ATLANTA — If Jimi Hendrix had held a news conference before a concert, a reporter would probably have asked him about guitar solos. In the same way, it only made sense that when Washington Coach Chris Petersen held court this week ahead of the Huskies’ matchup Saturday against No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals, someone brought up trick plays.
Petersen is an acknowledged maestro of the trick play. While he earned this reputation as the coach of the power-conference party crasher Boise State, where among other things he dialed up a so-called Statue of Liberty play to beat Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, he also has deployed them in his three seasons in Seattle, including a double-pass touchdown against Southern California last year.
Highlights: Washington football upsets No. 17 USC
Video by Pac-12 Networks
Trick plays are more frequently run by underdogs willing to employ high-variance tactics to make up for structural disadvantages, and Petersen’s team is again an underdog, to an Alabama squad that many consider one of the best college teams ever.
“Sometimes you can create some momentum and explosives,” Petersen said Monday, referring to “explosive plays” that gain more than a first down. “So everybody talks about us doing trick plays.”
But what if everybody talking about Washington running trick plays is the point?
Such plays, whose breadth and variety in football are well established, are good for a great many things. A creative reverse can gain more yards than a conventional running play. A surprise onside kick can win a team an extra possession. Trick plays can be especially demoralizing for opponents, too, while practicing them is a great way to engage one’s own players, who often find them — and the mischievous idea that they could one day be run in a game — fun.
But perhaps the trick play’s most potent dimension is the way its mere threat can force an opponent to devote precious time, mental energy and effort away from what should be its top priority: getting ready for the standard playbook it is far more likely to face.
“The most important part is that one of the biggest weapons you have — all the Sun Tzu stuff — is in preparation,” said Chris Brown, the author of “The Art of Smart Football,” invoking the Chinese strategist famous for the aphorism that “every battle is won before it is fought.”
“They have to prepare for it,” Brown added of Washington’s opponents and the possibility that they will see trick plays. “It takes time from defending the traditional offense.”
In other words, the ability of Washington (12-1) to execute trick plays might help them beat Alabama (13-0) even — or especially — if the Huskies end up not running one.
“We do like when people try to prepare for them,” the Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said Tuesday. “We don’t run all that many, and so they’re spending more time on trick plays than maybe we’re going to call. I think that’s to our advantage.”
While the Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt denied a report that Alabama’s coaching staff had put together a video compilation containing eight years’ worth of trick plays run by Petersen’s teams, he acknowledged Tuesday that the coaches had spent time reviewing some of the tricks Petersen might have up his sleeve.
“We always try to go back and look at the history of your opponent,” Pruitt said. “I wouldn’t say eight years. That’s probably too far. But you want to have an idea of what they’ve done in similar type games.”
Jonathan Allen, Alabama’s star defensive lineman, corroborated Pruitt’s account.
“We watched a lot of their trick plays,” he said. “They do have a lot of trick plays. When it comes to stuff like that, it’s about discipline as a defense.”
If any defense can stop Washington’s offense, whether in sniffing out trick plays or the more conventional schemes in which the Huskies’ sophomore quarterback, Jake Browning, passed for 3,280 yards and 42 touchdowns this season, it is Alabama’s. The Crimson Tide ranked No. 1 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing defense (63.4 yards per game), total defense (248) and scoring defense (11.8 points per game).
Still, Allen’s reference to “discipline” — echoed by several teammates Tuesday — hinted at a related curveball that the specter of a trick play hurls at opponents: its tendency to neutralize opportunistic defenses such as Alabama’s, which also led the country with 10 defensive touchdowns this season.
“It puts a tremendous amount of pressure,” said Mack Brown, the former Texas coach who is now a commentator on ESPN, “because you usually are going to play more base defense, because you’re constantly aware of the trick plays and you’re just not as aggressive.”
Consider, for example, the most famous of Petersen’s trick plays: the Statue of Liberty 2-point conversion in overtime that lifted Boise State over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
On that play, Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky took the snap and immediately pivoted right and made a motion of throwing in that direction, as if he were throwing a quick pass to one of the three Broncos receivers who had lined up on that side. But the right-handed Zabransky had actually put the ball in his left hand and placed it behind his back — one arm up, one arm down, like the Statue of Liberty’s pose. Running back Ian Johnson, idling behind Zabransky, simply grabbed it and ran unimpeded to the left for the conversion.
Boise state statue of liberty play to win the 2007 fiesta bowl
Video by TheBSUbroncos
Taylor Tharp, the Broncos’ backup quarterback at the time, helped design the play. He said in a recent interview that it had been adjusted midgame to exploit Oklahoma’s aggressive pursuit. The play depended upon Oklahoma’s defense biting on the faked pass to the outside. On an actual screen that Boise State ran early in the game out of a fast-paced, no-huddle set, Oklahoma had overwhelmed Boise State, dropping its receiver for a loss. But in doing so, the Sooners had also exposed a weakness.
“So early in the game,” said Tharp, who is now Boise State’s director of football operations and relations, “I’d gone to the offensive staff and said, ‘We should run Statue, if we run it, on hurry-up, and why make it look any different?’ At halftime, we made that adjustment.”
Now consider that Alabama’s players are undoubtedly aware of that famous play. They might find themselves hesitant to attack screen passes, real or imagined, with too much aggression, for fear of getting burned on the back side.
“Now when we throw some type of bubble screen out there, maybe they’re less apt to charge as hard, because it might be some type of double pass,” said Smith, Washington’s offensive coordinator. “You keep people at home, because you run enough reverse that something might be coming back. So that’s a little bit of the thought, too.”
Trick plays do present one major drawback for the team running them: They might fail. Indeed, given their complexity and the length of time they typically require, they might be more likely to fail than a conventional play. And as Brown put it, “nothing quite looks as bad as a failed trick play.”
The optimal strategy, then, might be to prepare trick plays, but not use them.
Petersen coyly agreed this week.
“We might not do any,” he said Monday. “We might do a bunch. Who knows?”
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