One of the biggest college football upsets of this century began in the same place as one of the biggest real upsets and one of the biggest fictional upsets of the last century. Butler football players don’t think about Bobby Plump’s shot for the very real Milan High or Jimmy Chitwood’s shot for based-on-a-true-story Hickory High. To the Bulldogs, Hinkle Fieldhouse is just the building that houses their locker room.
Last Friday, two buses set out from Hinkle carrying a total of 76 people. Linebackers coach Derek Day, who played defensive end for Butler from 2005 to ’08, spent the ’15 and ’16 seasons as a quality control assistant at Tennessee. He jokes that the Volunteers would have 76 support staffers on a road trip before they even began counting players and coaches. Players on one bus watched The Dark Knight, Gone Baby Gone and Step Brothers to pass the five-hour drive from Indianapolis to Youngstown State. When they arrived, they marveled at the Penguins’ indoor practice facility. Butler practices on its game field, but the first choice of practice times rotates between the football, men’s soccer and women’s soccer teams. This year, football had first choice. So the Bulldogs get to practice at the coveted time of 4 p.m. Next year, they’ll either practice at 6 a.m. or dodge shot puts while sharing the only other field big enough with the field portion of the track and field team.
Yes, this is the same Butler that gave Brad Stevens unto the basketball world, the same Butler that would have knocked off Duke to win the 2010 NCAA men’s basketball tournament had Gordon Hayward’s buzzer-beater not rimmed out. But to understand why Butler football players celebrating a 23–21 win Saturday on Youngstown State’s field seemed impossible before the game was played, you have to understand the Pioneer League.
In 1991, the NCAA changed its rules so that schools that fielded Division I basketball teams couldn’t participate in the Division III football playoffs after the 1992 season. That meant programs such as Georgetown and Dayton, which played big-time hoops and small-time football, had to move to Division I in football. But some of those schools couldn’t fund the 63 scholarships teams are allowed in Division I-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision). So they created their own Division I, non-scholarship football league. The Pioneer League began play in 1992 with six members: Butler, Dayton, Drake, Evansville, San Diego and Valparaiso.
The average college football fan’s knowledge of the Pioneer League begins and ends with the fact that Jim Harbaugh coached San Diego from 2004 to ’06. But the league has rolled on, adding Davidson, Jacksonville, Stetson, Marist and Mercer at various points. The cardinal rule hasn’t changed: No athletic scholarships for football players. They pay for school with loans, jobs, academic scholarships and family contributions. And many play at schools where the basketball team is famous. Butler is one of the nation’s best programs. Steph Curry played for Davidson. San Diego upset Connecticut in the tournament 10 years ago. When Butler receiver Pace Temple goes home to suburban Chicago, he gets a lot of “Butler has a football team?” “Shoot,” he says. “You can get the same question in downtown Indy.”
And that’s why Butler beating Youngstown State might be a bigger upset—from a degree of difficulty standpoint—than Appalachian State beating Michigan in 2007. Appalachian State—which has since moved to the FBS—had 63 scholarships at the time to Michigan’s 85. Saturday, Youngstown State had a 63–0 edge in scholarships. This may be sacrilege on Butler’s campus, but the Bulldogs’ win Saturday probably would be a bigger upset than if Hayward’s shot had fallen. The stakes would have ensured that a Butler win that night would have gone down as one of the greatest upsets in sports history, but let’s consider the circumstances. All of Butler’s best players were on scholarship—just as all of Duke’s were. And history has told us that the Bulldogs had the best player on the floor (Hayward), which makes a much bigger difference in basketball.
The better comparison for this upset is a game from last season that may actually be the biggest upset in college football this century. San Diego won the Pioneer League and earned an FCS playoff berth. Then the Toreros beat Northern Arizona in the first round. “San Diego ran the first four-minute mile,” Butler coach Jeff Voris says. “Now the paradigm has been changed a little bit.” Still, Butler—a middle-of-the-pack Pioneer League team—facing Youngstown State—which played for the FCS national title two years ago—is a massive hill to climb.
Of course, none of this was going through Butler receiver Pace Temple’s mind Saturday as he lined up for a two-point conversion attempt following a Sam Yeaton touchdown catch that cut Youngstown State’s lead to one with 80 seconds remaining. At that point Temple, whose scholarship offers from Wyoming and North Dakota represent the only Division I offers for anyone on Butler’s roster, had already caught 13 passes for 159 yards. “We attempted to throw the two-point play at Pace,” Voris says. “I suppose everyone in the place knew we were going to do that.” They certainly did. “They double-covered him,” Day says. “And they tackled him.”
But no flag hit the field. Temple returned to the sideline, dead tired and wondering how the Bulldogs could possibly get another chance. Then he heard Day.
PACE! PACE! MUST ONSIDE!
