Best of 2016: Top college football plays of the season
One-handed catches, special teams touchdowns, game-winning scores and plenty of trick play calls. This year in college football had it all.
Here's to many more exciting moments in 2017. But first, take a look back at the year that was, with 20 of the best plays from the 2016 season:
Brandon Wilson’s kick six | Sept. 3, 2016
The list kicks off with one of the opening weekend’s premier matchups when Houston took on then-No. 3 Oklahoma in NRG Stadium. The Cougars were on their way to an upset with a 19-17 lead in the third quarter when Houston cornerback Brandon Wilson caught a missed 53-yard field goal attempt deep in the end zone and returned it 108 yards for this year’s version of the “kick six.” Houston went on to knock off the Sooners 33-23 thanks in large part to this length-of-the-field score.
Malik Hooker’s juggled INT | Sept. 3, 2016
Wide receivers aren’t the only ones on the field that only need one hand to get on the highlight reels. Ohio State safety Malik Hooker showed his hand skills in Week 1 against Bowling Green, where he ranged over to the incoming pass, tipped it up with his right hand and caught it on the way down with his left hand. Talk about hand-eye coordination.
Lamar Jackson’s hurdle | Sept. 9, 2016
It’s no surprise the top player in college football makes the list of top plays. While the Heisman winner had a handful of record-breaking performances in 2016, perhaps the top highlight came in the Carrier Dome in Week 2 when Jackson rolled left on an option fake and leapt high in the air over an incoming Syracuse defender en route to scoring one of his four rushing touchdowns of the game.
Central Michigan’s Hail Mary lateral | Sept. 10, 2016
When you have one final shot at the end zone from midfield, a losing team usually has two options: 1.) Throw a Hail Mary or 2.) Keep the ball moving with a series of laterals. In CMU’s case against Oklahoma State, a mix of both worked. The Chippewas trailed 27-24 with no time left on the clock left following a penalty, and Cooper Rush threw a prayer down the right side to Jesse Kroll. As Kroll was about to be brought down at the 10-yard line, he then pitched it to a trailing Corey Willis before hitting the turf for one of the craziest walk-off wins you’ve seen in college football.
Noah Brown’s absurd TD catch | Sept. 17, 2016
Week 3 is a little too early to label a play “the catch of the year,” but Brown’s touchdown catch against Oklahoma was just that good. The Buckeyes wideout reached around the Sooners defensive back and pinned the incoming ball right on his back with one hand for an incredible score. It was one of three touchdown catches on the night for Brown, all coming in the opening half.
Bug Howard’s walk-off catch | Sept. 24, 2016
Third time’s a charm, right? Trailing by six to Pitt in the waning seconds, North Carolina failed twice to get it into the end zone within the five-yard line. Then with six seconds left, Mitch Trubisky lobbed one up to Bug Howard, who came down with the grab despite having a defender draped all over him. The ensuing PAT gave UNC the one-point lead with two seconds left, which it would hold.
Linell Bonner’s one-handed grab | Sept. 29, 2016
Bonner was as reliable as can be for Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. in Week 5 against UConn, hauling in a career-high 12 catches on 12 targets. But one stood out above all. With the Cougars already up 35-7, Bonner tacked on six more with a lunging one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone. Houston went on to win 42-14.
Tennessee tops Georgia on Hail Mary | Oct. 5, 2016
The Vols had a knack for late-game comebacks and miraculous wins early on this season during their 5-0 start. None were as stunning as Tennessee’s rivalry win over Georgia. Down 34-31 with 10 seconds remaining, Joshua Dobbs’s 47-yard Hail Mary throw somehow fell into the hands of Jauan Jennings in the end zone, amidst a swarm of Bulldogs defenders. What an ending.
Brian O’Neill: More than just a lineman | Oct. 8, 2016
It’s not often that you see a designed screen for an offensive lineman. But that’s what Pitt drew up for Brian O’Neill. The 300-pounder dropped to the left side all alone and took the pass well behind the line of scrimmage before turning upfield to the surprise of the whole Georgia Tech defense. Twenty-four yards later, O’Neill had the first touchdown of his career. He would pick up his second just three weeks later on a reverse handoff.
Near-INT turned into Brandon Reilly’s crazy catch | Oct. 15, 2016
Tommy Armstrong Jr. can thank Brandon Reilly and a little bit of luck for having one less interception in his stat line. Armstrong delivered a deep ball against Indiana in October that looked destined for a turnover. But the ball bounced out of the defensive back’s hands and then off his foot right into the unexpected arms of Brandon Reilly, who was lying on his back.
Terrell Edmunds’ acrobatic interception | Oct. 20, 2016
Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya tried to fit a throw in tight double coverage against Virginia Tech and paid for it, despite some bad luck. What looked like a simple pass deflection turned into a terrific interception when Edmunds came flying in to scoop up the tipped ball before hitting the floor.
