SEATTLE - In an elevator on the ground floor of Husky Stadium around 4:30 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday, five people stood around one guy's phone to follow an immeasurable drama ongoing 2,213 miles to the southeast.
There, a 21-year-old kicker stood in Clemson, South Carolina, amid 81,048 fans with about 162,096 lungs, all capable of enough noise to ransack anyone's nerves. But for his holder, the punter Ryan Winslow, the kicker looked lonely there, 48 unforgiving yards from the goal post. The home coach, Dabo Swinney, iced him with a timeout. The people in the elevator waited. Literally countless possibilities stood in the balance, from there to here, because the outcome there mattered here.
Well, Chris Blewitt, the Pitt senior from West Potomac High, annihilated that kick. It tore through the top of the uprights with six seconds left as if it intended to be good from 60. It beat No. 2 Clemson, 43-42. It made running back James Conner, himself a star in the upset, say, "This one's forever. We'll remember this one forever." It triggered feelings from coast to coast and loosed a big roar in Husky Stadium upon announcement.
It also retold a fine old American tale. There are baseball Octobers and NFL Januarys and basketball Marches and Junes, all of them alluring, but there might be nothing wilder than a college football November.
A college football November Saturday always reserves the right to go all to hell and then all haywire. Just because a loss at Clemson seems wild doesn't mean unbeaten No. 4 Washington, all rock-hard competence and confidence, cannot spend the next three hours suddenly looking like the decided lesser of two teams against No. 20 Southern California. And just because a loss at Clemson and a loss at Washington seem to concoct enough wildness for one date, doesn't mean you can't get to evening and see No. 3 Michigan, its own field-goal defense out on a field, lining up, straining and hoping.
Not since Oct. 19, 1985, when the No. 1 song in the United States was "Take On Me" by the Norwegian group with the lower case name a-ha, had teams Nos. 2, 3 and 4 lost in the same college football weekend. On that day, No. 2 Michigan lost by 12-10 at No. 1 Iowa, on a closing 29-yard field goal by Rob Houghtlin, after which the Michigan quarterback said, "It felt like someone reached in and pulled everything out."
Now, 31 years and one month later, that quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, coached Michigan in that same Iowa City, with his team the only remaining unbeaten Power Five team besides the fast, giant ship of No. 1 Alabama. That distinction would last only seconds longer. In a taut game that posted bruising scores such as 10-2 and 11-10, Harbaugh's offense had squeezed out only two yards on its final possession, bringing its total to a piddling 201, and it had punted and committed a face-mask penalty, and Iowa exploded for a 21-yard drive to arrange a field goal.
Keith Duncan, Iowa's 5-foot-11, 165-pound freshman kicker from North Carolina, blasted that thing just inside the right upright, and Iowa players began romping around the field with their startling 14-13 win, soon to be joined by hordes of trespassers from the stands, the college football November having struck again. "The longer it went," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters, "the more our guys felt, 'Hey, maybe we can do something.'"
In November, hey, maybe everybody can do something, and once they do, the whole structure can be blown out of the rankings, leaving them disfigured, inscrutable and ripe for weeks of wrangling. Once the College Football Playoff Selection Committee issues its latest findings come Tuesday evening, the coveted top four slots will include No. 1 Alabama (10-0), followed by discord, bedlam and tumult. The characters involved could include five teams with 9-1 records: the three who lost on Saturday, plus Ohio State and Louisville, the dazzling bunch that merely spent Saturday trailing Wake Forest 12-10 after three quarters as a 31-point favorite, then spending the fourth quarter splurging for five touchdowns in a 44-12 win.
With some November Saturdays, there's barely any room even for an oddity like that, barely any room to cram in that No. 9 Auburn saw its hot streak burned to rubble with merely 164 total yards in a puzzling 13-7 loss at Georgia, or that even Mount Union, the Ohio school with the 19 Division III titles, can see visiting John Carroll end its regular-season winning streak, which stood at a robust 112.
The plot of Pitt-Clemson alone could fill, and then fog, a brain. Deshaun Watson, Clemson's beloved and masterful quarterback, passed for an Atlantic Coast Conference-record 580 yards, and lost somehow. He lost somehow even after having his team at the Pitt 3-yard line with a 42-34 lead and but six minutes left. He lost partly because, right there, he threw a you're-kidding interception, which Saleem Brightwell returned 70 yards, to set up Conner's 20-yard touchdown run, of which Conner said, "I really just blacked out and the next thing I knew it was a touchdown."
Seriously, are we all mad, watching this stuff?
Pitt then needed a defense that yielded 630 total yards to stop a fourth-and-1, which it did, which left Coach Pat Narduzzi so delirious that he imagined it would "go down in history as one of the greatest fourth-down stops ever." (Maybe there's a fourth-down museum.) Soon came Blewitt, who wound up conjuring Michael Geiger, the Michigan State kicker who silenced most of 108,975 at Ohio State last - yeah - November, then roamed the field with his arm in some unhinged celebration.
Geiger's 41-yard kick altered the national landscape last November; Blewitt's 48-yard kick altered the national landscape this November, November being the time when entrenched national landscapes can get altered. "So many plays," said Narduzzi, whose 6-4 team has defeated two of the selection committee's top 10 teams. "How do you even pinpoint, 'What play was it?'"
It wasn't one play here in Husky Stadium so much as it was all of them. Southern California had its glittering array of talent, from the do-everything cornerback Adoree' Jackson to the receiver Darreus Rogers to a Zeus of a tight end, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who came to Seattle with seven catches all year and left with five more. It had its hotshot redshirt-freshman quarterback, Sam Darnold, who began the year as a backup, and whose late grandfather was a fire captain and an actor who appeared in TV shows and commercials, including a turn as, get this, the Marlboro Man.
The bunch that put a spot on Washington's spotless season - holding it to 17 rushing yards and making top-rated quarterback Jake Browning look like he was playing uphill - was a team nobody would enjoy facing, even while it was the same team that began the year wedged between Alabama's cleats in a 52-6 loss. Yet people place great emotion in this sport.
"They were defeating blocks," Washington Coach Chris Petersen said. And: "A lot of credit to those guys." And: "So it is about learning from this situation and once we stop feeling sorry for ourselves in about 24 hours and regroups and figure out how to grow from this and how we get better."
As he began the 24 hours of sorrow, the rankings had cratered, yet still Iowa lined up for a field goal. It's college football in November, when from coast to middle to coast, it can feel like somebody reached in and pulled everything out.
Chuck Culpepper covers national college sports for the Washington Post.
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