What just happened? A glossary of college football trick plays
Running an offense in football largely comes down to two things: strength and deception.
The strength component takes care of itself by having great athletes who are well-coached. A running back bursts through a hole, an offensive tackle prevents a 300-pound lineman from advancing, or a quarterback throws a perfect spiral over the defense and into the hands of his receiver.
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Some plays, like play-action fakes and draws, are technically trick plays because their purpose is to deceive the defense, even if for a split second. But those have become so commonplace that fans hardly bat an eyelash when they happen.
But over the course of the season, you will see teams dig deep in the playbook and whip up something crazy when the situation calls for it. Here are some of those trick plays that very well could rear their heads in a big spot.
What is it?: The quarterback throws the ball laterally or backwards, usually to a receiver. The pass-catcher then throws the ball forward.
What is its purpose?: Like just about every other trick play, the goal is to create confusion and chaos in the defense. When the secondary sees the ball leave the quarterback’s hand, the natural reaction is to assume the player who caught the ball will then run with it. However, as long as the original throw does not go forward, it is not considered a pass at all, and thus the receiver is free to throw it forward. A lot of times this will be used in red zone situations because the receiver, though often a former high school quarterback or just a great athlete, is not going to be trusted to make an accurate deep throw. A common pitfall is the original pass either going slightly forward or not getting to the receiver cleanly. If it doesn’t go forward, bounces and stays inbounds, it’s a live ball that can be picked up by the defense.
Example: Michigan ran this play several times during the Lloyd Carr regime, as the video compilation below shows. Each time, the throw went back to the quarterback, who ran with several blockers ahead.
As a bonus, here’s an example of the receiver throwing it downfield that Arkansas ran in 2004. It wasn’t the cleanest execution of the play, but clearly the Razorbacks knew how good of an arm Carlos Ousley had, because that was an amazing throw.
What is it?: The quarterback drops back and hands it off or pitches it to a wide receiver who is running in horizontally from the side. The receiver, who is in full stride, then keeps running to the opposite sideline from the one he came from and tries to break free. A similar version of this is an end reverse, in which the quarterback hands it off to the running back, who then makes a second handoff to the receiver.
What is its purpose?: Similar to the hook and lateral, the objective is to have the ball carrier running full speed while the defenders are getting their feet back under them after changing direction. This play is most effective for picking up short-to-medium yardage, as it is unlikely to lose yards because of how fast the ball carrier is moving, but it’s also difficult to get a big gain without some nifty footwork and great blocking.
Example: Here is one of those cases where everything went right in order to elevate it to a big play. As you can see, the entire USC defense was running the direction that the quarterback was moving and got flat-footed when the ball was tossed back to Sherman Alston going the other way. The result was only a couple of men to beat, and with his incredible speed, he made it to the end zone.
Fake field goal
What is it?: As the name would suggest, the team with the ball lines up for a field goal but then runs or throws the ball after the snap instead of kicking.
What is its purpose?: This play is for a coach who wants to get greedy and thinks he can test his luck and catch the defense napping. Sometimes three points isn’t enough or you don’t trust your kicker to knock it down, so you want a first down or touchdown instead without making it obvious by keeping the offense on the field.
Example: There are tons of options of what a team can do on a fake kick, so we will look at a running play and a throw.
One of the most beautifully drawn up fakes came in 2007 from LSU, when kicker Colt David ran behind the holder, who tossed it over his head to the kicker in stride, who was able to easily get to the edge for a touchdown. This play worked not only because of the surprise of a fake but because the just one or two steps the kicker takes toward the holder before going around is enough to sell the defense on the fact that a kick is, in fact, coming.
For a passing example, Michigan State’s overtime game-winner against Notre Dame in 2010 stands out. This is an example of both getting greedy and not trusting your kicker, as Spartan coach Mark Dantonio went bold instead of trying a 46-yarder for double overtime. The key here was some outstanding blocking by Michigan State to give holder Aaron Bates time to wait for tight end Charles Gantt to get open downfield.
