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2015 Outback Bowl: Anatomy of a Trick Play

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Auburn tried a trick play in overtime. It didn't work. At all.

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Auburn's overtime possession was one to forget. A simple zone read that was blown up in the backfield. That cursed tunnel screen that seemed to go nowhere this year. And then your run-of-the-mill pass to C.J. Uzomah, OH NO, HE'S PASSING BACK TO MARSHALL, AND THE BADGERS SEE IT COMING AND OH NO FOURTH DOWN!

What was Gus Malzahn thinking? Why did he call a trick play on the most important down of the game?

Well, third and 12 is a bit tricky anyway. In fact, looking at a call sheet from his Tulsa days, the third and long options include plays like Four Verts and a couple Corner/Flat combos. Considering the likely deep coverage, someone is either making a spectacular throw into that coverage, someone is getting a lot of yards after the catch, or someone is breaking a long run through traffic. No play call is all that appealing.

So instead, Gus decided to try to win the game with a trick play.

Malzahn called for a double pass, and not the Jeremy Johnson to Sammie Coates variety. The play was designed to go back to Nick Marshall and let him use his "slipperiness" to make something happened. We've seen it once before, in the South Carolina game.

I had some computer issues this week and now the GIFs are a little slow and wonky. I'll get it fixed before next season, I promise. How many days?

How the Double Pass Works

The first thing to notice is that of the three receivers to one side, one (Jonathan Wallace) is already behind the quarterback, but I don't know how noticeable that is from field level. Second, the H-back (Brandon Fulse) motions out of the backfield to form a 4x1 formation with an empty backfield. Then the play begins.

TrickPlaySCar

Nick Marshall immediately throws the ball back to Wallace as the two other receivers, the H-back, and the right tackle protect him from any defenders. Meanwhile the other four linemen cut block the defensive line. This is probably meant to keep them from quickly diagnosing the play's intent. If they're on the ground, they are hustling to get back up and chase the ball to make up for lost time and they are not noticing the actual design of the play.

Notice the other reciever, Sammie Coates. He runs a deep crossing route to draw the cornerback away from that sideline.

When Wallace passes the ball back to Marshall, only one defender remains on the left side of the hash marks. With four linemen back up from their cut blocks ready to escort the ball carrier down field, Marshall gains 17 yards and keeps a scoring drive alive.

Setting Up the Double Pass

By definition, trick plays aren't sound plays. They work best when they are used against a very specific defensive coverage. But if you try to run it against any old defense, it will probably blow up in your face.

Well, according to Gus, they set it up. I watched Auburn's offense from start to finish a few times trying to decipher how it was set up, and, while it's not as obvious as I would like, I think I have it.

I never saw the H-back motion out of the backfield like Fulse did in the trick play, but Cameron Artis-Payne did a few times. And what was the call? A swing pass or a fake swing pass to the back. Auburn was watching Wisconsin's reaction to this motion and it always pulled a defender out of the box. In fact, except for one big play on that screen, the linebacker assigned to CAP was the one who made the tackle.

I saw four receivers to one side only one other time. It was the old "Fake a Screen to an Ineligible Receiver" play. And how did Wisconsin react? A defender stayed with the ineligible receiver! Granted, the Badgers played it better than Missouri did in that last link and the pass fell incomplete, but it gave the Auburn coaches a valuable piece of information.

Gus Malzahn expected a linebacker to follow Brandon Fulse out of the box and he expected Wisconsin to react to a 4X1 formation with man defense. Unfortunately, Wisconsin didn't act as expected.

How the Double Pass Fails

When Fulse motions out of the backfield, Wisconsin largely ignores him. When Coates runs across the field, the cornerback doesn't follow becuase the Badgers are playing zone. And finally, two pass rushers avoid the cut blocks altogether because they were bring pressure from the weak side.

TrickPlayWisc

Running the play against zone coverage is not according to plan, but it doesn't doom the play either. What doomed the play was the weak side pressure. Those Wisconsin players knew what was happening as soon as Uzomah caught the ball. The offensive line was preparing to make blocks downfield, but Marshall didn't even make it that far.

And thus ended a game that summed up this season pretty well. The offense started slow, but picked up steam in the second half. On the other hand, the defense played well for a half but fell apart in the second half. And, ultimately, Auburn fell short of its 2014 goals.