L.J. Scott scored on a 26-yard touchdown run to extend Michigan State’s lead over Indiana, 45-26, with two minutes, 17 seconds remaining on Oct. 24, 2015. The Spartans recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and took over on the Hoosiers’ 25-yard-line with two minutes, six seconds on the clock.
The game was over long before Scott’s touchdown or Damon Graham’s fumble but it was deemed officially over when Michigan State would presumably take three knees to run out the clock, an unavoidable outcome for Indiana with only one remaining timeout. Instead, Michigan State extended their lead with a two-play scoring drive and allowed Indiana to end the game with two clock-killing Jordan Howard carries. What should’ve been a 19-point win became a 26-point win thanks to an unnecessary touchdown drive in the final two minutes.
Ten days after improving to 8-0 with the win over Indiana, Michigan State was No. 7 in the Week 9 College Football Playoff Rankings, the first rankings of the season. Two one-loss teams were ranked ahead of the Spartans (No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Notre Dame, both 7-1), along with two 7-0 teams (No. 2 LSU and No. 6 Baylor), but their playoff path was clear: Win out and you’re in. Michigan State didn’t win out, losing the following week to Nebraska but still made the playoff thanks to a late-season win over Ohio State and Big Ten Championship win over Iowa.
Michigan State didn’t need Gerald Holmes’ 22-yard touchdown run to beat Indiana or impress the playoff committee. (And it’s a safe assumption the committee never mentioned the touchdown five weeks later when discussing the final rankings.) The Spartans were all but guaranteed a playoff spot as the 12-1 or 13-0 Big Ten champions. They didn’t need the blowout win because they faced one of the nation’s toughest schedule with four teams in the top 15 of the final playoff rankings, all of whom they defeated. They didn’t need the blowout win because they’re in the Big Ten, not the American.
Cincinnati didn’t need a fourth-quarter fake punt conversion to defeat East Carolina on Friday night. However, unlike their Power Five northern neighbor, they needed it to impress the playoff committee and beat a deck stacked against the Group of Five.
Leading East Carolina, 42-10, with eight minutes remaining in their Week 11 game, Cincinnati faced 4th-and-7 from their own 28-yard-line. Instead of punting to a struggling Pirates’ offense, the Bearcats ran a direct snap to linebacker Joel Dublanko, who converted with a 29-yard run, his first career carry in 33 career games.
The fake punt came minutes after Kirk Ferentz ended their blowout win over Minnesota by calling three straight timeouts, therefore the natural reaction was “Cincinnati follows Iowa’s savage move!” Ferentz’s timeout parade was savage, as were his postgame comments, but Cincinnati’s fake punt wasn’t, though it should’ve been.
After the game ended with a 55-17 final score (not before the teams exchanged words and played patty cake after several plays), Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell and ECU head coach Mike Houston had a lengthy exchange at midfield. While Houston declined to comment on the conversation, Fickell said he apologized for the fake punt.
“Quick apology to coach Housto,” Fickell said in his postgame press conference. “Forty-two to 10 and we had a fake punt. It wasn’t exactly something we planned or called. But would not want to do it in that situation. It is what it is, but you can’t take it back.”
With all due respect to one of the best coaches in college football, Fickell is wrong. The sportsmanship is admirable but Cincinnati did want to do it in that situation. With Cincinnati’s (and the entire Group of Five’s) playoff hopes hanging by a thread (or officially gone in my opinion), they need statement wins over bad teams. Without four top-15 teams on the schedule and without a Big Ten membership, Cincinnati needs to whoop bad teams.
Unfortunately for Cincinnati, like Michigan State’s win over Indiana, the playoff committee won’t care if the Bearcats beat ECU by 32 points or 38 points. They won’t care, despite continued dominance in starting 7-0, because Cincinnati won’t make the final playoff field next month. But up-32 fake punts are exactly what elite Group of Five teams must do to turn heads and beat a stacked deck.