that incredible year Scott Dreisbach was a backup for the Raiders in Madden?
Then, if you freeze the video right when Avant catches it, it all looks so familiar. But just a bit off. Against Oklahoma, Boise got to turn their hook and ladder into legend. Fitting for the late-Carr era then that a team with all the tools to be a perennial contender would find their hook and ladder memorialized as a last-ditch effort in a December bowl game to reach that rarefied 8 win air and make a claim to #19 in the nation? Everything was just a bit off. Boise was fighting for national respect, Michigan was collapsing on the fumes of moderately earned national respect like a weekend 5k enthusiast crossing the finish line after attempting to run the Boston marathon. The play was too close to the boundary, and all Nebraska had to do was string them into the sideline.
As Breaston turned the corner, the always kind of disappointing potential he had was suddenly unlocked. Stevie B was a poet, and he was forced into the lockstep conservatism of the Michigan game plan. With the season over in all facets – nothing to win, nothing to lose, no games left, :00 on the scoreboard and Michigan on the losing end – Breaston came to life. Two defenders close in, and he turns, throws, and completes to Mike Hart, the hero in making that had come from the backfield when Chad released the pass and ran in front of Avant to catch the lateral. Mike stayed true to himself and he didn’t juke. He runs directly into the pack of Cornhuskers. With four defenders staring him down, everything pauses for maybe 3 tenths of a second it seems, Hart stops, and the over-pursuing defender from Nebraska leaves Avant free long enough for him to move back, make the catch, and begin the destruction of the traditional football field.
In every play, every players has a specific, defined role. The coaches aren’t wrong to force this on players, as well-disciplined football teams are more successful. Free styling is, for the most part discouraged. Many Qbs make calls for adjustments at the line, but few can completely revamp the play with immunity. Just like a diplomat in a foreign country, a QB can break minor laws issued by the offensive co-coordinator , but Peyton Manning cannot go to the line, call for the Annexation of Puerto Rico, and get away with it more than once.
Now the play breaks down. Defenders are always told to go to the ball, but you also don’t lateral more than twice during the play in the 2nd quarter. Now over eager defenders are burned with laterals, mostly harmless, but it really only takes one to do the trick.
Avant takes one more opportunity to define himself. He doesn’t try to make any fancy moves or even gain a yard. He steadies himself, does his best quarterback impression, takes a hit to follow through, and springs Michigan from a Nebraska prison on the sideline by going across the field to Mario Manningam, freshman sensation.
Manningham slithers across the field, always looking like he is about to either try and burn through the defense or toss it to a cutback runner. The decision never comes to fruition, and he completes to Avant towards the sideline. This team Avant is under more Nebraska pressure – he throws a prayer as he is knocked down on the boundary.
The ball flutters to a lineman, he can’t come down with it, and now chaos breaks down further. Chad Henne, like any mere mortal, has a brain freeze and thinks the play is dead. Or, if you happen to believe in the best of people, Chad was crafting a ruse on the Nebraska defenders, thinking if they paused for just a second that the runner would break free.
Mike Hart is of course (could it be anyone else?) the man trying to run down the ball for Michigan. He bobbles it, falls down, and now it looks like the play is actually over. But Mike didn’t have the ball when he fell, the referee doesn’t blow the whistle, and Mike takes over.
The moral center of Michigan football for his career, Hart scoops it up and runs as fast as Mike Hart can for 15 yards. Another may have burst through the tired defenders and sprinted to the end zone, but Mike isn’t that kind of blazer. Another didn’t pick it up though – Mike did.
With two defenders hanging off his jersey, Mike doesn’t stop and instead finds the only man around, Tyler Ecker. The teams start to run on the field – because how in the hell could that little dude not have been tackled right there?
Ecker begins his descent into Michigan hell. When most everyone else was done playing, Ecker stayed alive for Hart and then showed some surprising speed. He’s got a trailer with him – honestly, I don’t remember if it was Manningham or Breaston anymore – and Manningston is urging him on like a jockey running next to this overweight horse. Ecker, because another didn’t pick it up, is charging down the sideline in a crowd and thinking touchdown. Michigan fans everywhere are jumping around wherever they are, as the most exciting play in our history is running past the 40 yard line.
It doesn’t matter if it’s only to finish 8-4. It will be the best 8-4 ever. The past couldn’t be changed – the glorious future was foggy, and all we had was an unfamiliar liberating present. With all expectations dead and only one of the most meaningless bowl games in the program history hanging in the balance, Michigan was existing free of all burdens, playing only for the moment. Traditional means of immortality were out the window. The only thing this 2005 team could do to be remembered for anything besides disappointment was to score a touchdown, win the game, and be a permanent fixture on Best Damn Sports Show 50 Most Outrageous Football Moments. Weekday afternoon immortality is better than every day infamy.
We know the ending. Ecker is run out of bounds, the game is over, there is no penalty, 7-5. The argument about a 1997 title split is, in a completely meaningless way, settled in 2005. A battle between two national powers in limbo, passed by and only remembered until the next kickoff.
Immediately everyone asked themselves and others why he didn’t lateral it. All I could remember was that it looked like someone else was running behind him and open. To be honest, I only watched the replay maybe two times until writing this. It was all vivid.
Looking at the video now, it’s not even clear Ecker could lateral. It looks like Breastingham appears to be almost 10 yards behind him. It’s better to remember it this way. Ecker shouldn’t go down a villain. Subconsciously, the fan base is projecting their disappointment and anger from that long season on to Ecker. He’s an avatar for the problems we could all sense.
Until the team steps on the field this season, this play is the most Revolutionary play in Michigan history. Our great hope for the new regime is that our players will be allowed to play free with their roles. We don’t advocate a strategy of complete chaos, only that our new leader unlock the creativity of our athletes. The Close but Not Quite play was Michigan free. Rodriguez will bring the spirit of that moment into a tightly wound controlled ball of destruction.