A game-ending tackle at the New Orleans 35-yard line might have made the highlight packages, possibly mentioning former University of Utah safety Marcus Williams.
By missing the tackle, though, Williams made himself unforgettable. Trying to avoid a pass-interference penalty, Williams misjudged and mistimed the passing play that Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs turned into a 61-yard touchdown and a 29-24 victory Sunday in the NFC divisional playoffs.
Williams forever will appear in the Minneapolis Miracle footage. His misplay on Diggs’ reception is undoubtedly the most memorable mistake for an alumnus of a Utah school in an NFL postseason game, even though former BYU safety Aaron Francisco once made the cover of Sports Illustrated in his vain effort to prevent the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl.
This was looking like a nice Utah story, how Williams’ interception and former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill’s special-teams play helped the Saints advance to the NFC championship game. But then came the play that started with 10 seconds left and the Vikings, out of timeouts, trying to get into field-goal range.
A pass-interference penalty marked at the Saints 35 would have accomplished that, explaining Williams’ hesitancy to hit Diggs. But he ended up looking bad by ducking under Diggs, who leaped to catch the pass, landed and ran to the end zone. If Williams had tackled him in bounds, with plenty of room to do so, the clock would have run out.
“I feel like I was [arriving] a little early, but at that point, I’ve just got to make the tackle when he comes down,” Williams told reporters in the locker room. “There’s only 10 seconds left. I knew the situation. You’ve got to make sure you make the play.”
But he didn’t, and he’ll have to live with it. Williams produced an outstanding rookie season, having left Utah after his junior year. He made 11 interceptions in his Ute career, establishing himself as a ball-hawking defender and dependable tackler. As a second-round pick of the Saints, he intercepted four passes in the regular season, and he picked off Vikings quarterback Case Keenum late in the third quarter Sunday as New Orleans rallied from 17-0 behind.
That’s not what most people will remember, judging by some of the 167,000 tweets mentioning Williams, as of early Monday morning, and others that just cite “No. 43.” Rallying to Williams’ defense, the likes of Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, former teammate Isaac Asiata and All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner of Utah State wrote to endorse and support him.
It will be a long, tough winter for Williams, a California native. Players with Utah ties who had somewhat similar experiences in the past decade include Francisco as an Arizona Cardinals defensive back and former Utah State defensive back Jarrett Bush and ex-BYU linebacker Brady Poppinga as Green Bay Packers’ special-teams players.
In the NFC championship game in January 2008, Green Bay was tied with the New York Giants with about 2½ minutes left in regulation. The Packers punted and the Giants’ R.W. McQuarters fumbled the ball around midfield. Bush tried to pick up the ball and run, but he lost it. Poppinga then had a shot at a recovery, but the ball squirted away from him. So instead of getting the ball with a chance to win in what turned out to be Brett Favre’s last game as a Packer, Green Bay ended up losing on the first overtime possession.
In the February 2009 Super Bowl, Francisco tried to tackle Pittsburgh receiver Santonio Holmes, but he overran him and slipped as Holmes took a short pass for 40 yards to the Arizona 6. Two plays later, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass into the corner of end zone. The ball barely went over the fingers of Arizona cornerback Ralph Brown as Francisco came over to help. Holmes made the catch, just in bounds; Francisco shoved him and rolled over him, but Holmes held onto the ball for a 27-23 victory.
A year later, before appearing with Indianapolis in another Super Bowl, Francisco said, “There’s probably nothing I could have done from my spot to change what happened.”
That’s not the case with Williams in Minneapolis, obviously. A promising career remains ahead of him, but who knows when he’ll have another opportunity like Sunday’s, with a trip to the NFC championship game at stake.