When college football fans awoke on Saturday, Nov. 3, the top five teams in the nation, according to the BCS poll, were Alabama, Kansas State, Notre Dame, Oregon and LSU. This had already been a season of surprising resurrections (the undefeated Fighting Irish) and unexpected falls from grace (the 6--2 Trojans), but this Saturday would be a day like none in recent memory—and one that set the stage for the national championship game, two months later.
This is an article from the Dec. 31, 2012 issue
In South Bend, Notre Dame would be tested by unranked Pittsburgh in a nail-biter, settled only after three overtimes. Before that was decided, a rat-a-tat shootout began in Los Angeles, where USC traded big-play blows with run-and-gun Oregon. And before those two teams reached halftime, undefeated Alabama kicked off to LSU in Baton Rouge for a prime-time rematch of the 2012 BCS title game.
In the end, all three winners—the Irish, Ducks and Tide—preserved their perfect seasons. At least for another week. As the last of the three battles came to a conclusion, Alabama QB AJ McCarron hung his head on the bench, crying tears of ... what exactly? Relief? Joy? It's hard to say. But anyone who'd witnessed the evening's pigskin perfect storm on TV could relate to the emotional exhaustion.
SI revisited the evening with players, coaches, announcers and a few special fans from these three games to relive the most thrilling day of sports in 2012.
3:30 p.m. EDT
Pittsburgh (4--4) #3 Notre Dame (8--0) at Notre Dame Stadium
Joe Theismann(Notre Dame, class of '71): I was watching at home in Memphis. We'd just beaten Oklahoma, so Notre Dame Nation was feeling terrific. Suddenly everyone was asking, Is Notre Dame for real?
Regis Philbin(Notre Dame, class of '53): I was totally surprised they were still undefeated. I thought they would drop two or three along the way, but then they got through Stanford and Oklahoma.... That's when I began to think, We may go all the way here! Following a big game like Oklahoma, the next game is always a trap game—and boy, was Pitt a trap game.
Mike Mayock(NBC analyst): I felt like Pitt was just dangerous enough to cause a problem, with a fifth-year quarterback, Tino Sunseri, and an NFL-caliber tailback, Ray Graham. Having called a lot of Notre Dame games, I knew the Irish defense was as good as any in the country, but their offense was inconsistent with a redshirt freshman quarterback in Everett Golson.
Theismann: Having watched Everett last year in camp, I knew he threw a beautiful spiral. But sometimes you weren't sure where it was going. There were times he didn't know where it was going.
Ray Graham(Pitt running back): Notre Dame is a great place to play. I know they have Touchdown Jesus, but we believed we could play with anybody.
Mayock: That was a statement game for Ray. He had an ACL tear the year before, but I'd seen on tape that he was starting to look like the kid from two years ago. He was quick, he was tough—he ran for 172 yards and kept the ball out of Notre Dame's hands. When he scored on a 16-yard run to make it 10--6 Pitt, Notre Dame fans started to get worried. (1, next page)
Graham: From the beginning, our runs were working. My blocker on the edge made that touchdown happen, opening up a hole.
Theismann: After that, Coach [Brian] Kelly pulled Golson [for Tommy Rees] because he was missing reads and passes. I didn't think it was as strange as some people did. If that was the first time he'd done it all year, I would have scratched my head.
TJ Jones(Notre Dame receiver): You got the feeling maybe coach was going to give Golson a break, let the jitters go away.
Graham: I actually thought Golson was hurt. But they gave him another chance and put him back in [with 5:52 left in the third quarter]. I wish he'd stayed out.
Jones: It never crossed our minds that we would lose. Even when we were down 20--6 in the fourth quarter, we knew that 15 minutes was a lot of ball left to play—a couple of stops and a couple of scores, and we would be right back in it.
Theismann: I kept saying to myself, It's two scores, that's all. Was I concerned? Absolutely. But I didn't think it was over by any stretch.
Mayock: The big play of the game was early in the fourth quarter: Notre Dame had fourth-and-four near the red zone, and there was a pass-interference call on Pitt. There's no way that was pass interference! The next play, TJ Jones scores for the Irish. (2) All of a sudden it's 20--12 and the crowd woke up.
Jones: That was a back-side screen with Golson rolling out, and he hits me on a tunnel screen. Their defense flowed the way we thought it would, and when the line pulled, it was three-on-three, leaving me a wide-open gap into the end zone.
Mayock: Then Notre Dame misses the extra point, which means they'll have to go for two if they score again—keep that in mind. Golson gets the ball back with three minutes left in the game, running around behind the line for what seems like 10 seconds before he throws for 45 yards. On the next play he runs around again and hits Theo Riddick for a TD. It's 20--18, and they have to go for two! And again Golson uses his legs to run it in! (3)
Theismann: When they tied it up, I knew we'd win it in overtime. I'm a big believer in momentum, and we were at home.
