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'Just in case': Hail Mary was no miracle for Central Michigan

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Central Michigan wide receiver Jesse Kroll catches the ball before pitching it to Corey Willis for the winning score.

Central Michigan stole the spotlight in Week No. 2 of the college football season, coming up with a miracle play to pull out a 30-27 win over No. 22 Oklahoma State in Stillwater Saturday afternoon.

But the play never should have happened.

Still, the Chippewas were given an opportunity and made the most of it to earn their first win over a top-25 team in more than 25 years.

After Oklahoma State was penalized for an intentional grounding call on what should have been the game’s final play on fourth down, the officials huddled up and gave the Chips an un-timed down from their own 49.

Cooper Rush made the most of it, unloading a long Hail Mary pass that was hauled in by Jesse Kroll near the right sideline at the 10. As Kroll was being tackled by one Oklahoma State player with three Cowboys watching on, Kroll flipped the ball back to Corey Willis at the 12 and he then sprinted left and reached the ball over the end zone while being tackled to complete the miracle finish.

It was CMU’s first win over a Top 25 team since the Chippewas defeated Michigan State 20-3 in East Lansing in 1991, ending a 0-14 run against ranked teams. Not even Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, who guided the Chips to multiple MAC championships, could beat a Top 25 team.

Central Michigan wide receiver Corey Willis runs for the winning touchdown.

But John Bonamego got the job done in just his second year as CMU head coach.

Kroll said the Chippewas frequently practice that Hail Mary play.

“That’s a play that we have in our playbook just in case of a situation like that,” Kroll told The Detroit News on Sunday. “We rep it every week in practice as we go through every situation. Coach Bono feels you need to be a good situationally-aware team. The play is designed for Coop to throw the ball to me and then Corey and (tight end) Tyler Cocklin are there in case I miss it. They're hoping to get the tipped ball.

“Corey just kind of played off his instincts. He got in position behind me so after I caught the ball he got right in my face so I was able to find him for the pitch. I didn’t know he was going to be there until I caught the ball. We looked at each other, we made eye contact for a split second.

“I knew I couldn’t get tackled before the end zone because the game would be over, so I saw him there and he did a good job of getting into a good location for me to see him, and from there he made an unbelievable play, just to be able to get in the end zone and get around that edge.”

An eight-man Mid-American Conference crew was officiating the game.

Intentional grounding typically results in a loss of down, but rules state the game cannot end on an accepted live-ball penalty. The problem, as game referee Tim O’Dey told a pool reporter, “There’s an exception to the rule that says if enforcement of the foul involves a loss of down, then that brings the game to an end.”

On Sunday, the MAC suspended that officiating crew for two games, and the Big 12 announced that the two-person video replay crew that worked the game also has been suspended for two games.

“It was a great team win,” Kroll said. “We had a lot of guys make great plays.”

Rush completed 30-of-42 passes for 361 yards and four TDs, including a pair of TD tosses to tight end Tyler Conklin. Kroll had six receptions for 91 yards.

Oklahoma State weak-side linebacker Devante Averette, who played his high school football at Melvindale, stripped the ball from CMU running back Devon Spalding, leading to the Cowboys scoring a then-go ahead touchdown for a 27-24 fourth-quarter lead, then pressuring Rush while blitzing to force an interception on the following series.

CMU wins on incredible play it shouldn't have had

“They just made a great play,” Averette told The News on Sunday about CMU’s Hail Mary. “We can’t really put it all on the officiating crew because to me it wasn’t supposed to be that close when it comes to being a defensive player. Even if they did catch it we’re supposed to secure the tackle.”

Averette was watching from the sidelines with Oklahoma State’s package consisting of more defensive backs.

“I was on the sidelines,” Averette said. “We played a lot of DBs and we tried to blitz the quarterback from the outside and he (Rush) slid the protection and he threw a great ball and the receiver (Kroll) made a great play and he made a heads up play.”

Oklahoma State fell out of the AP Top 25 on Sunday after the loss.

“It’s a tough one,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said. “Just so everyone knows, I was the one that called the passing play. To be honest with you, I never thought of intentional grounding being called at that point in the game. As much time as we put into end-of-game situations that never crossed my mind. Unfortunately, that’s a difficult way to learn a hard lesson.”