The best play in college football? For me, it's long touchdowns by defensive linemen. These guys are built to plow ten yards at a time, not to sprint to the end zone. They're HUGE and mean and mal-intentioned. So when lightning strikes and they somehow end up with the ball in their hands, they're usually chased down by an opponent pretty quickly and dropped shortly after help arrives.
But when lightning hits the bullseye and a defensive lineman not only runs free toward the end zone but actually makes it? Well, that's A Moment.
One of those moments came in 1998 against Auburn, courtesy of Shaun Ellis. I don't really know how I'd let this happen, but I'd forgotten just how important of a game that was until I went back and watched the commemorative 1998 National Championship Perfection DVD a couple of weeks ago. Sure, I remember going into the season thinking that if we couldn't do it without Peyton, how were we going to do it with a new quarterback? And I remember barely squeaking by Syracuse in the opener and again by Florida two weeks later. I don't remember Houston, but whoop-tee-do.
But I really should have had a better appreciation of the Auburn game that came next. Al Wilson, who was so key against Florida, was out with a shoulder injury, and Auburn made it look like he was our entire defense for four plays, driving down close to the ten-yard line only two minutes in. And then it happened.
On second-and-ten at the 11-yard line, the Auburn QB took a shotgun snap. There's no telling, really, what the play was supposed to be. Perhaps a shovel pass to a running back crossing underneath? Whatever it was, it was BLOWN UP. I think it was Corey Terry, who blew past the offensive line directly to the rolling QB and induced pure panic in the poor guy. When Terry POPPED him, the ball squirted straight up into the air and into the waiting arms of Shaun Ellis.
Remember, Ellis was at the 15-yard line on the wrong end of the field. But he secured the ball and began the long journey to the other side. At the 30, as expected, an Auburn defender caught him, but he simply slid off him like he was trying to climb a greased pole.
The next 70 yards was just a party. First one, then two, and three, and five teammates caught up and then slowed down to match the pace of Elllis, who was like a semi going up over the mountain. Everyone but Ellis was basically running backwards looking for somebody to block because the big guy needed more time. But nobody was there, just a Big Orange Convoy lumbering toward the checkerboard. The 100,000+ crowd had plenty of time (an online stopwatch says the play took a total of 16 seconds) to go berserk and to lend its body English and verbal implorings to the cause. Ellis keeled over once he hit the end zone, and he was immediately dogpiled by the entire team, but that was just the culmination of the celebration that had begun 70 yards and 12 seconds earlier.
The best part of this play? John Ward's call:
It's picked up by Tennessee, and the Volunteers have Shaun Ellis running with the football down the left side looking for blocking. This'll be Shaun Ellis still running, struggling, to the 25, to the 20, to the 15, to the 10, to the 5 . . . he made it. He made it.
John Ward had such a wonderful sense of drama. He built his way toward his trademark "Give. Him. Six." but just as you were about to say it with him, he instead threw you a punchline.
I remember celebrating a lot of plays over the course of my fandom, but there are only a few that made me both celebrate and laugh hysterically. Those are Moments.