Mayock: Eighty thousand people going nuts! In the first overtime they both kicked field goals. Then the drama really began, because Notre Dame looked like they were going to punch it in and they fumbled on the goal line.
Theismann: [Kevin Harper of] Pitt lined up for a 33-yard field goal, and you're thinking, Oh, well, it's been a great year.... And then he misses it!(4)
Mayock: Wide right. At that point you're thinking, Touchdown Jesus just took over.
Philbin: I was on my couch in Connecticut, and I called my wife into the room. Normally she can't sit still for an entire game, but I said, "You have to see this!"
Mayock: In the third overtime [linebacker] Manti Te'o and Notre Dame's defense come up big and force Pitt to kick a field goal. You just knew Notre Dame would pull it off at that point. Then Golson punches it in on a QB sneak and the place goes crazy! (5) Just like that, Notre Dame is a very improbable 9--0.
Graham: It's one thing when you get blown out. But it's another thing to have had the game and know you should have won. I wish we could go back out there and play it over.
Mayock: When a game like that is over, I'm looking for two things: a cold beer and a television for the next game. I turned on the Oregon-USC game just like everyone else....
Final Score (3OT)
Notre Dame ... 29
Pitt ... 26
7 p.m. EDT
#4 Oregon (8--0) #17 USC (6--2) at Memorial Coliseum
Charles Davis(Fox analyst): One of the first things you look at once the calendar is set is a matchup like Oregon-USC. We all play the same game, trying to figure out whether these teams will be ranked 1 and 2 on Nov. 3.
Gus Johnson(Davis's play-by-play partner): We'd thought this one might be for a berth into the national-title game. USC was No. 1 in the preseason, and we knew Oregon was going to be top five.
Davis: Then you realize that it falls on the same day as Alabama-LSU. Man, how great is that? As we were getting ready to go on the air we learned, Wow, Pitt's got the lead! I'm not a guy who punches up Twitter every 12 seconds, but on that day people were going to bring that news to you because Oregon was undefeated, and suddenly it was like, What does this mean to our game?
Johnson: I remember saying, "Pitt's blowing them out!" And Charles said to me, "But it's Notre Dame—the luck of the Irish...."
Lane Kiffin(USC coach): I saw a few clips of the Notre Dame game in my office before I went out for warmups, and Pitt was ahead by eight. It looked like that game was over.
Chuck McDonald(Fox producer): USC had lost a couple of games already, but everything was back on the table if they could beat Oregon.
Dan Fouts(Oregon, class of '73): I was in Houston broadcasting a Texans game for CBS the next day, so I watched it in my hotel room. But I love watching games at the Coliseum. I remember being six years old; my dad was a broadcaster for the 49ers, and he brought me to a preseason game against the Rams in 1957. It's one of the most special stadiums in the world.
Marcus Mariota(Oregon quarterback): For a kid from a small island in Hawaii to play in front of 93,000 people is an unreal thing.
Kenjon Barner(Oregon running back): I'm from Southern California, so I had a ton of family and friends there—probably 25 or 30 people. My high school coach was there.
Marqise Lee(USC receiver): When we played Oregon last year, it felt back and forth. We have a pretty good offense and Oregon has a great offense, so you knew both teams were going to score. But I didn't expect 113 points!
Fouts: I'd worked USC's game against Utah [as a broadcaster], so I got a first-hand look at how good Marqise Lee is. And I knew that [quarterback] Matt Barkley was outstanding. But I didn't anticipate what Barner and Mariota would do. I'd never seen anything like that before. They don't call Eugene Track Town, USA, for nothing. This game was a track meet.
Barner: We wanted to come out and dominate early—keep them down, keep our foot on their throat.
Mariota: We were just firing on all cylinders on that first drive, scoring in the first minute and five seconds. We threw the ball pretty much all the way down, and it's a good feeling when you complete all of your passes on the first drive. You get a rhythm.
Johnson: When Black Mamba [Oregon receiver De'Anthony Thomas] catches that first touchdown, we're saying, Here we go! (6)
Kiffin: We knew it was going to be a heavyweight championship fight and there were going to be a lot of blows; we just had to keep getting back up, keep swinging. The game's not going to be decided early.
Lee: We were down 21--3 in the second quarter when Matt hit me with a 75-yard TD pass. (7) With Matt, the main thing is just getting open. Get open for even a quick second and he can put the ball where you need it.
Johnson: Marqise is the most talented player in college football; there's no question about it. He's a freak!
Barner: He's electric. I call him the One-play Guy—all it takes for him is one blown coverage, one missed assignment, and he could be gone.
