Greg Denham threw up a prayer.
Bakari Grant somehow came down with the answer.
With UC Davis trailing by two and as time expired, Grant sprinted downfield, turned his shoulder just past the goal line, dug his cleats into the artificial turf at Aggie Stadium and leapt into the air with four University of Northern Colorado defenders.
Amid the aerial crowd, the 6-foot-4 Grant plucked the ball out of the chilly sky on full extension and crashed to the ground for the game-winning 38-yard Hail Mary catch, delivering the Aggies a dramatic 34-30 victory on Saturday night.
“It was all so fast. I just felt the ball and squeezed it tight as I could,” Grant said. “It was almost like I was outside my body. I don’t know what happened. I felt the ball in my hands, went down – I mean, it was more tiring after the play celebrating.”
Grant was rushed by his teammates and the fans as the catch was replayed on the stadium’s scoreboard screen. Head coach Bob Biggs watched the catch over and over but was still left in disbelief.
“You guys will never see that again. That was unbelievable. That was really, really special. Did you see that replay?” Biggs said. “He just went up – it wasn’t like he bobbled it or anything. He snatched.”
And to think, UC Davis almost kicked a field goal instead.
After kicker Michael York’s 28-yarder put the Bears up 30-28, the Aggies offense took the field from its own 34-yard line with one timeout and 1:18 remaining.
Denham worked UC Davis down the field, running for five yards and completing three of four passes, the last of which was an eight-yard connection to Grant on an out route inbounds at the 33-yard line.
After a spiked pass to stop the clock, the Aggies’ field goal unit took the field with 8.9 seconds remaining, and Sean Kelley lined up for a career-long 50-yard try.
“To be perfectly honest, that was going to be a heck of a kick for Sean Kelley,” Biggs said. “There was a tailwind and I thought, ‘If we’re going to finish, we’re going to let Sean finish.'”
A false start penalty changed that, as the would-be 55-yard attempt would have been too far out of the redshirt freshman’s range.
The offense retook the field, and after an incomplete pass to the middle of the field, Denham found a vaulting Grant in the end zone for the win.
“The line blocked great,” said Denham, who was 25-of-35 for 289 yards and four touchdowns. “I just threw it up and said a prayer. Oh man, it’s just too good to be true.”
The Aggies (2-4) trailed by as many as 13 points in the third quarter, but a decision to go for it on fourth-and-one from their own 49-yard line helped turn the game around.
“I just felt at that time if we were going to win this game, we got to go for it on fourth down,” Biggs said. “I thought we were running the ball pretty well. The offensive line was blocking real well, Joe [Trombetta] was running well, and I just felt like we were going to get it.”
Trombetta prolonged the drive with a five-yard run outside to the left. After back-to-back third down conversions, Denham found a wide-open Chris Carter on a post route for a 19-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 27-21.
UC Davis’ defense then forced a three-and-out, and Brandon Rice caught a 12-yard touchdown pass on the next drive to give the team a 28-27 edge at 11:19 in the fourth quarter.
The Bears (0-4) would eventually take a two-point lead on York’s field goal, but the Aggies’ final play completed the comeback.
“One thing’s that different this year than any other year I’ve been here is the camaraderie between the offense and the defense,” said Mike Morales, who led the team with seven tackles and 2.5 tackles for less. “We’re just one big family, and we go out there and play for each other.… There was no doubt on that last drive that we were going to score in my mind.”
The strong finish was a long time coming for the Aggies (2-4), whose first three losses came by a combined 11 points. The recurrence of losing late in games has had the coaching staff stressing the importance of finishing for weeks.
“As a football team, we needed that,” Biggs said. “To be able to finish the way we finished it after all we talked about trying to finish games says a lot.”
Leading up to the end of the game, Denham said that even he was yelling, “Finish, finish, finish.”
“Coach Biggs has just been drilling it home to us countless times,” Denham said. “In the past, we haven’t stuck it out to get the win. We’re right there almost every time.… We all looked at each other, knew what we had to do.”
And with help of Grant’s acrobatics, UC Davis finally finished.
MICHAEL GEHLKEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.