Inside Houston football’s historic game-winning Hail Mary
The football gods work in mysterious ways.
In one moment, it was a celebration. West Virginia had a 4th & 10, down by a field goal and beyond field goal range. Less than 30 seconds remained until the Cougars walked away with a historic first Big 12 win.
The next, it was dread.
West Virginia’s Garrett Greene steps back and tosses a ball down the middle. Complete to Hudson Clement. Then the run after the catch. All the way to the endzone. West Virginia leads, twelve seconds remain.
The squib kick is next and seven seconds remain. Junior quarterback Donovan Smith connects with freshman wide receiver Dalton Carnes and he goes out of bounds.
Three seconds. One final play.
Hail Mary time.
Smith snaps the ball. Under pressure, He rolls left, twists his body around, and heaves the ball towards the endzone.
“It’s not always ideal when you have to step up,” Smith said. “I just saw my guys down there so I tried to put enough air on it.”
“He’s (Smith) running left and he has to flip his hips at midfield and throw that thing to get it there,” UH head coach Dana Holgorsen said.
At the end of the Hail Mary heave is sophomore wide receiver Joseph Manjack IV, but he is not the one to catch the ball.
“As soon as I turned around I saw Manjack make a great move on the ball to tip it,” said sophomore wide receiver Stephon Johnson. “I was just like ‘I got to grab it.'”
Johnson, also known as “Boogie” to family and friends alike, is the man of the moment. The tipped ball never hits the ground, but it does find Johnson’s hands amidst the scramble of Cougars and Mountaineers alike in the endzone.
Johnson runs ahead. Sophomore wide receiver Samuel Brown picks him up from behind. The rest of the team follows. Fans arrive next, hopping down onto the field with the clock at zero and the Cougars ahead.
Though it looked improvised, the Cougars insist what unfolded on Thursday evening was rehearsed well in advance.
“We practice this play,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t really planned to be tipped to me, but it just happened like that.”
Johnson said the play — a Hail Mary game-winner — was a first in his career. Holgorsen described the walk-off Hail Mary as a first in his coaching career, as well.
From moments away from victory to seconds away from a loss and back to victory in less than 20 seconds of game time, Holgorsen said the moment was among the happiest in his coaching career.
“I don’t think I could’ve been more mad and more happy in the space of one minute,” Holgorsen said.
Thursday’s win marked Holgorsen’s first against a Big 12 team as Houston’s head coach and second against any Power 5 team. But the win is made all the more sweet coming against West Virginia, the program Holgorsen left after eight seasons in charge to take the helm at UH.
“I went up to coach and he had a big smile on his face,” Johnson said. “He looked like he was about to cry.”
Before celebrating with his teammates and his coaches, Johnson’s first thought was to find his mom.
“She just said she was so proud of me,” Johnson said. “I almost started crying because it has been an up and down season for me honestly. She always told me to stay focused and keep doing what I’m doing.”
Holgorsen and Johnson both tipped their hats to Smith, who had his best four-quarter performance in a UH uniform to date on Thursday night. Smith went 21 for 27, throwing for 253 yards and four touchdowns. Smith completed 16 consecutive passes to end the game, capping off his streak with the Hail Mary game-winner.
Coming off two losses to Big 12 opponents that both included scoreless second halves from the offense, the team viewed Thursday as a critical game to show something more.
“We definitely felt like this was a must-win,” Smith said.
“Were we supposed to win it? I don’t know,” said Holgorsen.
“But we did.”