As Auburn’s grandstands still thundered above him, A.J. McCarron, the Alabama quarterback born in 1990, searched for the words to describe losing in such irregular fashion — on a play that had happened only five times before in major college football history, and never to decide a game, much less one this consequential.
Today there seems to be only one way for someone McCarron’s age to relate to the general public what it feels like when a freak occurrence visits a major sporting event — like the catch and return of a missed field goal kick for a touchdown of more than 100 yards, the clock striking all zeroes on the snap. Players of his generation at least have a polite metaphor that can describe the hollowed-out feeling of losing on a fluke, without discrediting the team or the player who pulled it off. He put it in terms to which millions of sports fans could relate, whether or not they played a down in real life.
“It’s almost like a video game,” McCarron said. “That’s something you do on Madden or NCAA. It’s just a wild play.”
McCarron is about half-right, though. Hands up if you went to Madden NFL 25 or NCAA Football 14 on your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 after the game to to recreate yesterday’s Iron Bowl, the Auburn-Alabama rivalry game, at its conclusion. Keep that hand up if you actually took it to the house.
Unlike Alabama yesterday, a kicking team in these two video games actually covers a missed field goal return, and does so as relentlessly as if it was the first-half kickoff. Punt or kickoff returns are difficult enough in these series. I gave up after about three dozen tries in the practice mode of NCAA 14.
For starters, you have to call FG Block-Return from the special teams playbook, which parks a safety under the goalposts in case the kick falls short. Then the kicking team has to be so far from the goalposts that even attempting a field goal is ludicrously unrealistic. Alabama fans will forever accuse coach Nick Saban of making such a decision, but any 70-rated kicker in NCAA 14 can put the ball out of the back of the end zone from the opponent’s 38, which is where Adam Griffith kicked the ball yesterday. I had to move the Crimson Tide another 15 yards just to see the kick fall into the arms of the deep man.
The furthest my virtual Chris Davis, Jr., made it was the Auburn 45.
“I want to say we added the ability to do that in NCAA 09 or 10,” said Ben Haumiller, the erstwhile producer of the NCAA series, reassigned to Madden in the wake of NCAA’s cancellation. It may have been a feature introduced in NCAA 08, a wild-and-wooly edition that took direct inspiration from another fantastic finish, the end of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl in which underdog Boise State unloaded both a hook-and-lateral and a statue-of-liberty handoff to turn the tables on mighty Oklahoma in overtime. The performance put Boise quarterback Jared Zabransky on the cover of NCAA 08, and coach Chris Peterson’s kitchen-sink playbook in the game itself.
“We definitely felt it was the right time to add in those plays based on that Fiesta Bowl,” Haumiller recalled. “In a pre-cover vote world it was much easier to get a guy like Zabransky on the cover to capitalise on something like the Boise State Upset. And if we were still making NCAA 15 you can be damn sure we would have the ability to return a short field goal if it wasn’t already there.”
NCAA 15 isn’t happening, of course, a casualty of the litigation brought against the association and those it licensed to make official NCAA products that walked up to the line of using real amateur players in them. EA Sports is settling the claims brought against it. If the climate improves after other suits are resolved, maybe NCAA returns.
Even after NCAA 08 added the Statue of Liberty to the playbook I didn’t use it much. The handoff is easily reproduceable, you just call it and hope the computer’s defence bites on the fake pass to the other side of the field. But the circumstances that made it such a ballsy, compelling play are not easily created. It happened in overtime. It was a major bowl game. It featured big bad Oklahoma and an up-from-nothing team from Idaho. It was a two-point conversion attempt for all the marbles. Like Ian Johnson’s proposal to his girlfriend in the end zone immediately after the win, it’s not the kind of situation that happens every day. And in video gaming, where the human holding the controller always wins, and in the career modes his team is always the year’s biggest success story, these things are even more rare.
And that gets back to the majesty of the Kick Six, the delightful nickname coined for Davis’ run into immortality. These freak plays in real life, the ones we remember forever, are not like a video game, actually. They may be mathematically reproduceable — I can run halfback toss-pass plays all day long and score at least two touchdowns in a regular game of Madden. But the conditions that give s daring performance it meaning do not occur in a laboratory, much less a living room. They happen on the field. Anything else will always be an imitation.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games.