Houston-Tulane provides AAC’s latest, not greatest, dramatic football finish

But the Green Wave’s win ranks as one of the league’s top five endings ever.
Tulane wide receiver Jalen McCleskey runs in front of Houston cornerback Damarion Williams (6) on the way to the go-ahead touchdown during the final minute of Thursday's 38-31 Tulane win. Gerald Herbert  |  AP
Tulane wide receiver Jalen McCleskey runs in front of Houston cornerback Damarion Williams (6) on the way to the go-ahead touchdown during the final minute of Thursday's 38-31 Tulane win. Gerald Herbert | AP
Published September 20
Updated September 20

If drama were the sole prerequisite for highfalutin’ autonomy status, the American Athletic Conference truly would be the nation’s sixth power league.

In barely more than a half-decade of existence, the AAC has produced a montage of breathtaking football finishes. The latest: Tulane’s 38-31 victory Thursday against Houston, courtesy of a fake kneel-down play and ensuing 53-yard touchdown strike in the waning seconds.

But whether “Fritz Magic” (in honor of Green Wave coach Willie Fritz) ranks as the greatest finish in league history is subject to deliberation.

On our list, bound by parameters we devised, others rank a bit higher.

First, let’s define a finish: The game didn’t necessarily have to be decided on the final play, but certainly in the final 90 seconds.

Additionally, contests didn’t have to involve two AAC teams (allowing non-conference games to be considered), but they must have occurred during the time of the league’s existence (2013-present).

And while the improbability of the finishes clearly were factored, so were the stakes involved.

Here’s our top-five list, ranked in order:

1. UCF 48, USF 42 (2017)

UCF defensive back Mike Hughes (19) eludes the USF defense on a big running play, resulting in a UCF touchdown, during the second half of the 2017 classic between the Bulls and Knights in Orlando. Douglas R. Clifford  |  Tampa Bay Times
UCF defensive back Mike Hughes (19) eludes the USF defense on a big running play, resulting in a UCF touchdown, during the second half of the 2017 classic between the Bulls and Knights in Orlando. Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times

We still deem this de facto East Division title game the most exciting in league history. The teams combined for nearly 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns of 20 or more yards. In the end, the Quinton Flowers clinic (605 total yards, five TDs) was upstaged by Mike Hughes' 95-yard kickoff return with 1:28 remaining.

2. UCF 32, East Carolina 30 (2014)

The year before the league title game was introduced, the Knights clinched a share of the AAC crown on Justin Holman's 51-yard Hail Mary to Breshad Perriman as time expired. Before Holman's surreal sling, East Carolina had scored 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to take a 30-26 lead. On ECU's final possession, quarterback Shane Carden took a knee on three consecutive downs, then a sack on fourth down, giving UCF the ball at midfield with 10 seconds to play.

3. Houston 35, Pitt 34 (2015)

In this Jan. 2, 2015, file photo, Pittsburgh defensive back Reggie Mitchell (15) and linebacker Bam Bradley defend as Houston wide receiver Deontay Greenberry (3) catches the game-winning two-point conversion late in the second half of the Armed Forces Bowl NCAA college football game in Fort Worth, Texas. Sharon Ellman  |  AP
In this Jan. 2, 2015, file photo, Pittsburgh defensive back Reggie Mitchell (15) and linebacker Bam Bradley defend as Houston wide receiver Deontay Greenberry (3) catches the game-winning two-point conversion late in the second half of the Armed Forces Bowl NCAA college football game in Fort Worth, Texas. Sharon Ellman | AP

What shaped up as a nondescript bowl game evolved into the greatest comeback in a non-overtime bowl contest. The Coogs, who entered this Armed Forces Bowl with an interim coach (David Gibbs), trailed Pitt 31-6 early in the fourth quarter before a furious rally that featured consecutive recovered onside kicks. Deontay Greenberry’s 25-yard TD catch from Greg Ward Jr. with 59 seconds remaining ― and Ward’s throw to Greenberry for the ensuing two-point conversion ― set off a wild Coogs celebration.

4. Tulane 38, Houston 31 (2019)

After squandering a 21-point first-half lead, Houston appeared to force overtime with a short field goal with 21 seconds remaining. Turned out, that was plenty of time for Fritz Magic to unfold. Fritz called a trick play out of an apparent victory formation, resulting in tailback Amare Jones' 18-yard scamper. That set up Justin McMillan's fling to Jalen McCleskey, who snagged it despite being mired in triple coverage, for a 53-yard TD with three seconds to play.

5. UCF 39, Temple 36, 2013

In this Nov. 16, 2013, file photo, UCF wide receiver J.J. Worton (9) celebrates his touchdown catch with wide receiver Josh Reese (19) as Temple defensive back Zamel Johnson (11),  who was covering him, walks away. Chris Szagola  |  AP
In this Nov. 16, 2013, file photo, UCF wide receiver J.J. Worton (9) celebrates his touchdown catch with wide receiver Josh Reese (19) as Temple defensive back Zamel Johnson (11), who was covering him, walks away. Chris Szagola | AP

The 10th and final lead change of this one was a doozy. Blake Bortles’ 30-yard scoring strike to J.J. Worton ― who made a fully extended, one-handed grab in the back of the end zone ― tied the score with 1:04 remaining. The Knights then sacked Temple’s P.J. Walker twice on the ensuing Owls possession, giving Bortles 19 seconds to work with. His 64-yard completion to Rannell Hall set up Shawn Moffitt’s winning 23-yard field on the final play.

Honorable Mention

Memphis 42, Houston 38 (2017)

Tigers score all 42 in second half; Riley Ferguson hits Sean Dykes for 21-yard TD with 1:28 remaining.

Houston 35, Memphis 34 (2015)

Coogs backup quarterback Kyle Postma scores on a 7-yard run with 1:27 to go, helping Coogs rally from 20-point deficit.

Cincinnati 26, SMU 20 (2018)

James Wiggins ends it with an 86-yard pick-six in overtime.

USF 14, SMU 13 (2014)

Mike White relieves first-time starter Quinton Flowers, tosses a 4-yard TD to Andre Davis with four seconds to go.

Houston 28, USF 24 (2017)

The game that turned a five-syllable phrase (fourth-and-24) into a four-letter word in Tampa.

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