In October of 2005, I was 17 years old and, unlike other young adults who spent their Saturdays hanging with friends and trying to lose their virginity, I spent mine in front of the TV in my parents' basement consuming college football.
We can discuss the merits of choosing college football over girls another time because on this day—Oct. 15, 2005—I made the right choice to stay home and watch the greatest day of college football in the history of the sport.
The 3:30 Eastern time slot might have been the best network TV lineup of all time: Florida at LSU on CBS, USC at Notre Dame on NBC, and Penn State at Michigan on ABC.
No matter which game you watched you were in for a treat.
All three games came down to the last play. In Death Valley, LSU snuffed out Florida with a defensive stop to win the game. In South Bend, IN, the game ended with the “Bush Push,” and the game in Ann Arbor, MI, gave us “Henne to Manningham,” which immediately became my favorite college football play ever.
You don’t get to see walk-off touchdowns that aren't a bunch of laterals or a Hail Mary heave very often. To be forced to win the game on a “real” football play gives me goosebumps.
This is the story of how Chad Henne hit Mario Manningham on a standard slant route to beat Penn State.
Unranked Michigan trails No. 8 Penn State with one second left, facing fourth-and-4 from the Nittany Lions’ 10-yard line. One play. One shot—into a crowded end zone.
Michigan lines up in a trips formation with a pair of receivers and a tight end to the same side. Penn State counters by playing with two safeties and a nickel cornerback directly over the Michigan slot.
The Wolverines go with a classic double slant-flat concept. Broadly, the goal of the play is to widen the defense with the flat route to throw one of the two slants inside. Should the defense stay narrow, you can throw into the flats. However, in this situation, the ball really needs to be delivered near the goal line.
Michigan takes a timeout before the snap, calls the play, and directs those slant routes to be run a little bit deeper than usual—likely a rehearsed red-zone version of the play that essentially turns a pair of quick slants into a slant and a post.
To the short side of the field, the single receiver runs what I call a bench route off of an inside release—which buys him an additional couple of yards to the sideline. Based on alignment, Penn State can cover the isolated receiver with three defenders.
That’s not ideal.
This route is very good against a cornerback who hangs short. There’s a window on top of the cornerback and outside of the safety to that side to fit the ball. That’s what Michigan is banking on should its quarterback, Henne, go that direction. But the 3-on-1 pushes Henne’s eyes to the trips side.
This ends up being a good decision because the cornerback matches the depth of the receiver and takes away the corner portion of the bench route.
The read for Henne on the trips side is inside out. He’ll start with the linebacker on top of his tight end and then move outward to the nickelback.
Pre-snap, we can see that the safety on the trips side is very low. With the ball on the 10-yard line, he doesn’t need to be any deeper, making things even more difficult. Henne is going to have to add the low safety to his read. It’s going to be inside linebacker to safety to nickelback.
One of the main aspects of this play that stands out is the trust that Henne has to have with his outside receiver, Manningham. Regardless of the coverage, Manningham has to beat his cornerback to the inside. This allows Henne not to have to worry about the cornerback. We can eliminate the cornerback from the quarterbacks reads.
As the ball is snapped and Henne starts his dropback, the inside linebacker takes an angled coverage drop. Since he doesn’t directly follow the tight end, there is no window to throw the inside slant route. The backside safety shuffles over to the trips side and the play-side safety stays over the top of the inside slant route. There is no opening for the ball to be delivered to that receiver.
Next, Henne is looking at the nickel. If he drops back, there is some space outside to throw to the tight end in the flats. He wouldn’t catch it in the end zone, but if the ball was accurate enough, he could turn upfield without losing any speed and possibly score.
Here, the nickel follows the flat route. This creates the throwing window for the outside slant route. The nickel has widened, the frontside safety has stayed inside on the first slant route, and now, as noted, all Manningham has to do is win his route to the inside of the cornerback.
Penn State is playing Cover 4 zone principles. The cornerback thinks he has help with the Manningham slant route from the safety to his inside, but his help is preoccupied with the inside slant.
Because the play-side safety stays too long on the inside slant route, history is made. Unranked Michigan upsets No. 8 Penn State on the last play of the game.
Here’s the full play. Soak it in: