College kicks are their own thing, with their own hashtag invoked on social media every week. They’re insanely mortal and lovable people, capable of missing a lot of kicks that are routinely made at the NFL level. But college players can be heroes, too, and a pair of them saved their team’s undefeated seasons within minutes of each other Saturday afternoon.
At 3:12 p.m. ET, Griffin Kell sent a 40-yard field goal through the Waco air and through the uprights at McLane Stadium to lift TCU past Baylor. At 3:33 p.m., Jake Moody kicked a 35-yard field goal in the air for Ann Arbor with a strong wind at his back to make the save Michigan against Illinois. Under enormous pressure, the children succeeded.
“A legend,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said of Moody, who scored four goals on the day to become the school’s career leader in that category. “I’ve been watching Michigan football since I was a kid. A pretty decent Michigan football historian, and I nominate him for legendary status.”
TCU coach Sonny Dykes is probably ready to make a similar nomination for Kell. “Griffin just came in and knocked it down,” he said.
Both the Horned Frogs and Wolverines are now 11-0, moving one step closer to the College Football Playoff. The hard sled is still ahead of them, but the mission remains intact by the slimmest of margins. All could have been lost if their kicks hadn’t gone through.
For Michigan, this was an extremely rare flirtation with defeat in an era of dominance. For TCU, this was just another Saturday on the edge of the cliff. There was a thriller that no one saw coming and one that was completely predictable.
Kell, a fourth baseman from nearby Arlington, Texas, had the toughest last-second job of the two clutch kicks. He and TCU’s field goal unit had to rush down the field in a firefighting setup as the clock ticked down, line up and take over the game. “It looked like a mess, but we practice it every Thursday just like that,” Dykes said.
Kell is the same college player whose missed extra point in the third quarter put TCU in this predicament—down by two points and needing a miraculous last drive. Quarterback Max Duggan put the Frogs down the field, and then it was up to Kell to run down the field, put himself without the benefit of counting his steps and deliver the biggest kick of his life.
TCU is now the first team since Colgate in 1975 to win seven straight games by 10 points or fewer. The Frogs had to come back again and again during this stretch, but this was their scariest situation.
Down 28–20, they scored a touchdown but were unable to convert the two-pointer. That meant they had to stop Baylor, get the ball back and make another drive. Everything came together like clockwork, even with some dangerous time management from Dykes.
For Michigan, the complicating factors kept coming like the relentless breeze that chilled Big House spectators to the bone. That was a testament to patience and tenacity for a team that has won just one game by less than 13 points. Harbaugh had a great game, calmly handling the elements, a wave of injuries and playing from behind for much of the second half.
After blitzing downfield for a touchdown on their opening possession, the Wolverines were in a slog the rest of the way. Injuries mounted, most notably and worrisomely to star running back Blake Corum. He entered the game fifth nationally in rushing (134.9 yards per game) and tied for second in rushing TDs (17). He had 95 yards from scrimmage in the first quarter, but injured his left knee in the second quarter and went straight to the locker room. Corum came out of the half on a run and tried to make a play, but managed only one more pull and two more snaps before the day was over.
“It was bothering him,” Harbaugh said, but declined to offer additional information about the injury or Corum’s condition for the huge matchup with Ohio State next week.
With backup Donovan Edwards out, freshman third CJ Stokes was thrust into a bigger role in the second half. Stokes then briefly left, and Harbaugh had to turn to Isaiah Gase, who entered the game with 16 interceptions and zero receptions on the season. (He left with three catches, one of them the longest outfield play of the day for Michigan.)
Going to the air in the third quarter and missing several key players, Harbaugh chose to play the situation conservatively on offense. Even with the lack of a running back, Michigan ran the ball 12 times and threw it seven times on third down, with most of the passes of the short variety. He bided his time and waited for the fourth quarter, when the wind would be at the Wolverines’ backs.
“Tough to get into that environment,” Harbaugh said. “That was a big factor.”
Trailing 17–10, the run-pass ratio changed in the quarter—Michigan threw it 14 times and ran it seven times. Quarterback JJ McCarthy led the Wolverines in scoring three times and Moody made three field goals. That was enough. There was no need to panic and try to do more than necessary before it was necessary.
Down 17–13, Harbaugh elected to go for a fourth-and-four at the Illinois 23, which McCarthy converted with a pass to Roman Wilson. Two plays later, Gus threw a short pass that would have been a touchdown, then McCarthy overthrew another potential touchdown, leading to a Moody field goal to make it 17-16.
But on the next possession, Harbaugh wasn’t afraid to call Gash’s number with the game — and the season — on the line. Facing a fourth-and-three from the Illinois 45, McCarthy threw in the flat to Gash for eight yards to keep the drive alive.
This was a new project installed this week—for Corum. Harbaugh said he believes Gash got one rep in the game in practice. But he got it done when he needed to. Four plays later, Michigan had moved to the Illinois 17. Harbaugh was rocking the punting team, and last year’s Lou Groza Award winner lined up for the longest kick of his life.
“He’s built for it, man,” Michigan receiver Ronnie Bell said. “I didn’t question him for a minute.”
Moody had punched the wind from 46 yards in the third quarter — a kick that was a few yards farther than the maximum distance Moody thought a breeze blowing up to 30 miles per hour could make. The others were with the wind at his back. Regardless, the fifth baseman from Northville, Mich., wasn’t worried about the evidence.
“This is not the SEC,” he said, producing the rare bulletin board footage. “We’ve got some tough wind conditions.”
Moody’s game-winning kick sparked a jubilant celebration and a collective sigh of relief from the Michigan faithful. The weather was wild enough that the student section thinned out noticeably in the second half, while those who remained huddled to withstand the mounting stress as this game went down to the wire against a big underdog.
This was a game of survival and progression. Now comes one of the greatest matchups in the history of the epic Ohio State-Michigan rivalry—two undefeated teams clashing with so much on the line.
“Once the clock hit zero, that’s what we’ve been looking for all year—11–0 in that game,” McCarthy said.
Defensive lineman Kris Jenkins said he and his teammates might cut short the usual one-day rule of celebrating a win and turn to some Buckeyes video tape Saturday night. Harbaugh, giddy to beat the Illini to the first 11-0 record of his coaching career, said he’s not ready to turn the page on Ohio State just yet.
“Six hours from now” will be time to think about the Buckeyes, he said.
For both Michigan and TCU, this was a day of comebacks and clutch kicks. He kept them both unbeaten and with all dreams intact, thanks to a pair of players in a position full of mistakes. Not anymore, two college kicks passed.
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