McDonald: He was a beast that night [with 12 receptions for 157 yards]. Any other year he would be a Heisman finalist. He's a man among kids. When he caught that TD, it showed you USC wasn't going to give up.
Davis: Look at Kenjon Barner and Marqise Lee that night; it was a dance—"I see what you're doing; you see what I'm doing." Every time Kenjon did something, Marqise came back and did something on his end.
Kiffin: They were trading blows. At halftime we were down 34--24, and I felt good. Most teams weren't even close to Oregon at half. It felt like it was starting to move our way.
Davis: After halftime we started getting the Alabama-LSU score, but our game was so good, I didn't have much interest. I needed oxygen at our half.
McDonald: In the second half it actually became a one-possession game a couple of times. And we've got our eye on the Alabama-LSU score. It was such a cool environment. Whenever we went to commercial, Gus and Charles were asking, "What's going on in the other games?"
Mariota: My favorite pass was my second TD to Josh Huff, at the end of the third quarter. (8)It was right after a big moment for USC—they had just come within three, and it was 41--38. That's one of my favorite moments of the whole year.
McDonald: Both sides were going to keep scoring. Probably the biggest disappointment of that game was the onside kick with about five minutes left. We all thought USC got it. We thought we had the definitive angle, and we thought it was clear that they should have gotten the ball back. Had that call gone for them, the ending would have been amazing. USC just couldn't get over that last hump.
Kiffin: It was unfortunate for Matt Barkley. If we'd won that game [and the week earlier, against Arizona], suddenly we're talking about him in the Heisman race, if not at the front of it.
Chip Kelly(Oregon coach): This was the fourth year we'd seen Matt, and he's as good a quarterback as there is. We knew we weren't going to keep those guys at bay for an entire game—they're too talented. But we always felt like we had the game in control.
Barner: Back in high school I played in a game where the score was 84 to 90-something. I don't know if I had five touchdowns, but I may have. [Barner did have five TDs against USC, rushing for 321 yards on 38 carries.] (9) The score that sealed that game was a 22-yard inside zone run. I was supposed to go to the right, but the defensive lineman broke through and I cut back to the left and made a run for it and got to the end zone.
Davis: Go back and look at Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee's stats that night for USC. Look at what Kenjon Barner and Marcus Mariota did for Oregon. We had the best players making the best plays in the country.
Mariota: After the game, I always look for guys to shake hands with. I saw Matt Barkley and he said, "Good game; now go out and beat an SEC team for us." I thought that was pretty cool.
Kiffin: I said to Chip, "Man, it felt like an Arena League game." (10) And he said, "Yeah, it felt like basketball on grass." When the game's over, especially if we lose, I don't watch other games. So I didn't watch Alabama-LSU.
Mariota: I actually saw the last drive of the Alabama game on the plane ride home. It would be a lie to say that I wasn't checking scores and stats after our game was over.
Johnson: Doing a game like that, in front of that many fans, you expend so much energy yelling and screaming, and you're just spent. So the thing for me after that game was to get to a bar, get a good seat for the next game, get a Jack and Coke, and relax.
Fouts: The thing about that day is that every region of the country got a great game. You had a great game at Notre Dame, a great game at USC and, right afterwards, an amazing finish down in Louisiana....
Oregon ... 62
USC ... 51
8 p.m. EDT
#1 Alabama (8--0) #5 LSU (7--1) at Tiger Stadium
Johnny Avello(Executive director of Race and Sports, Wynn Las Vegas): There were a lot of good games that day: TCU--West Virginia, Oklahoma State--Kansas State, Nebraska--Michigan State, Texas--Texas Tech.... In our office we had about 40 monitors with all of the games, like mission control at NASA. We got a lot of action in the sports book and we took some pretty good-sized bets, including a couple for six figures. If Alabama had lost, we were going to lose a lot of money.
Verne Lundquist(CBS play-by-play): Calling a game in Baton Rouge at night is one of my favorite environments. I remember calling Florida-LSU in 2007, against Tim Tebow, when [LSU coach] Les Miles went for it on fourth down five times and was successful on all five. I thought that was as good as I was ever going to experience there. And then this year happened....
Gary Danielson(Lundquist's partner): You have to understand this rivalry—and not just because this was a rematch of last year's BCS title game. Nick Saban used to be at LSU. And when Les took the job, people said that he was winning with Nick's program. That was the setting.
Eric Reid(LSU safety): Last year's title game was a pill we had to swallow a long time ago. We didn't forget it. It was motivation.
Craig Silver(CBS producer): Death Valley at night is intense, it's loud, and fans expect to win. Going into that game, LSU was 36--1 under Les Miles at Tiger Stadium on Saturday nights, with a 22-game home winning streak. The Tigers expected to win. They played to win. And they did everything but win.
