During his Monday press conference, a day when all eyes were on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, Jim Harbaugh mentioned trick plays four different times.
It’s for good reason — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is notorious for his trick plays. He’s run them for years, with well-known plays dating back to the beginning of his tenure in East Lansing. The Wolverines are well aware how much hate goes into this rivalry, and they know that Dantonio’s trickery is another thing to look out for.
“(We’re) on high alert for everything,” Harbaugh said Monday. “We understand, Mark Dantonio’s a master motivator and there could be trick plays, special teams, punt fakes, field goal fakes. Everything needs to be alerted and prepared and ready.”
But what are these trick plays, and what can Michigan do to prepare for them? The Daily dug into the film, breaking down several of the Spartans’ trick plays from the 2018 season.
The fake punt
The opponent: Penn State
The down: 4th-and-6, MSU 34
The situation: First quarter, down 7-0
It’s clear that this fake punt fooled the camera operator, too, so it’s a little tough to tell what’s going on at first.
Michigan State lined up in a normal punt formation, but the ball was instead snapped to No. 11, running back Connor Heyward. With the return team on the field, there’s no one there to stop Heyward, who gets outside for a 26-yard gain.
Later in the drive, the Spartans scored a touchdown.
The key to this play was the element of surprise. Nobody expects a fake punt in the first quarter in a team’s own territory. The Nittany Lions understandably weren’t lined up properly to stop such a play, and that’s why it worked. No matter how alert you are, you can’t line up on every punt like it’s going to be a fake.
As far as the actual playcall, this is pretty low-risk for a fake punt, and the main requirement is faith in your blockers. But the game situation increases the risk — Heyward had to make it at least six yards starting from behind the line of scrimmage, and had he been stuffed, Penn State would have taken over with excellent field position.
Heyward, one of Michigan State’s go-to guys on trick plays, is now in the transfer portal. But presumably, the Spartans have practiced this with a variety of players who know how to execute it. No matter who’s running it, the Wolverines have dedicated preparation time for these sorts of situations and they’re very familiar with how a play like this could work.
“We’ve definitely gone back, I wanna be accurate here, Michigan-Michigan State 12 years ago, they ran a fake punt or something,” said Michigan special teams coach Chris Partridge. “We’ve seen it all. We’ve seen every fake punt that they’ve run probably for 12 years. … The last three fake punts are exactly the same.”
The fake field goal
The opponent: Indiana
The down: 4th-and-3, Indiana 6
The situation: Third quarter, up 21-7
The fake punt was a fairly simple play. This one has a lot more moving parts.
Let’s be honest here: Michigan State didn’t really need to run an elaborate fake field goal up by two scores in the third quarter, but this is just what the Spartans do. And again, they had the element of surprise working in their favor.
On most teams, the holder doubles as the punter or backup quarterback. (Michigan’s holder, for example, is senior punter Will Hart.) But Michigan State’s holder is starting quarterback Brian Lewerke, allowing them to draw up a variety of fake field goal plays that have a higher percentage than what many others can do.
Instead of holding for a kick, Lewerke (No. 14) takes the snap himself and scrambles for a few yards before pitching the ball to No. 4, the kicker, Matt Coghlin, who runs a route towards the sideline and got enough separation to get into the end zone.
Most Indiana players, sticking to their assignments, seemed to have no idea what was happening as the play developed, and the Spartans had plenty of blockers for those that came over. It didn’t help that one Hoosier, attempting to block a kick that never came, fell down and was out of commission for the rest of the play. Indiana’s No. 28 appears to have anticipated that Lewerke could keep the ball, but he wasn’t expecting the pitch and hesitated as Coghlin coasted into the end zone.
This play was very well executed, and clearly caught Indiana off guard. But it probably wouldn’t work as well with a longer distance to go, and even with no defenders in the area, Coghlin looked, well, like a kicker trying to handle the ball. It’s easy to see Lewerke mistiming his pitch or Coghlin bobbling the ball, and a fumble that close to the end zone could be disastrous.
Against a bad team like last year’s Hoosiers, why not throw this one out? But Dantonio may want to try something lower risk against a better team like the Wolverines, where every scoring opportunity counts.
“Opportunities presented themselves,” Partridge said of Michigan State’s fakes. “They’re not going out there, and I know people are saying, ‘Hey, their trick plays,’ they’re not going out there doing crazy stuff for no reason. When you watch their fakes, they’re executing them because the opportunity presents itself for what the other team is doing.”
The double-reverse pass
The opponent: Michigan
The down: 2nd-and-goal, Michigan 4
The situation: Third quarter, down 7-0
You probably remember this play, and you probably remember that people called it the “Sparty Special” due to its resemblance to the famed “Philly Special.”
In reality, this isn’t quite the Philly Special. In that play, the ball was snapped directly to a running back.
Here, Lewerke lines up under center as if to run a normal play. He pitches it to running back LJ Scott (No. 3), who pitches it on a reverse to wide receiver Darrell Stewart (No. 25) running in the opposite direction.
If that wasn’t enough trickery for you, Stewart throws the ball back to Lewerke, who runs a corner route to the edge of the end zone after pitching the ball.
It’s clear here that Michigan has no idea what was going on. The Wolverines are in man coverage, and you can see most of the secondary move to the top of your screen when Lewerke pitches the ball, expecting a run play. Cornerback David Long (No. 22) sees Lewerke wide open and runs to cover him, but as Long originally lined up on the other side of the play, he doesn’t get there in time, and the rest of the defense is even more belated.
This was the Spartans’ only touchdown in a game Michigan won, 21-7. It’s quite possible, maybe even expected, that Michigan State will try a play like this again if it gets in the red zone. After all, the Spartans’ offense has struggled, and the Wolverines’ defense is one of the best in the country. Michigan State’s best chance will be to get weird.
Nevertheless, Michigan knows as much as anyone that against Dantonio and the Spartans, they should expect the unexpected.
“You look at everything that the team has done in terms of fakes or misdirection, deceptive types of plays, what they’ve done and then prepare for that,” Harbaugh said. “But also, what is a possible complement to something they’ve already done we could be working on, we could be practicing?”
The halfback option
The opponent: Penn State
The down: 2nd-and-7, Penn State 37
The situation: First quarter, down 7-0
Not only is this from the same game as the fake punt, it was actually two plays later, as Michigan State pulled out all the stops to jumpstart its offense.
Heyward was the key player on this one, too. From the shotgun, Lewerke takes the snap and hands the ball off to Heyward, who is lined up next to him. Penn State’s linebacker, No. 9, realizes Heyward is gearing to throw and attempts to rush the new passer, but he has a moment of hesitation that allows Heyward to get the pass off in time. He throws to receiver Cam Chambers downfield, who catches the pass and goes down at the 1-yard line.
Like the fake field goal, this play was far from guaranteed. This wasn’t a case of a wide-open receiver downfield; though the Nittany Lions are in single coverage, Chambers does have a defender on him, with a deep safety in range to make a play as well. You can see his defender, No. 5, head downfield as soon as Lewerke takes the snap to guard the deep ball.
Here, both Heyward (in his throw) and Chambers (in his catch) have to make a play, and it could have easily had a disastrous ending had the original pass-rusher hesitated for a split second less.
As with any halfback option, this play had two main risks. First, that Heyward wouldn’t have anyone open. Rules state that no player other than the quarterback can throw the ball away to avoid a sack, so if Chambers hadn’t been able to gain separation, it could’ve ended in a substantial loss.
Second, when players who aren’t normally quarterbacks throw, the chances of an interception rise significantly. That never seemed particularly likely on this play, and the Spartans mitigated the risk somewhat by having Heyward throw downfield, where an interception would have left Penn State with bad field position.
Given defensive coordinator Don Brown’s propensity for blitz packages and a plethora of competent pass-rushers, this play probably wouldn’t work as well against Michigan’s defense as it did against the Nittany Lions. Still, Michigan State will likely struggle to move the ball downfield against the Wolverines, so if it gets desperate, why not try it?
But trick plays aren’t perfect
Well … you gotta respect his guts.
To be fair, the play the Spartans run here, in the same game as above, isn’t half bad. Lewerke takes the snap again, has a man open and makes a decent throw. But the defense spots the play in time and breaks up the pass.
That’s a possibility on any trick play, and this one is particularly costly given that a successful field goal would have tied the game. Penn State does a good job of recognizing the fake and compensating, as No. 17 is quick to get to the receiver. This is also why fake field goals are significantly more difficult from farther out — the defenders have more space to work with, and more time to make a play.
But if anything, what this play shows is Dantonio’s dedication to the craft of trick plays and his unwavering dedication to throwing caution to the wind and just going for it. Most of us would not run a fake field goal down three with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Even I — a noted proponent of aggressive playcalling — wouldn’t do it! But Dantonio really did that, and against his most hated rival, with nothing on the line except pride and a spot in a bottom-tier bowl game? You’d better bet he’ll do it again.
“The easiest thing to stop the trick plays is executing your job and if we execute our job, no trick play will work,” said senior VIPER Khaleke Hudson. “So we just gotta be good with our eyes, we gotta play hard and … trust the person next to you that you’re gonna do what he’s gonna do.”