Craziness in Happy Valley | Oct. 22, 2016
Penn State turned a lot of college football fans into believers when it knocked off then-No. 2 Ohio State in an October battle at Happy Valley. The impact play that spurred the victory came with 4:48 remaining when Marcus Allen blocked a Tyler Durbin field goal attempt, allowing Grant Haley to scoop up the ball and return it for a touchdown. That touchdown gave Penn State the 24-21 lead, which would be the final score.
Zach Cunningham’s athletic FG block | Nov. 5, 2016
Attempting to leap over the center on a field goal attempt, more often than not, ends poorly. But not for Cunningham, a Vanderbilt linebacker. He cleared the Auburn line without contact and got both hands on the 35-yard attempt to keep the Commodores in the game with 1:45 left. The upset attempt fell short, but not for Cunningham’s lack of effort.
Douglas Coleman’s 100-yard fumble return | Nov. 5, 2016
D’Onta Foreman was a rare bright spot for Texas this season and had a career day against Texas Tech with 341 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But he could’ve had another touchdown if it wasn’t for the Red Raiders’ Douglas Coleman. Foreman was trying to power his way to a 24-yard score when Coleman stripped Foreman at the goal line and returned it 100 yards the other way.
Kansas’ camouflaged kickoff return | Nov. 12, 2016
Out of all the trick plays that grace this list, this one pulled off by the Jayhawks may top them all in creativity. Late in the second quarter, Kansas lined up for a kickoff return from Iowa State and pulled off a hidden player trick to advance 35 yards. Jayhawks wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez laid down flat on his stomach in the end zone before the kick, allowing his royal blue jersey to blend into the blue-painted end zone. After his teammate fielded the kick across the field, he took the lateral pass and escaped some defenders for a modest gain.
Jourdan Lewis’ dagger INT | Nov. 16, 2016
With Wisconsin facing fourth down trailing 14-7 from inside its own 10 against Michigan with 2:23 left in regulation, all the Wolverines needed was a pass breakup to clinch the victory. But Jourdan Lewis had something else in mind. The defensive back made an impressive one-handed diving snag while running step for step with the receiver. That’s how you put an exclamation point on a victory.
Dede Westbrook puts on the brakes | Dec. 3, 2016
Westbrook was named the top receiver in the country this season largely due to his game-breaking ability to rack up yards after catch. A prime example was in the de facto Big 12 title game when he caught a pass on a crossing pattern, made a move up field and then abruptly put on the brakes to send the incoming defender flying past him. It didn’t take long to put on the jets again as the senior then sprinted into the end zone for a 69-yard touchdown.
Jake Browning’s wacky TD pass | Dec. 3, 2016
The Huskies quarterback looked to be in trouble on a drop back in the red zone in the third quarter of the Pac-12 championship game, when he faced incoming pressure from his blind side. But he somehow made a play out of it. The sophomore lofted up a dangerous pass to John Ross III, who made a leaping one-handed grab with the defender jolting past him. That left plenty of open space for Ross, who streaked for the untouched touchdown. Not bad for a broken play.
YSU heads to national championship | Dec. 17, 2016
We’ll throw a well-deserved FCS moment into the list thanks to the difficulty of the catch in the most crucial of times. Youngstown State faced a four-point deficit to Eastern Washington in the playoff semifinals with six seconds left on the clock. Lined up at the 8-yard line, Hunter Wells delivered a strike to Kevin Rader, who made a Noah Brown-esque catch against the defender’s back in the end zone for the game-winning score. YSU will now face James Madison in the FCS championship game on Jan. 7.
WKU’s fake QB kneel | Dec. 20, 2016
Hilltoppers quarterback Mike White fooled everyone on the Memphis defense when he faked a quarterback kneel, sneakily handed it off to running back Anthony Wales and drew all Tigers eyes on him as he rushed to the right without possession of the ball. Meanwhile, Wales scurried for a modest 53-yard gain on the effective trick play right before the half. The play was essentially nullified by an interception on the next play, but WKU still came out on top in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Nyqwan Murray's 92-yard Orange Bowl score | Dec. 30,2016
Florida State receiver Nyqwan Murray sure made up for his earlier muffed punt against Michigan in the Orange Bowl with a 92-yard home run play later on in the first quarter. Backed up near the Seminoles' own end zone, quarterback Deondre Francois found Murray deep down the left side, as the receiver was a handful of steps in front of All-American corner back Jourdan Lewis. Murray hauled it in near midfield and turned on the jets for the long score. This was only the cream of the crop of a litany of entertaining plays to come out of Miami on Friday.
Bo Scarbrough can't be stopped in Peach Bowl | Dec. 31, 2016
Bo Scarbrough gave Washington's defense fits all day on New Year's Eve en route to leading Alabama to another spot in the national title game. But the highlight of the day came in the third quarter when the huge back rumbled 68 yards for a game-breaking score. The sophomore broke two tackles behind the line of scrimmage and accelerated forward, finishing the run by outracing the lone defender remaining on a cutback to midfield. Scarbrough finished his career day with 180 rushing yards, a new program bowl record.