What is it?: The quarterback appears to not be ready for the snap to happen, as he is either calling out audibles or talking to the coaches or another player. However, that is part of the play, as the snap then goes to another player, usually the running back, who then operates the running or passing play.
What is its purpose?: The defense will usually not be completely ready to go until it sees the quarterback under center ready to take the snap. Therefore, when the snap happens unexpectedly, it will often not be in the best defensive position. Also, especially in man coverage, there is no one assigned to cover the quarterback, for obvious reasons. That could allow him to end up wide open for a pass.
Example: Clemson did just that, with an end-around leading to a pass to a wide-open Tajh Boyd in the end zone. It is legal for one player on offense to be in motion when the snap happens, so Boyd moving along the line does not constitute a false start. If you follow him as the play develops, you’ll see that no one on the defense had any idea if they should be the one covering him, which is how he got so open.
What is it?: Just like the fake field goal, the team lines up in a punt formation but chooses to go for a first down or score rather than actually punt it away. The snap can either go to the punter or directly to a back to the left or right of the punter. Either way, the person who gets the snap will then look run or throw.
What is its purpose?: Again, greed and figuring you can get away with it are the chief motivations at play. A successful attempt can be very deflating for the defense that thought it was going to get off the field. However, there is a lot of risk involved because if it fails, the receiving team essentially gains about half the field from where it likely would have started had the ball actually been punted.
Example: This one by Texas Tech was done perfectly, with the punter selling it well enough to get the defense to lay off him and then some great downfield blocking allowing him to score untouched. Roughing the kicker penalties can be worked to the kicking team’s advantage because the players will pull up instead of hitting the punter unlike, say, a quarterback pump faking who would get pummeled whether he releases the ball or not.
What is it?: The quarterback takes the snap and hands it off to the running back like a normal run play. However, the running back then stops at the line and tosses it back to the quarterback, who looks downfield to throw it.
What is its purpose?: Because the defense sees the handoff happen, the cornerbacks and safeties often slow down or begin to move in to meet the running back if he breaks free. However, since the receiver knows what’s really happening, he keeps running instead of coming back to block. The hope is that the receiver can open up enough space to get uncovered and haul in a deep ball. The biggest risk here is that it takes a precious few seconds to develop, giving the defensive line time to apply pressure when the quarterback gets the ball back. This makes it a sort of all-or-nothing play. The rise of play-action fakes have also made the flea flicker less effective, because the defense isn’t selling out to the run.
Example: The play worked like a charm in North Carolina’s 89-yard score against Duke last season. Keep an eye on the Duke defenders at the bottom of the screen. They all start coming in when they see the handoff and completely ignore Ryan Switzer. By the time they change direction and start heading downfield, Switzer is long gone for the touchdown.
Fake flea flicker
What is it?: Everyone knows what a flea flicker is; it's one of football's classic trick plays. A fake flea flicker, however, is not as common and it requires a further layer of trickery. It's when a team imitates a flea flicker, with the running back faking a pitch back to the quarterback but he actually keeps the ball and runs with it.
What is its purpose?: This is a play you might only run once a season but it could be especially effective if a team has recently ran an actual flea flicker in the same game or a previous game, giving the defense a reason to expect another one. With all the attention being paid to the quarterback and receivers running downfield, the running back might be able to sneak through the line unnoticed.
Example: Jeff Brohm called up a fake flea flicker in Purdue's game against Rutgers in Week 8 of the 2017 season and it resulted in a massive gain.
Purdue pulls off the fake flea-flicker! pic.twitter.com/q15xG4oUHC— LeadingNCAA ™ (@LeadingNCAA) October 21, 2017
What is it?: The quarterback hands it off or tosses it to the running back, who draws the pressure in the backfield before throwing it ahead, either to a receiver or, commonly, back to the quarterback across the field.
What is its purpose?: As you can probably guess, this is a variation of the double pass, designed to dupe the defense into thinking it’s a run play. Usually the play is drawn up for the running back to throw it back to the quarterback, who should be uncovered with the defense collapsing on the ball-carrier.
