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The Eighth Best Play of 2016: Defensive Stand in Dallas

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The Bulls’ defensive captain came up huge in a late-season nailbiter.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

This is the third edition of our offseason feature in which we’re counting down the top ten plays of the 2016 USF football season. Check out previous editions below:

#10: Marlon Mack Makes History
#9: Willie’s Farewell

Given that it was smack in the middle of a murderer’s row of tense, high-scoring contests against bowl teams (Temple, Navy, Memphis, UCF, South Carolina), USF’s roadtrip to SMU is a bit of a footnote as far as the 2016 season goes. It’s easy to forget, then, just how close the Bulls’ first ever ten-win regular season came to dying in Dallas against a feisty Mustangs squad.

USF looked to be in control after they jumped out to a 28-14 third-quarter lead, but in an uncharacteristic turn of events, the Bulls’ offense seriously sputtered down the stretch. Check out the Bulls’ last few drives:

Punt
Punt
Fumble
Touchdown
Punt
Interception
Almost the World’s Worst Turnover on a Ill-Advised D’Ernest Johnson Pass, But Eventually a Punt

For the 2016 USF offense, that sequence was downright frigid. Worse, it left the door open for a potent SMU offense to tie the game up, as the Mustangs moved the ball into USF territory down 35-27 with just a couple minutes to go. Quarterback Ben Hicks had moved SMU all the way to the Bulls’ 23-yard line before Auggie Sanchez made a trio of stops.

On 2nd and 10, Hicks threw a swing pass to Ke’Mon Freeman, who scampered for seven yards before Sanchez rather awkwardly brought the tailback down a few yards shy of the first down marker.

On 3rd and 3, Hicks handed the ball off to Freeman, who inched forward for a couple of yards before meeting Sanchez again.

And on 4th and 1, Auggie saved his best for last.

Let’s break it down:

SMU comes out in an unbalanced line— they’ve got three offensive linemen to the right of the center. With a fullback lined up to the strong side and halfback Braeden West in the backfield behind Hicks, it’s a good bet that if this ball stays on the ground, it’s going behind the right side of the line.

And it does. SMU decides to run right at the heart of the Bulls’ defense, in between the right guard and right tackle with fullback Mitchell Kaufman serving as the lead blocker. But there’s a mixup on the offensive line— both right guard Jerry Saena and center Evan Brown go after Kevin Bronson, leaving Auggie unblocked in the middle. Kaufman has a chance at Sanchez, but he clears out Devin Abraham on the right side of the line instead. Just after the whistle, you can see Brown get upset with Saena about the missed assignment (the arrows show who each player should have been blocking).

This isn’t a perfect play by Auggie, but it’s close. He’s a hair slow to fill the hole, but once he does, he connects with West about an quarter-yard shy of the first down line. The SMU back has lowered his center of gravity and has all the leverage in this collision...

...and somehow, Auggie just picks him up and shoves him backwards, losing zero momentum in the process. I didn’t understand physics when I took it in high school, and I would often propose ridiculous hypotheticals to my teacher to try to prove that things weren’t as ironclad as they seemed. “But Ms. Harvey, what if the centripetal force just decides to stop working for a bit and gravity strengthens by 3 miles per hour? What then?” I should have just shown her this picture. Physics is a lie, and Auggie Sanchez has proven it.

From this angle, you can tell exactly how close the first-down line was, and how little leverage Auggie had going into this tackle. USF’s defensive captain had an up-and-down season, but this was unquestionably the highlight. It’s a tremendous play.

I’d also like to take a quick moment to observe the odd progression of Devin Abraham on this play. Devin reacts well to come from the outside of the play and fill the hole around the same time as Auggie, but he’s effectively taken out of the play by SMU’s fullback. Although this allows Auggie to make the unimpeded tackle, Devin does not give up— he jumps onto the pile while the play is still live and... grabs Auggie’s shoulder?

I have two theories regarding what happened here:

  • Devin was so excited by the fourth-down stop that he wanted to hug Auggie before the play had even ended.
  • This is not actually Devin Abraham— this is a plant designed by SMU to destroy USF’s defense from within.

“Don’t be silly, Ryan”, you say. “There’s no way that Devin Abraham was secretly replaced by an evil SMU robot before the game; if that was the case, he wouldn’t be celebrating with the team after the call was uphe— OH GOD.”

I’m onto you, SMU.

Why was this play the best?

In a season full of moments where the Bulls’ offense had to bail out their leaky defense again and again and again, this was really the first time that the defense stepped up to relieve the offense. Sure, the D made a nice goal line stand against Memphis a week earlier, but that only happened after Memphis marched the length of the field in response to a go-ahead Quinton Flowers touchdown. Not exactly Bednarik-worthy.

Plus, unlike the first two plays on this countdown, this play flat-out decided the outcome of the game. If the Mustangs converted the fourth down here and managed to send the game to overtime, the Bulls might have finished the regular season at a downright disappointing 9-3. It was, then, a sweet moment of redemption for Sanchez, who became a bit of a scapegoat for USF’s defensive woes last season. Auggie wasn’t brilliant in 2016, but he certainly wasn’t awful. In Dallas, he just about won USF the game.

Why was this play not the best?

The SMU game was fun and close, but it certainly wasn’t the most meaningful of the bunch. Plus, the Bulls’ offense made so many death-defying highlights in 2016 that even Auggie Sanchez singlehandedly reversing the laws of physics didn’t manage to resonate as much as some of USF’s more electrifying plays. We’ll take a closer look at one of these highlights at #7.