Dial the clock back to the 2021 Big Ten Championship, for a moment. The Michigan football team led 7-0 against a No. 13 Iowa team. After a three-and-out by the Hawkeyes, the Wolverines took the field for their next offensive drive.
They only needed one play.
As junior quarterback Cade McNamara flicked a lateral to then-freshman running back Donovan Edwards, instead of charging forward past the line of scrimmage, Edwards set his feet. Dialing up a deep shot, Edwards launched the ball downfield to then-sophomore receiver Roman Wilson, for a one-play, 75-yard touchdown.
At the time, the 10-second scoring drive was a novelty play for Michigan. It was not entirely unheard of for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to dial up something special — who could forget the now-infamous train formation from 2016 — but the Wolverines hardly ever left their safe space. Hardnose, north-south running, and an aversion to the flashy spread offenses that make college football a high-flying prototype style.
Just two years later though, trick plays are no longer an anomaly for Michigan — they’re part of the norm.
“I love trick plays, the kids love it,” offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, it’s just like they’re in the back yard.”
Clearly, the back yard has entered the Big House.
While Moore first joined the Wolverines in 2018 as a tight ends coach, by 2021 he had assumed a partial co-offensive coordinator role. Instantly, the uptick in play variation was palpable. In contrast to a dormant offense through much of Harbaugh’s early Michigan tenure, in 2021, the Wolverines ran a slew of trick plays. In addition to the 2021 Big Ten Championship, in Moore’s first season helping to call plays, Michigan got tricky against Wisconsin, Maryland and, most importantly, Ohio State.
Thus, as the 2023 season began, the firing of co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss promoted Moore to the lone offensive coordinator. With that move came more opportunities, more freedom — and more trick plays.
Now, the trick plays aren’t just reserved for the big moments. Moore ran two against Rutgers this past Saturday, and if his track record is any indication, there are more to come.
“I can’t really tell you when I decide to call those plays,” Moore said. “But those are going to be a part of what we do. It’s fun.”
Moore and his players evidently relish the chance to have a little fun, but the plays have strategic importance as well. In addition to creating a scoring chance, they provide a test for the defense.
“It tests the eyes — the eye discipline of the team we’re playing,” Moore said. “(We’ll) continue to do those in different ways and we’ll see when the next one pops up.”
It’s more than a simple pop-up though. While Moore might not have his trick plays specifically schemed into drives, or moments in the game, his ability to call on the fly represents both a diversion from previous Michigan teams and his own skills as a coach.
To know when to test a defense is a fine art, and the Wolverines’ offense is his canvas. Whether it’s a jump pass by then-junior running back Kalel Mullings on a pivotal third down against Ohio State last year, or a running-back flea flicker strike to receiver Ronnie Bell on the comeback trail against TCU in the College Football Semi-final, Moore’s brushstrokes are visible across the playbook.
While a steady win over Rutgers this past Saturday may have not been as high leverage as those two moments, Moore’s trick plays showcase what he is capable of nevertheless. If he catches a defense lacking, he’ll make them pay.
“One of Coach Moore’s best games,” Harbaugh said postgame against Rutgers. “The planning, the play calling, the balance, the creativity, the timely calls, just everything. One of his very best, a real gem. … The play calling was outstanding.”
His tricky playcalling has only produced results thus far for the Wolverines and it clearly has become a mainstay in their offense. Evidently, long gone are the days of a cookie-cutter offense, or only reaching into the bag of tricks in dire straits. With Moore calling plays, anything is possible — and his players know it too.
“It excites me a lot just because that stuff you draw up on a napkin and pen in your kitchen when you’re growing up,” junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy said Monday. “It’s really cool to see it being displayed on this level and it speaks to coach Moore’s creativity of keeping the defense on its toes.”
Michigan and Moore have come a long way since Edwards’ surprise pass in the 2021 Big Ten Championship. The wild has become routine as the Wolverines diversify their run-heavy offense.
The question isn’t if the next trick play is coming; it’s when.