For about five minutes, an inch of Bermuda grass harbored the shock and confusion of an entire fanbase. There is no ambiguity in measurement, and yet one man decided that two and two made five, and no one could figure out why. Steve Spurrier fumed. Brady Hoke laughed, incredulous and amused. "What are they DOING?" roared Mike Tirico, one of the country's premier play-by-play men. (He's paid to call what he sees, and he, like all of us, saw mystifying ineptitude.) Make no mistake, this was not a refereeing gaffe—this was a inexplicable ignorance of objective proof.
And so Michigan's offense, cup already brimming with momentum and now spilling it over the edges, was gifted a first down. The Gamecocks were in desperate need of a break, and now one they'd earned was mercilessly revoked and they're forced to manage a situation that shouldn't have been. All because a dimwitted official, unyielding and stubborn, does not relent, offering a mere "I don't know" to Spurrier and allowing the Wolverines to two continue their march to what could have been a third consecutive scoring drive.
As these events unfolded, what was the lay of your emotional rollercoaster? Elation, confusion, anger, hatred, deflation, dejection…something like that? We all felt it. We all yelled at—not about, but at—that striped jackass who willfully perched himself on the dunktank of nationally-televised buffoonery for no good reason. Braves fans would be remiss not to sympathetically reflect on last year's infamous infield fly debacle. But even then, an explanation was twisted out of the chaos. It didn't make you feel better, but at least the call wasn't indefensible. Besides, baseball's approach to officiating has always prioritized the grand, exalted "human element." Football, however, is a game that welcomes review and measurement. Blown calls still happen. But not these sorts of blown calls.
It felt like hours before the teams reconvened on the field of play. On forums and liveblogs, Michigan fans beamed and gloated. Why not? They weren't in the wrong here. No one expected Brady Hoke to make a sportsmanlike, sacrificial appeal to the officiating staff. Roles reversed, I'd have shrugged and grinned. Sometimes you get screwed, and sometimes you play the speak-, say- and hear-no-evil monkey wrapped in one while the other side pleads for reason.
But then it happened.
Jadeveon's rush was hardly impeded, sheer cannonfire. Six yards of pure acceleration. Jadeveon landed a bullseye that released one of the harshest claps you'll hear this side of a summer thunderstorm. Clowney was in the backfield when Gardner was still three yards from Vincent Smith. While it's fair to compare Clowney to an NFLer playing at the college level, this particular play was even more lopsided. Like, "Pro Bowler snuck into a junior varsity game" lopsided. How Smith isn't still writhing on the turf is a mystery. Clowney snatched the ball with his free paw, thus awarding his offense the possession that the referees had unfairly refused. (By the way, if not for Devin Taylor diving for that loose ball and creating an obstacle, we might be talking about six. Who could blame Taylor for assuming Clowney wouldn't have wherewithal to grab the rock?)
It was an utterly cathartic situation, but not only because the fresh stench of the blown call still clouded the playing field. It was also because Clowney's inability to rack up a highlight play up to that point in the contest had already become a topic of intrigue (as it will be any time he's not churning out bonecrushers.) In fact, his major televised exposure thus far was the result of a second quarter nutshot—fittingly, leveed by a Vincent Smith block. Indeed, Michigan fans were already proclaiming stud OL Taylor Lewan to have slain the dragon Clowney. ESPN's production crew had even stitched together a "BEST CLOWNEY FAILS LOL PLS SHARE" package that bolstered the stance, premature as it was. Yes, analysts will remind us that he's still freeing up other linemen and being disruptive, but that doesn't land with the layperson—especially if it's not resulting in a win. But suddenly, all that was over. Clowney had left a smoldering crater on the game's landscape, and the GIFers and YouTubers were quick to make that a viral truth.
The Hit wasn't a death knell for Michigan's Outback Bowl hopes, but it was a game again. Anyone who's ever seen him coach a game knew Spurrier would go for the killshot. Ace Sanders' catch on the ensuing play was brilliant, even if it will largely be remembered as the play after The Hit. The lead changed twice more, and it took a dramatic 70 yard touchdown drive and two quarterbacks for the Gamecocks to escape with the win.
Indeed, no one play can win or lose a football game. But one play can alter its trajectory, serve as a defibrillator for a team on life support.