How did Colorado get here, in dire enough straits to have to pull out this play, just seven days after erasing strong Wisconsin 55-17? After leading Michigan 14-3 on a splendidly executed option-read and pass from Stewart to Westbrook with 7:54 left in the first half?
The Buffaloes got here in a variety of ways. First, they had committed two turnovers and five penalties and allowed a 65-yard, second-and-10 touchdown pass from Wolverine quarterback Todd Collins to Amani Toomer, all in the second half. When it took possession on its 28 with 3:52 to play, Colorado trailed 26-14 and seemed certain to lose this Sadistic Schedule Bowl (Michigan: Boston College, at Notre Dame, Colorado, plus the Big Ten; Colorado: Wisconsin, at Michigan, at Texas, plus the Big Eight).
But in 10 plays and 96 seconds, the Buffaloes scored to pull to 26-21 with 2:16 to go. Stewart, who would finish with 294 passing yards on 21 completions in 32 attempts and 85 rushing yards on 20 carries, completed four throws for 28 yards on the drive, ran for 30 yards and pitched to Rashaan Salaam for a one-yard TD. The ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Wolverines, but a procedure penalty forced Michigan to punt, the kick pinning Colorado to its 15-yard line with 14 seconds left and no timeouts. "Honestly," said Collins, "I was thinking that 85 yards in 14 seconds was pretty tough."
The Buffaloes got 21 yards on a pass to Westbrook. As the clock ticked down to six seconds, Stewart slammed the ball into the grass. One play left.
It would be a play similar to the one that Colorado had run on the last snap of the first half from its own 44, when Stewart had thrown the ball 65 yards into the Michigan end zone, where it had been intercepted by free safety Chuck Winters. This time, from 10 yards farther back, McCartney doubted the ball would even reach the goal line. "I was watching our receivers, hoping for a penalty," McCartney said. "I thought we needed some more yards."
He underestimated his quarterback. Stewart took a seven-step drop, paused, stepped slightly left, shuffled backward and then drove into the throw, never pressured by Michigan's three-man rush. The pass traveled 73 yards in the air. (Westbrook says he has seen the 6'3", 210-pound Stewart throw a ball 85 yards.) There were six Michigan defenders inside the five-yard line when Anderson leaped with Winters and both batted at the ball, sending it toward the end zone. "I definitely hit it," Anderson said. Winters, a Detroit native who played Little League baseball against Westbrook, said, "The ball hit my hand." Behind the two of them, the 6'4", 210-pound Westbrook was slanting into the end zone when he jumped, took the ball off the back of cornerback Ty Law's jersey and fell to the grass cradling it against his chest. Officials on either side of Westbrook signaled touchdown, plunging the huge stadium into silence. "That was some sound, all of a sudden," said Buffalo free safety Steve Rosga, who watched from the bench.
Stewart said, "All I saw was this big muscular arm hit the ball, and then I saw somebody fall down, and then I heard the crowd get quiet, and it looked like a big old truck just swept our whole sideline onto the field." Stewart followed, running toward the celebratory pile in the end zone. "I was dying, running down the field," Stewart said. "I tried to yell, but my Adam's apple came up into my throat."
Back in Louisiana, his father put down the scissors as the film ran. "I was so happy for my son, I just didn't know what to do," said Robert Stewart. In the front row of the stands, Mercy Westbrook wept.
The extra point was never attempted, leaving Colorado with a 27-26 victory. It would be at least a minute before the scoreboard operator could bear to post the final six points.
The Wolverines shuffled from the field, helmets perched on the tops of their heads, blank stares on their faces. "This feels as bad as anyone would think it does," said Collins, who threw for 258 yards. The Michigan players are not unaccustomed to crushing disappointment—all-too-frequent losses to Notre Dame, last year's final-minute defeat at the hands of Illinois, and so on. But this game, and this season, had a different feel. The Wolverines had beaten the Irish, and then, for the matchup against Colorado, Tyrone Wheatley, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, returned after missing two games with a separated shoulder. He scored to give Michigan a 17-14 lead in the third quarter.