Example: BYU won the 1983 Holiday Bowl on this play, as Steve Young received a pass after handing it off (that was very nearly a pick-six) and took it to the house. By the time Eddie Stinnett released the ball, there were at least five or six Missouri players coming in on him, though the Cougars probably weren’t counting on the one hanging around Young and nearly picking it off.
A more recent invention is the jump pass, where the running back takes a handoff and stops shy of the line of scrimmage, where he then leaps in the air and passes it ahead. The linebackers and secondary, which saw the run taking place, abandon the pass coverage and run in, which then allows a receiver or tight end to slip free.
Hook and ladder
What is it?: A receiver runs down along the sideline before hooking toward the center of the field, where he receives the pass. After pulling it in, he laterals to a receiver coming full speed across the field from the other side, who tries to get to the edge and break free.
What is its purpose?: This is a desperation-time play, much in the vein of a Hail Mary, though occasionally it’s used to try to catch the defense off balance. This is because of the lateral is mistimed or bobbled, it could lead to a turnover. The key is to have the player who receives the lateral going full speed when he catches the ball in order to break away before the defense has time to change direction and tackle him.
Example: Boise State executed the play flawlessly in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma (and, if you’re familiar with the game, you know it’s not the last time it will come up in this article). With 18 seconds left, down by a touchdown and facing a fourth-and-18, the Broncos threw a pass short of the first-down marker, where Oklahoma’s prevent defense was waiting in order to make sure the receiver didn’t cross. However, with each defender moving in the direction that the pass-catcher was running in order to stop any forward yardage, the play worked perfectly. Jerard Rabb received the pitch in stride and went untouched into the end zone to send it to overtime.
Statue of Liberty
What is it?: This is a no-look handoff, where the quarterback tries his best to sell a throw before dropping a hand holding the ball behind his back, where the running back or wide receiver who was supposedly sticking around to block grabs it and runs forward.
What is its purpose?: The team on offense hopes in this situation that the defense doesn’t realize where the ball went until it is too late. The quarterback has to try his best to make the defense believe that he is going to throw the direction he is facing in order to create a clear running lane for the ball-carrier who is going the opposite direction. The play gets its name from the moment of the handoff, where the quarterback resembles the Statue of Liberty by having his throwing arm in the air and his other arm down at his side.
Example: As alluded to above, here is Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl trick play No. 2, and like the hook and ladder, it was done beautifully. Being the heavy underdog, the Broncos did not want the game to go on much longer, so they opted to go for two in overtime instead of kicking an extra point to tie it. Jared Zabransky couldn’t have sold it any better. Just look at the way Oklahoma jumps when he fakes the throw, frantically trying to find the ball. That second or two of being off balance was plenty for Ian Johnson to score without a play.
What is it?: In one of the most bizarre offensive visuals, the entire offensive line except for the center, as well as all the receivers, line up on one side. Typically the quarterback receives the ball and immediately throws a screen pass to a receiver behind the pack, giving him at least a half dozen blockers in front.
What is its purpose?: This is a play that is run when very short yardage is needed. A common example is for a two-point conversion. The idea is to surprise the defense at the unusual formation, as well as the advantages from having so many blockers in order to pick up a few yards. Usually the snap happens quickly after the offense shifts to one side to get the defense off guard. However, because it is so obvious where the quarterback is going to throw the ball given that all of his receivers are in the same spot, an alert or athletic defense can blow the play up in the backfield. Also, because the quarterback has absolutely no blocking, he must release the ball very quickly after taking the snap.
Example: Chip Kelly was a fan of using variations of the swinging gate during his tenure at Oregon. In this example against Stanford, he takes it a step further in order to avoid the defense predicting what would happen. The snap is taken laterally to a tight end in the pack, as the quarterback and running back take off the opposite direction. However, the throw goes back to the snapper, who makes the catch for the conversion.