Temple is too valuable to the Bulldogs to risk getting injured on special teams, so he only plays on two units. He’s the safe punt catch guy, which means he fair-catches punts that must be fair-caught. He’s also the target on the Must Onside team, which means he’s supposed to recover any onside kick.
Butler punter Evan Giebel handles onside kicks. He looked at Temple and said It’s coming to you. “The kid has never had a doubt in his mind,” Temple says. Giebel was correct. The ball bounced perfectly, and Temple grabbed it. In film study this week, Day would chide Temple for getting off the line of scrimmage too slowly. “Yeah,” Temple thought. “I haven’t gone down on kickoff since my freshman year.” Temple also replayed the moment in his mind. If he’d gotten off the line faster, he might have leaped a split-second sooner and arrived at the wrong time. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten the ball.
No one celebrated Temple’s recovery harder than Butler kicker Drew Bevelhimer. And no one stopped celebrating faster. “I’m jumping up and down, and suddenly it hits me,” Bevelhimer says. “Oh, crap. We’re down by one. My face just changed. I was probably the most serious looking person in the stadium.”
The Bulldogs moved 27 yards in just under a minute. After quarterback Will Marty ran for one yard to set the ball in the right place, one phrase rang out on the Bulldogs’ sideline.
MAYDAY FIELD GOAL! MAYDAY FIELD GOAL!
When Butler practices Mayday field goals, the field goal team gets 12 seconds to leave the sideline, set up and snap the ball. Bevelhimer and his teammates sprinted to their places to attempt a 44-yard field goal. Youngstown State had timeouts, so Bevelhimer expected to get iced. No timeout came. So Bevelhimer told the holder he was ready. The snap came. The ball was set. Bevelhimer kicked and…
“I mishit it,” he says.
He had hit from 60 yards going that direction in warm-ups. He didn’t know if this one would make it 44.
On the sideline, Temple couldn’t even watch. “This ball may not get there,” Bevelhimer thought as he looked up. Then he watched the ball crawl over the crossbar.
The Bulldogs’ sideline exploded. Half the team was off the sideline and out to the numbers with helmets off. Day looked at the clock and began screaming. There were four seconds left on the clock. He was instantly transported back to Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., on Oct. 1, 2016. On that afternoon, Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason hit Riley Ridley for a 47-yard touchdown with 10 seconds remaining to give the Bulldogs a lead. Rodrigo Blankenship’s extra point put Georgia up 31–28, but the celebration after the touchdown had been flagged, so the Bulldogs would have to kick off from the 20-yard line. Tennessee’s Evan Berry caught the kickoff on the Tennessee 32 and returned it to the Georgia 48. An offsides penalty on the Bulldogs on that play moved the ball to the 43.
On the next play, Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs found Jauan Jennings for a touchdown as time expired. Georgia fans call their 2001 win at Tennessee the “Hobnail Boot” game because of Larry Munson’s iconic radio call. In Tennessee lore, the win created by the Dobbs-to-Jennings Hail Mary is called the Dobb-nail Boot game.
Day didn’t want his Bulldogs to suffer the same fate as Georgia’s Bulldogs did. Butler coaches herded players back to the sideline, and no penalty was called. Next came the question of what to do on the kickoff. Day figured that after Bevelhimer made the field goal, the kicker’s adrenaline would be spiking. He’d kick the ball through the end zone. The defense would stop one play from the 25, and the Bulldogs could ride out of Youngstown with their upset.
Bevelhimer figured the same until his foot hit the ball. After he booted the kickoff, he could only hear one thing: Voris screaming “He mishit it!”
Penguins freshman Natavious Payne fielded the kickoff at the three-yard line. On the sideline, Temple still refused to watch. Had he been looking, he would have seen something curious. Payne didn’t cut. He didn’t lateral the ball to a teammate. He got driven out of bounds at the Youngstown State 33, and that was that.
“Wait. What?” Bevelhimer thought. “We just won the game. I can’t believe we just did this.”
On the bus ride home, the players watched Big Daddy and The Waterboy. Butler coaches, meanwhile, discussed Miracle. Specifically, they talked about how the Soviets didn’t pull their goalie to try to make up their deficit against the Americans. The Soviets never expected to be down, so they didn’t know how to respond. Perhaps Youngstown State players had reacted the same way.
That probably was a point Penguins coach Bo Pelini made at practice this week as his team prepares to face West Virginia. After losing to Butler, Pelini was thoroughly disgusted. “We didn’t deserve to win the football game. We didn’t,” Pelini said. “It would have almost been a shame if we did. Because that team outplayed us.”
For Voris, it felt as if everything aligned for the perfect upset. “Our guys played a near-flawless game,” the coach says. “No turnovers. No penalties. It was one of those days.”
Maybe they’ll make a movie about it someday. We already know Hinkle Fieldhouse makes for a fine setting.