In football lore, it is known simply as “The Drive”.
It was the 1987 AFC Championship Game between the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos. Down by a touchdown with 5:32 left to play, John Elway led the Broncos on a 15-play, 98-yard drive to tie the game which they eventually won in overtime. “The Drive” was a legendary march that is universally recognized as one of the clutch moments in the history of the game.
Until the final drive of the 2013 Outback Bowl, no drives by a Gamecock offense (in any era) deserve to be compared to The Drive. The 1993 drive to win the Georgia game at Sanford Stadium probably comes closest, but that game was the first of a season in which USC finished 4-7 and Georgia finished 5-6. A great drive in Gamecock history, yes, but it’s hard to put any meaningful historical context around it.
Some impressive drives were longer and consumed more time and plays (see the 98 yard game-clinching and time-eating drive against Tennessee in 2011), but none were more compelling, meaningful or magical than the final drive of the Outback Bowl this year.
Lost in the well-deserved hoopla surrounding “The Hit” (no explanation necessary) and the quick TD strike to Ace Sanders that followed it, is the fact that Michigan then methodically marched down the field to regain the lead. At that point, we were down 28-27. Three minutes and twenty-nine seconds remained in the game. After a kickoff return by Sidney Rhodes (no, I’ve never heard of him either), things got really interesting:
1. 1st and 10, Gamecock 30-yard line. Bruce Ellington 4-yard pass from Connor Shaw. An unremarkable play, but a positive start (and Bruce’s first catch of the game – a sneak peak – it would not be his last).
2. 2nd and 6, Gamecock 34-yard line. Shaw sacked for a 4-yard loss. Some major doubt started to creep into the heads of the Gamecock faithful at this point. Clock management is not great as time is now bleeding off rapidly. The clock is at 1:58 when the ball is snapped on 3rd down after the sack.
3. 3rd and 10, Gamecock 30-yard line. Rory Anderson 7-yard pass from Shaw. The ball is knocked from Anderson’s grasp as he hits the ground, but it’s eventually ruled a catch. Seventeen seconds inexplicably run off the clock while the officials discuss the play (great officiating in this game, by the way). When the ball is snapped on the 4th down play that follows, 1:21 remained on the clock. At this point, we had used 2:07 of the game clock and gained exactly seven yards. Nothing about this possession appeared to indicate that it would be something special. To the contrary, it appeared to be a complete disaster. Then, in an instant, everything changed.
4. 4th and 3, Gamecock 37-yard line. Sanders 6-yard pass from Shaw. Shaw dropped back and threw a dart to Sanders who beat his man on a slant route. At this point, I am thinking that we might have a small chance to get into field goal range.
5. 1st and 10, Gamecock 43-yard line. Sanders 7-yard pass from Shaw. This is sort of a forgotten play in the sequence, but was pretty amazing in retrospect. Shaw dropped back and was pressured. In what appeared to be a desperation throw, he hurled one towards the sideline and found Sanders. Honestly, I thought Shaw was throwing it away. We are now under a minute to go, :52 to be exact. Carolina called timeout #2, and now had one left. In the ESPN booth, John Gruden and Mike Tirico discuss the shakiness of our field goal unit. Gamecock fans everywhere were thinking the exact same thing.
6. 2nd and 3, Midfield. Sanders 7-yard pass from Shaw. Left tackle Cory Robinson was whipped by his man who rushed in and grabbed Shaw around the waist. He proceeded to sling Shaw towards the ground, but Shaw somehow stayed on his feet and hit Sanders on a shallow route across the middle. Sanders turned upfield and made a move before being dropped. After the play Shaw limped around in obvious pain. The camera then panned to Sanders lying on the turf, also in pain. He had tweaked a knee. While Sanders was attended to, Shaw went to the sideline and removed his helmet. He was clearly done. On one play, we lost our QB and “ace” receiver. Things were looking pretty bleak to say the least.
The clock was down to :42.
Enter Dylan Thompson.
7. 1st and 10, Wolverine 43-yard line. Kenny Miles 3-yard pass from Thompson. Thompson shook off any jitters with a quick completion to the sideline. Solid play that went for positive yards and took little time. A good start for #17.
8. 2nd and 7, Wolverine 40-yard line. Thompson dropped back, avoided a sack, and ran out of bounds for a one yard gain. Another play that is lost in the shuffle. A sack here would have been disastrous. Thompson avoided it and kept the drive alive. Twenty-six seconds remained on the clock.
9. 3rd and 6, Wolverine 39-yard line. Damiere Byrd 7-yard pass from Thompson on a middle receiver screen. Looking back, it was an absolutely fantastic play call by the HBC. Michigan came with a blitz. Thompson calmly delivered a strike to Byrd who ducked in for a first down.
10. 1st and 10, Wolverine 32-yard line. Thompson spiked the ball to stop the clock with :17 left. The HBC was obviously saving his final time out for a field goal. Or so we thought at the time….
11. 2nd and 10, Wolverine 32-yard line. Thompson hits Ellington for a 32-yard TD. Michigan came with a zone blitz. All the Carolina receivers ran verticals, also known as streak routes. Three receivers (Cunningham, Anderson, and Nick Jones) lined up to the left, and two receivers (Ellington and Miles) lined up to the right. Five DBs covered the receivers to the left of the formation and only two covered the ones to the right. Ellington ran to an open spot and Thompson delivered a beautiful ball as he was nailed by a blitzer. Pandemonium erupted in Gamecock households everywhere.
The Drive was remarkable in several respects:
- Shaw and Thompson were a combined 8 for 9 on the march. The only incompletion was an intentional one to stop the clock.
- The drive was started by Shaw (he ran 6 plays) and finished by Thompson (he ran 5). Something tells me that the HBCs decision to give Thompson playing time earlier in the game was a good one. I’ve watched a lot (too much) football in my day, and I can’t remember another instance where a backup QB finished a game winning drive after the starter was knocked out.
- Both Shaw and Thompson avoided almost certain sacks that probably would have spelled doom.
- The drive was completed with our star receiver on the sideline with a knee injury. No Shaw, No Lattimore, No Ace. No problem. [Recall that last year we finished up without Garcia, Lattimore, and Jeffrey]
In a game full of big plays, one of which was the play of the bowl season, the final drive has been overshadowed and almost forgotten. Normally, a drive of this magnitude and containing such drama would almost certainly receive more attention and praise. Without it, The Hit could not be credited with shifting the momentum in the game.
While not a thing of beauty, the guts exhibited by Shaw, Thompson and Sanders symbolize the make up of the 2011 and 2012 Gamecock squads.
To borrow from Ray Tanner, the “Win Anyway” attitude of these teams culminated and peaked in one glorious drive that, upon reflection, will likely go down as the greatest in Gamecock football history.