Some play calls are simply fun. In fact, if you look at this YouTube video of the 100 best plays of the 2013 season (you’re welcome), you’ll see a lot of trick plays, some of them even more impressive in terms of raw execution or the concepts involved (or both):
*Waits for you to watch the video… pauses… welcomes you back to the text*
Yet, while some plays might look more impressive, most of the selections on this list are included because they either helped send a message or enabled an important game to be won. It’s perfectly reasonable to claim that greatness in a play call is simply a matter of aesthetics and execution — fair enough. There’s certainly nothing deficient in such a view. Yet, everyone gets to set up his or her own parameters, and in this piece, the greatness of a play call is viewed through the lens of significance, blended with the aesthetics and execution. Football is a chess match, after all, and so when weighing the quality of one play call against others, the magnitude of the moment should factor into the overall assessment.
The envelope, please:
10 – USC’S FOURTH-DOWN PASS AGAINST STANFORD
USC had punted on a number of fourth downs with fewer than five yards to go in Stanford territory. The Trojans had failed to finish drives throughout the evening against the Cardinal last November. Facing a fourth and two at the Stanford 48 with 1:23 left in a 17-17 tie, USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron could have punted once again and settled for overtime.
Something told him to go for it.
When he went for it, his staff had the cojones to entrust quarterback Cody Kessler with a pass play, instead of trying to cram the ball up the gut against Stanford’s robust run defense. The result was a 13-yard completion to Marqise Lee which pushed the ball to the Stanford 35 and set up a game-winning field goal moments later. As Michigan State would find out in the Rose Bowl, it was possible to outflank Stanford’s pass defense in important situations last year.
9 – TEXAS TECH’S ONSIDE KICK AGAINST OKLAHOMA
Texas Tech did not ultimately defeat Oklahoma last season, but the Red Raiders certainly gave themselves a chance when trailing 21-17 late in the third quarter. Kliff Kingsbury knew how much this game meant to his team. He didn’t make all the right decisions, but he did pursue victory with the aggressive mindset he needed to bring to the table:
8 – DUKE’S FOURTH-DOWN RUN AGAINST MIAMI
It’s quite true that Duke’s ground game was shredding Miami’s defense on a consistent basis. Yet, on fourth down and a long yard (almost 1.5 yards) late in a one-possession game, it’s a reflection of circumstances that even a bad run defense will put all 11 bodies in the tackle box to stop the run it is anticipating. Sometimes, running away from the tackle box — or even passing the ball — becomes a legitimate alternative. Coaches often need to give this point due consideration.
Just not always.
At 2:13 of this clip, you’ll see the fourth-and-one touchdown which enabled Duke to put away Miami and take a huge step on the road to its first ACC Coastal Division title. David Cutcliffe trusted the ability of a bread-and-butter rushing play to achieve an important goal:
7 – SOUTH CAROLINA’S DELAYED REVERSE PASS IN THE CAPITAL ONE BOWL
It’s a play Steve Spurrier used in the 1990s at Florida: not just a reverse, but a reverse with delayed action as the far-side receiver initially moves upfield at the snap but then circles back to receive a lateral from the setback who brings the action of the play toward the boundary. Upon catching the lateral, the receiver throws a cross-field pass to his quarterback, who is supposed to be open.
On this play in the Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw was as open as Spurrier hoped he would be. The play, shown at the 0:54 mark of this clip, helped nail down the Gamecocks’ third straight January bowl victory and the program’s third consecutive 11-win season as well:
6 – OKLAHOMA’S FAKE FIELD GOAL AGAINST OKLAHOMA STATE
The significance of this play is not just that it proved to be essential to Oklahoma’s comeback win over Oklahoma State, altering the Big 12 title race and the composition of the final set of Bowl Championship Series games. What magnifies this play is that Oklahoma did not have a settled, established quarterback situation in this game. The Sooners needed a big play from their special teams or from an unlikely source. They found it here, and that’s part of why Oklahoma State missed such a huge chance to win a second Big 12 title in three seasons. It’s also a big reason why Bob Stoops, who had the onions to dial up the play, did one of his best coaching jobs last season:
5 – MISSOURI’S HALFBACK OPTION PASS AGAINST GEORGIA
With 9:22 left in the fourth quarter and Missouri leading Georgia, 28-26, the Tigers — lacking their starting quarterback, James Franklin — had to find offense from someone, as was the case with Oklahoma in the above example against Oklahoma State. Coaches have to be creative in games when the quarterback spot is no longer a source of certain production. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, in a moment of acute need, felt that a halfback option pass was his ticket to salvation and a season-changing win Between The Hedges in Athens.
