Trigonometry of trickery: It pays to embrace the craziness of trick plays
Before we talk about the Annexation of Puerto Rico or the Boise funk or the masterstroke of deceit that led to the toppling of a dynasty, let's begin with the Fainting Goat.
The idea sprang from the mind of 46-year-old Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, who views trick plays like Powerball tickets: The more you have stashed in your back pocket, the better your odds of hitting it big. Anderson's Red Wolves were double-digit underdogs heading into their game at Miami last September, so it was time to get creative. The coach and his staff drew up a fake punt, with a twist: A gunner, lined up in the slot, would create a diversion by collapsing at the snap, much like a person suffering cardiac arrest—or a farm animal losing consciousness—allowing another receiver to sneak out for a pass. To illustrate how to sell the deception, Red Wolves coaches showed the team a YouTube clip of fainting goats.
The gunner appointed to the role, sophomore receiver Booker Mays, rehearsed for his part with the diligence of a thespian confronting the death scene from Julius Caesar. Mays watched the YouTube video over and over. He took numerous dry-run tumbles during practice. He tried to understand the inner demons of a woozy ungulate. Finally, with five minutes to go in the second quarter and Arkansas State down 20–7, the curtain on his big moment rose. Mays's performance may not have been Tony-worthy, but he played it with enough conviction to draw double takes from defenders, allowing senior corner Frankie Jackson to break free running down the opposite sideline. Alas, the punter underthrew the ball, Miami picked it off and the Red Wolves lost 41–20.
The first lesson of the Fainting Goat? A trick play isn't easy to pull off—one thing goes wrong and it all collapses like a Jenga tower. The second lesson: A trick play sometimes works even when it doesn't. "You can't imagine the mileage we got out of it," says Anderson. "We want our kids to be hungry and engaged, and there was a tremendous amount of energy generated from that play. The players would ask as soon as they walked in on Mondays: What do we got this week?"
That particular mischief resonated beyond Jonesboro, Ark., too. Within days the video drew more than 10 million views. It turns out that the Curious Incident of the Goat in Game-time was the perfect preamble to a season of fumblerooskis and misdirections, of reverse laterals and jump passes, of a 400-pound lineman catching a touchdown pass and a player hiding in the end zone on a kickoff return. For fans of the eccentric side of college football it was a glorious season, and an inspiration for programs everywhere in 2015: Sometimes it pays to embrace the crazy.
Despite the game-as-war metaphors and the austere, authoritarian coaches, from Ohio State's Woody Hayes to one Nicholas Lou Saban, patron saint of somberness and Alabama, the game has always included plenty of chicanery. One of the sport's first powerhouses was the Carlisle Indian school, a team of undersized boarding school players from Pennsylvania that used deception and misdirection to defeat bigger and faster opponents. Carlisle deployed everything from double passes to a sewing machine—in a 1902 game against rival Harvard, the Indians scored on a kickoff return after one player shoved the football inside another's jersey, which had been outfitted with an elastic band. "We never considered it a strictly legitimate play," the Carlisle coach, Pop Warner, later recounted, "and only employed it against Harvard as a good joke on the haughty Crimson players."
Warner's trickery was a one-off, but another foundational figure in the game, John Heisman, invented a gadget play that's still fooling 'em. The fumblerooski—in which the quarterback intentionally leaves the ball on the ground after taking it from the center, allowing a teammate to pick it up and run wild—rose to prominence when Nebraska used it in the 1984 Orange Bowl for a 19-yard TD, the first step in an attempted comeback from a 17–0 deficit that ended in a 31–30 Miami win.
It's the sort of play Hollywood would love—and has. The Longest Yard (2005 edition) featured a fumblerooski, as did Little Giants, the 1994 flick in which a peewee team defeats its rival on the final snap by running the now-familiar play under an odd new name.
Coach: "What kind of play you got for this?"
Kid: "How about the Annexation of Puerto Rico?"
Whatever you call it, the play is enjoying a bit of revival: In a 69–28 win over Mountain West Conference rival New Mexico in 2013, Fresno State turned a faux fumble into a 26-yard touchdown run, and in last December's Music City Bowl, LSU ran a version of it for a 24-yard gain against Notre Dame in a 31–28 loss.
The fumblerooski's comeback may not be coincidental. As the pressure to win (and the money at stake) rises, coaches have been more willing to toss aside the smashmouth orthodoxies and codes of machismo that ruled the second half of the 20th century. Everything from uniform designs to offensive schemes to coaching hires have bucked convention. Mavericks like Mike Leach (Washington State), Chip Kelly (Oregon and the Eagles) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn) are leading a charge outside the box. Eight years before taking over at Auburn, Malzahn was a high school coach dreaming up plays that unfolded like Benny Hill sketches, including Starburst (in which players huddled together, around the football, before scattering in all directions) and Where's the Tee? (in which the field goal team would act as if it had forgotten its kicking tee, before snapping the ball and catching the other side flat-footed).
With the move to hyperpaced spread offenses, misdirection has become more common. During the last bowl season, for instance, double-pass or reverse laterals were executed to perfection and turned into touchdowns by Baylor (Cotton Bowl), TCU (Peach Bowl) and Tennessee (Taxslayer Bowl). Sometimes, the push for innovation can get downright kooky. In the second quarter of a game last October, as Oklahoma kicked off to TCU, returner B.J. Catalon, decked out in purple from head to toe, hid in the end zone by laying down in the middle of the purple O painted on the field. Another Horned Frog gathered in the kick, then threw the ball across the field to Catalon, who stood uncovered after popping up and reached midfield. (Recalling Lesson 1, the play, alas, was called back because of holding.)
Regardless of the details, the goal of each trick play is the same: "You're looking to steal six points and create a big swing in the momentum of the game," says Tom Herman, who was Ohio State's offensive coordinator last season and is now the coach at Houston. Herman doesn't refer to the genre as trick plays; he calls them "specials." The Buckeyes had, by Herman's estimation, four or five specials that were mainstays in their playbook through the season. Then he says there were others that were "more special," which were introduced during the days leading up to a game—custom-tailored to exploit an opponent's weakness, such as a certain defender overpursuing on a particular kind of play.
In an age of digital video, coaches can easily copy and tweak plays they've seen other teams run; a vast trove of craziness is never more than a click away. "The wheels are always turning," says Anderson, who is entering his second season at Arkansas State. "We watch a lot of people that are like us for inspiration—Baylor, Oklahoma State, Houston, East Carolina, they're all always up to cool, interesting things. And of course, there's Boise State."
Of course, Boise: College football's great laboratory, the winningest FBS school of the last decade and a program whose signature victory came in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, when a brilliant hat trick of gimmick plays fueled one of the great upsets of the century, a 43–42 overtime win over No. 8 Oklahoma. Since then trick plays, like the blue turf, have become part of "who we are and a part of our DNA," says Broncos coach Bryan Harsin, who was the offensive coordinator and play-caller in that win.
Harsin has a term for the neverland where Boise's trick plays exist: the funk. "There's not a real playbook for them, and that's why it's the funk—you're sitting around and you just kind of come up with something funky," he says. "None of it is drawn up, it's all in our heads. I don't want to be carrying around a book, and if it's stolen, then it's all over for us."
The process at Boise is more democratic than at most programs. It's not only that during games every backup quarterback is on the headphones chiming in on play-calling, but also that players and coaches sit around a table, like TV scribes in a writer's room, tracing ideas on a whiteboard. Everyone is encouraged to make a suggestion, no matter how insane. "You walk in to a meeting, and there are four plays drawn up by players," says Harsin. "Usually you're like, Eh, I don't know about that. But every once in a while there'll be one where you think, You know, that's not bad."
Harsin says he's reminded of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl almost every day: "Just the other day the Espys were on, and someone was like, remember when it was the game of the year?" The madness began with a hook-and-lateral play called Circus. The Broncos were facing fourth-and-18 from midfield, down a touchdown with 18 seconds to play; senior receiver Drisan James, streaking across the middle of the field, caught the ball then flipped to receiver Jerard Rabb, who was racing by in the opposite direction and took it in for the touchdown. (They had run Circus only once, during an informal Friday walk-through days before the game.) Later came the direct snap halfback pass. On a fourth-and-two from the Sooners' six-yard line Vinny Perretta, a halfback who hadn't thrown the ball all year, lined up behind center and tossed a touchdown to tight end Derek Schouman. (It was the first time Boise had used the play in a game.) What followed—a two-point conversion attempt to win the game—is Sharpied on the Whiteboard of Fame as one of college football's greatest plays.
In the Statue of Liberty a running back takes the ball out of the quarterback's hand as the latter cocks his arm to throw. The Boise version featured a funky twang. Instead of bringing the ball up, the QB rears backs and fakes a throw with an empty hand while putting the ball behind his back with his off hand, allowing the back to flash behind him and take it.