Barrett Jones(Alabama center): The last few years, it seems like whoever wins this game usually wins it all.
Silver: LSU had no margin for error because they'd already lost a game. But they could match up with Alabama. The only question was, Would the lightbulb go on for their quarterback, Zach Mettenberger? And it did.
Danielson: After LSU got a field goal in the first quarter, the second quarter was all Alabama. AJ McCarron wasn't playing great, but he was playing well enough that 'Bama got two touchdowns in the second quarter and went up 14--3 at halftime. (11) People in the press box were saying they could feel the boa constrictor putting the chokehold on LSU, but I didn't think so. It could have been 14--10 real quick, and then it was a different game.
Silver: I remember saying at halftime that LSU had given their best shot, but they weren't able to knock [Alabama] down. Of course, I was completely wrong.
Jones: We felt pretty good at halftime, like we were starting to get into a rhythm offensively. But we came out kind of flat in the third quarter for some reason.
Danielson: If LSU was going to have a chance, Mettenberger was going to have to be the story—and he had that game. Alabama blitzed him, they zoned him, they manned him; he was getting hit in the face, the chest, the stomach, the chin. (12) And he was completing those balls as he was getting hit. It was beautiful to watch.
Lundquist: He was marvelous in the second half—the surprise of the game. He was in control against the No. 1 defense in the country.
Danielson: In the third, LSU closed the gap to 14--10; then, when the fourth quarter began, Mettenberger made a perfect throw to Jarvis Landry for a TD to put LSU ahead 17--14. (13) Suddenly we have a ball game—even though the Mad Hatter, Les Miles, made some odd calls. I think he got a little too emotional. There was an onside kick, which wasn't an awful call. But the fake [47-yard] field goal was bad. And the long field goal [54 yards, 10 more than Drew Alleman's previous career long] was bad. And the fourth-and-one try [from Alabama's 24, with the lead] was ... weird. He even said after the game, there were a couple of calls he'd like to have back.
Avello: Up in our office, people were asking, What is he doing?
Lundquist: That's why we love him!
Reid: The onside kick was a great call, in my opinion. The ball just took an awkward bounce, and it hit the kicker before it reached 10 yards. If it hadn't taken that bounce, we would have had the ball right back in great field position. Everyone knows what happened next.
Lundquist: Alabama's final drive was amazing. They took over with 1:34 to go. It seemed to me that LSU's corners kind of laid back. And all of a sudden [receiver] Kevin Norwood was open on three straight passes.
Reid: We wanted to let the clock run out—keep them on the field and not let them get to the sidelines. But they made a few throws and stepped out of bounds after each catch. They were able to stop the clock and move the chains.
Danielson: And then the center, Jones, during a timeout says, "I think the screen pass will work." And that's the call that wins the game.
Jones: That's been blown out of proportion a bit, but that's fine. What happened was, before the series I was talking to my offensive line coach about what plays I thought were working out, and I just reminded him to make sure we come back to the screen, because we'd run one at the end of the first half and it was real successful. I just knew the way they were playing—man-to-man coverage—that the screen could be a big play.
Silver: McCarron dumps a screen to [running back] T.J. Yeldon for a 28-yard touchdown (14), and he was never touched. They just got LSU on that play.... The beauty of television is that a picture is worth a million words. And after that game-winning touchdown, [we showed] McCarron on the bench, crying.
Danielson: That's the emotion of playing quarterback at Alabama. It's life and death. I understand where he's coming from. I did it for 13 years in the NFL [with the Lions and the Browns]. At Alabama you're expected to win every game.
Lundquist: I don't know that we fully understood the cause of the emotion and the tears. Was it the enormity of the win? Was it the fact that he hadn't been having a great game but he excelled on the final drive? It was compelling television, but I don't think we knew. And then he got up and he went into the end zone, still in tears, and hugged his parents. (15) It was only afterward that he said that Alabama is a tough place to play. He was just releasing all that tension from the probability that he was going to be the guy who lost in prime time to LSU.
Jones: AJ grew up in Alabama dreaming about a moment like that, where he would lead his team on a game-winning two-minute drive in a hostile environment, so it was a special moment for him and for his family. I think it's funny that people criticize him for that.
Lundquist: Later that night I caught up with the other games. It was only then that I knew what a compelling day it was. When the schedules had been published, everyone who loves college football had looked at the game out West, Oregon-USC, and our game, Alabama-LSU, and thought, That is gonna be some Saturday. But the wild card in all of this was Notre Dame! When you get three games of that magnitude on the same day, you better believe it's a day to beat.
Johnson: If I was a fan sitting at home, I would have been the happiest man in the world.
Alabama ... 21
LSU ... 17