Sure enough, Bud Sasser hit L’Damian Washington on a 40-yard pass to give Missouri a 34-26 lead. The Tigers found the thunderbolt that would carry them to a landscape-shifting SEC East championship, abruptly changing the way Southerners perceived the strength and durability of their program.
4 – ALABAMA’S FAKE PUNT AGAINST LSU
In 2011, Alabama hosted LSU, and Nick Saban called a trick play that didn’t need to be called, given the flow of the contest. Alabama had begun to beat LSU with simple plays. Saban didn’t have to get creative.
Yes, it’s true that an incorrect call — more specifically, a failure to invoke the simultaneous possession rule in a battle involving Alabama tight end Michael Williams and LSU safety Eric Reid — denied Alabama what should have been a first and goal as a result of that trick-play pass against the Bayou Bengals. Yet, it remained that Saban’s team had begun to carry the run of play. Being that daring at that point in the game just didn’t make sense.
Two years later, hosting LSU once again in Tuscaloosa, the flow of the game was different. Saban’s Alabama team had not yet begun to establish clear territorial dominance against the Tigers. He needed to shake things up, and on a fake punt in the second half, he did just that.
3 – AUBURN’S GO-AHEAD TOUCHDOWN RUN AGAINST FLORIDA STATE IN THE BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Here’s the essential point to make about the play that almost gave Auburn the 2013 national championship of college football: Tiger quarterback Nick Marshall had completed two passes of at least 15 yards (both to Sammie Coates) earlier on Auburn’s most important possession of the game. Auburn had demonstrated an ability to pass the ball even when Florida State’s defense had to expect the pass. Therefore, when Gus Malzahn faced second and 15 at the FSU 37 with roughly 1:30 left, everything about the game situation suggested that he should call a pass play.
Instead, Gus trusted his rushing attack and the ability of Tre Mason to make a play. That kind of against-the-grain thinking is what has made Malzahn such a successful play-caller and head coach:
2 – AUBURN’S TYING TOUCHDOWN PASS AGAINST ALABAMA
Naturally and rightly, the Chris Davis 109-yard “kick-six” is the play everyone remembers most from the 2013 Iron Bowl. Yet, it’s easy to forget in the shadows of that play the fact that Auburn — not a passing team — had to scramble downfield in the final minute of regulation to tie the game with a touchdown against Alabama’s defense.
The play which enabled Auburn to tie the game and set up the “kick-six” was marvelously designed, sold and executed. It was something you could have seen from an Oklahoma option team in the 1980s, but the element of surprise still existed — and rushed to the surface — precisely because the flow of action was so unexpected.
Option teams in the 1980s could snooker opposing defenses by having their quarterbacks run laterally — never “breaking the bone” — only to then uncork a downfield delivery. The act of running laterally is important for the quarterback on this kind of play because it never gives the impression to the defense, particularly the corners who have assignments on the outside receivers, that a pass is coming.
Auburn’s offense is not Danny Bradley or Jamelle Holieway from Barry Switzer’s era, but on the play that tied the 2013 Iron Bowl in the dying moments of the fourth quarter, Nick Marshall sold the run with an aggressive lateral burst that Bradley and Holieway would have admired.
You can see how Marshall sells the run to the very last instant, only to then flip a quick pass just before he crosses the line of scrimmage. The play is a masterwork in terms of selling one action but then performing a different one. It’s also a textbook use of manipulating the line of scrimmage by Marshall; when a runner is just one yard behind the line of scrimmage, it’s reasonable for a defender to react to the runner and perceive the play as a running play. Marshall, though, used that very reality to bring Alabama defenders forward and toss the pigskin past them.
Should Alabama’s outside defenders have stayed back, given the time-and-score situation involved? Yes. Nevertheless, Auburn and Marshall sold the play so convincingly that the natural instincts of defensive players were turned against them:
1 – FLORIDA STATE’S FAKE PUNT AGAINST AUBURN IN THE BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
On one hand, Florida State needed to do something, anything, to find a way out of a 21-3 ditch against Auburn at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, Calif.
On the other hand, when Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston went off the field following a third-down failure, it seemed that Florida State was ready to punt the ball back to Auburn, conceding a possession in an attempt to just get to the locker room and regroup at halftime. Many coaches have done that sort of thing before. Moreover, Florida State faced fourth and four at its own 40, not fourth and one or two. This was probably going to be a punt. Rattled teams don’t show their desperation in the first half, anyway, right?
Jimbo Fisher had no use for all those fears, doubts and narratives.
He went for the brass ring, and his ballsy call — perfectly executed by his players — produced the seven-yard, fourth-down-converting run which changed a game and, by extension, the way a full college football season will be remembered. Fisher, so out of his element a few short seasons ago as a game manager (recall the debacle of a home-field loss to Virginia in 2011?), had completed not just his team’s transformation, but his own personal metamorphosis as well: