Utah scored a touchdown on a punt return against Oregon two weeks ago and it might have been the greatest football play I’ve ever seen.
One of the benefits I had growing up in New York was the proximity to Broadway theaters. I went often and especially enjoyed musicals for their precision dancing.
Whether it was a bunch of Puerto Rican kids gliding over the New York rooftops in “West Side Story” or an impatient Zach directing gypsies and wanna-be’s in “A Chorus Line” with a shouted “5-6-7-8,” the goal was to achieve perfection in execution, not unlike I thought at the time, Vince Lombardi pounding into his Packers that they must double-team at the hole, kick out with the pulling guard, and create a lane where the halfback could run to daylight.
I remember thinking in those years how similar the efforts of those dancers were to us who were playing football. The directors and the coaches were doing the same job…instilling confidence, searching for perfection, constantly motivating.
Preparing for “Lights up” on Broadway eight times a week was no different than getting ready to run the Green Bay sweep on a Saturday afternoon against Wisconsin.
During football practices we would work incessantly on timing handoffs, performing defensive corrections correlated to an opponent’s movement, and achieving precision in getting off the ball quicker when on offense.
I recall specifically the choreography of reverse punt returns, two such efforts leading to touchdowns in the Gophers’ throttling of Michigan in the 1956 Little Brown Jug game, 20-7.
As to the above mentioned Utah punt return against Oregon, everybody did his job perfectly. However, the play never would have been successful had it not been for the unintended complicity of the Oregon punter.
There was nothing illegal about the play but it sure as hell used a lot of smoke and mirrors. Utah must have practiced the trick incessantly.
Oregon was punting to Utah from their own 35-yard-line. In the video, Utah is in white and Oregon is in green.
One Utah man in white is stationed deep right to receive the punt. The guy who will score the touchdown is another guy in white lined up on the line of scrimmage on the opposite side of the field who will surreptitiously begin to move backwards just before the snap. He is the key to success on this play. He will run slyly backwards hugging the far sideline during the punt to his own 30-yard line and wait.
The Oregon kicker looked up at the last moment and kicked away from the single deep man far down to his right, hoping a good roll would put the ball deeper downfield to the left. Mistake # 1.
That single Utah player who left the line of scrimmage early ended up catching the punt on his own thirty-yard-line.
On the sound of the kicker hitting the ball, the entire Oregon coverage team had taken off down the field and two things had happened.
Seeing only one receiver downfield right, they moved towards him. The Utah players made it appear that he was indeed the intended receiver by moving towards him themselves, waving their arms while running to make the Oregon players think he was the guy who would catch it.
All the while this is happening, the duped kicker is watching his punt go to what he thought was the open field left. Mistake # 2.
The fake receiver, downfield right, does a masterful job of moving backwards while looking skyward at the non-existent ball, leading the Oregon pursuers towards him. He never signals for a fair catch because that would have killed the ball dead with no advance allowed by his teammate across the field.
The only Oregon defender left on the other side of the field is the kicker, who, finally seeing he was duped, is no match for the speedy Utah punt returner streaking past him up the sideline towards the touchdown sixty-nine-yards away.
Notice the act of schoolyard bullying by the first Oregon guy nearest to the fake receiver when he realizes he has been outsmarted.
That’s how smoothly the Utah kick return worked, helping move the Utes to # 5 in the AP Poll.