As Davis recalls, "I had [James] walled off pretty good, but he got inside me. I turned around and saw Rocket stumble and get through the hole. Then [James] started closing on him. He was the last guy—my guy. If he makes the tackle...."
As Ismail broke for the sideline, James had a good angle on him. "That's when I got it," James recalls. "It wasn't a cheap shot or anything. It just wasn't legal."
Indeed, another look at the play shows that Davis hit James on the side, not in the back. As he fell forward, Davis still got both hands on Ismail. He was, in fact, the last person to touch him.
"I tried to get my head in front of him [James]," says Davis, addressing the key difference between a legal and an illegal open-field block. "I guess I didn't. I haven't seen a replay, but my friends have. They say it was definitely a clip."
That left only Rouen to stop Ismail. As Rouen recalls, "He pulled away from me like I was tied to a tree. But right as he passed me, I saw a flash of yellow, and I thought, Maybe we'll be okay."
Would Ismail have scored without the illegal help? Says James, "Would I have tackled him? That's a tough call. This is the Rocket we're talking about."
"He isn't positive he would have made the tackle?" says Davis in agony. "Oh, man, that's painful."
Davis's clip was nearly as painful to Georgia Tech. While the coaches' panel at UPI crowned Tech No. 1, by a single point, Colorado got the nod from the media, who vote in the AP poll. Had the Irish beaten Colorado, Tech most likely would have won in both rankings for a consensus national title. At the same time, it is fair to assume that Ismail's heroics—nullified though they were—cost Colorado at least one first-place vote in the UPI poll.
In the days after the game, Ismail was secluded at his mother's home in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., presumably weighing whether to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. The decision has been weighing on him visibly. He excused himself from the Orange Bowl's Media Day, and at the sole press conference he did attend, Ismail told reporters he resented being there.
Last weekend, besieged by phone calls from agents, Ismail was almost relieved when asked to reflect on the play that may have been his last in an Irish uniform. Said Rocket, "I remember taking that hit [from Brown] and thinking, Hey, I'm still on my feet, just get outside. When I heard them announcing a penalty, I thought maybe it was defensive holding. Then I thought, Yeah, right."