As my mentor Casey Kasem used to say (well, in addition to “you can’t come out of an untempo record with a death dedication”), let’s get back to the countdown:
5. Hilary Knight to Mallory Deluce, Wisconsin Badgers vs. Boston University Terriers, 2011 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four National Championship, March 20, 2011. Though the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team entered the 2011 National Championship game riding a remarkable 26-game unbeaten streak, the team’s fourth championship in six seasons was anything but secure deep in the game’s third period. While the Badgers had outshot the Terriers by an overwhelming margin, Wisconsin enjoyed just a 2-1 lead with only 3:23 remaining in regulation. That’s when Deluce took a rebound from Knight and sent it soaring past Terrier goalie Kerrin Sperry to give the Badgers a more comfortable 3-1 advantage. Once Carolyne Provost iced the game with an empty-net goal to make the final score 4-1, the team was able to celebrate one of the most impressive if underappreciated Badger seasons in recent memory, as their 37 wins set a record for most wins in a single season in NCAA women’s hockey history.
4. B.J. Raji interception return for touchdown, Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, NFC Championship, January 23, 2011. After destroying the Atlanta Falcons 48-21 in the previous week’s NFC divisional round, the Packers advanced to the NFC Championship, only to find themselves muddied in a defensive battle with their most familiar foe. The Bears were DOA behind Jay Cutler and Todd Collins (the backup replacing Cutler after the starting QB had surprisingly left with a controversial knee injury), but Chicago was suddenly clicking behind third-string signal caller Caleb Hanie, who led the team on a 67-yard TD-scoring drive early in the fourth quarter that put the Bears within 14-7. That score stuck until defensive lineman Raji picked off the first of Hanie’s two interceptions and ran 18 yards with it to put the Packers up 21-7 with just 6 minutes to go. Though the Bears weren’t finished – Hanie threw a 35-yard TD pass to Earl Bennett just 80 seconds later – Raji’s TD proved to be the difference-maker and an all-time highlight in one of the most significant games in the history of the storied Packers/Bears rivalry.
3. Isaiah Lewis runs into punter Brad Nortman, Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan State Spartans, 2011 Big Ten Championship, December 3, 2011. The much-ballyhooed rematch of the regular-season meeting that ended Wisconsin’s national championship hopes was eerily similar to that October 22 shocker: Wisconsin got off to a fast start in both, the Spartans staged a furious rally in both second quarters, Michigan State’s offense once again had its way with Wisconsin’s normally stingy defense (to the tune of a whopping 471 yards), and Montee Ball scored another go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. But the ending this time was very different indeed: Though not quite as dramatic as Kirk Cousins’s Hail Mary to Keith Nichol, it was equally unexpected when, after getting a rare defensive stop and needing only a field goal to tie, Spartans kick returner Keshawn Martin returned a Brad Nortman punt all the way to the Badgers’ 3-yard-line with under two minutes to play. The problem for Michigan State was, safety Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Nortman, giving Wisconsin a new set of downs and allowing them to simply run out the clock and run on to their second straight Rose Bowl.
2. Nyjer Morgan singles home Carlos Gomez, Arizona Diamondbacks at Milwaukee Brewers, NLDS Game 5, October 7, 2011. After jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, many fans assumed that the Brewers’ first postseason series victory since 1982 was a done deal. But two losses in the desert during which Milwaukee’s starting pitching was absolutely shredded by the Diamondbacks made those same fans very nervous for the deciding Game 5 back at Miller Park. Luckily for the Brewers, they had Yovani Gallardo on the mound, and their ace responded with a shutdown 6-inning outing, allowing just a third-inning homer to Justin Upton. Unfortunately for the Brewers, Arizona’s Ian Kennedy was almost as good, giving up just two runs over the same six innings. But with the normally untouchable John Axford entering the game in the top of the ninth, those two runs seemed like enough for the Brewers to start their celebration. Shockingly, the Diamondbacks tagged Axford for three straight hits, tying the score, eventually sending the game to extra innings, and sending the Miller Park faithful to the bathrooms with upset stomachs. But in the bottom of the tenth, Carlos Gomez hit a one-out single off the unfortunately-named J.J. Putz. Gomez then stole second and then came home on a single by Nyjer Morgan to the wildest celebration Miller Park had ever seen.
1. Clay Matthews strips Rashard Mendenhall, Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XLV, February 6, 2011. Aaron Rodgers was a much-deserved MVP in his first (but probably not last) Super Bowl appearance, throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns. But he wasn’t even on the field for what proved to be the turning point of the game. Though the Packers were up 21-17, the momentum was firmly on the Steelers side after Pittsburgh had scored 14 unanswered points and held the explosive Packers scoreless for the entire third quarter. At the start of the final quarter, the Steelers had the ball on the Packers’ 33-yard-line and were looking to take their first lead. But in a play that entirely reversed the course of the game, Clay Matthews jarred the ball out of Rashard Mendenhall’s hands, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Desmond Bishop. The rejuvenated Packers went on a quick 55-play drive capped by a Rodgers-to-Jennings touchdown that ultimately proved the game winner, giving the Packers their first championship in fourteen years and putting, for once and for all, the specter of the departed Brett Favre behind them. The entire world now seemed to be Mr. Rodgers’s Neighborhood.
That’s it. Here’s hoping 2012 has as many great sports highlights to choose from. Happy New Year.