Eight years later what's striking is that Harsin and then coach Chris Petersen had stuck with the call after Oklahoma called a timeout to prepare for the two-point try. When play resumed Boise trotted onto the field with the right side stacked, which suggested a wide receiver screen based on the team's tendencies. The sequence is pure magic: Quarterback Jared Zabransky fakes a screen while hiding the ball; tailback Ian Johnson freezes in the backfield until the fake is properly sold; he then breaks left, takes the ball and sprints untouched into the end zone. The play provided the David-and-Goliath moment that justified the BCS and put the entire affair on any credible list of best games ever.
"Every player here now grew up on that play—whether it's Little League, junior high or high school, somebody's run a version of it," says Harsin. "I'll walk out there, and the quarterbacks and tailbacks will be doing it pre-practice just for fun. For most of the guys there's a bit nostalgia to it—they're always asking when we're going to run it." Harsin is sometimes happy to oblige. Facing Arizona in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl last January, the Broncos called for Statue, and running back Jay Ajayi ran for a 16-yard touchdown that gave Boise a 21–0 lead. The Broncos won 38–30, punctuating a 12–2 season that reestablished them as a national power after an 8–5 finish in 2013. Says Harsin of the savory funk that's a vital ingredient in the Boise brew, "It's fun for the fans, it's fun for the players, it's fun for the coaches. But we don't waste opportunities in games just for fun. They're fun—but they're highly calculated."
These were the words Tom Herman heard in his headset moments after he made one of the craziest play calls of the 2014 season. As soon as he made it, he feared his choice would go horribly wrong, and he came close to hyperventilating. This was in the Sugar Bowl, the semifinal game of the first national playoff, and the calming voice on the other end of the headset was that of coach Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes, down 21–13, were on the Alabama 13-yard line with 19 seconds left in the first half. Herman had called a double-reverse pass—quarterback Cardale Jones would hand off to running back Jalin Marshall, who would lateral to wide receiver Evan Spencer, who would then throw into the end zone. The Buckeyes knew they would use this play against Alabama, "we just didn't know when," says Herman. "At that point we'd had two drives that stalled in the red zone, and we're thinking, Man, we're in the red zone again, we got to punch it in this time."
But just after Herman made the call he realized the offense wasn't at the left hash mark; Spencer is righthanded and had practiced the play only from the left hash, rolling to his right. "Really, it was bad, bad coaching," says Herman, who screamed at Meyer to change the play. But the coach, not wanting to burn his last timeout, stood firm. "Let's see what happens," Meyer said. "Chill out."
The Buckeyes had run the play earlier in the season, but Spencer got cold feet and kept the ball. It was a huge roll of the dice but a necessary one. "You need explosive plays to win," Herman says. "And one way to do it is with specials." He recalls seeing a study of 1,000 football games at the high school, college and NFL level. "If you win the turnover battle, and if you have more explosive plays"—defined as gains of 12 yards or more—"than the other team, then you win that game 98% of the time.
"It's really hard to go on a 10-, 12-play drive against a really good defense and put the ball in the end zone."
And against a team like Alabama? "It just doesn't happen," Herman says. "You have to make play calls like that." He laughs. "Just from the correct hash mark."
Herman held his breath as the play unfolded: Jones gave to Marshall, who took a step to his right, then flipped the ball to Spencer, and Spencer, moving to his left, pulled up and lofted a perfect pass toward the left pylon, where receiver Michael Thomas grabbed it over the Crimson Tide defender, coming down with a sliver of turf between his foot and the sideline. It was a big play—arguably the biggest of the game—that drew the Buckeyes to within 21–20. Riding a wave of momentum into the second half, Ohio State went on to beat Alabama 42–35, ending the Crimson Tide's pursuit of a fourth national title in six years. Eleven days later Meyer & Co. upset Oregon 42–20 to win the first College Football Playoff.
Sometimes to win a championship you have to embrace the funk. Sometimes, as Blake Anderson will tell you, before you hit it big with the lottery ticket in your playbook, you have to flop miserably. Although even failure can bring rewards. A few weeks after the end of the regular season—the Red Wolves finished 7–5 and earned a trip to the GoDaddy Bowl—Anderson went to St. Louis to watch quarterback Austin Davis, whom he'd coached at Southern Miss, play for the Rams. On the field before the game a few members of the St. Louis staff walked up to Anderson and a few of the assistants he'd brought along.