A run of trick plays this season is challenging the Big Tens reputation for stodgy football.
Kirk Ferentz pulled the biggest of them last week when Iowa successfully ran a fake field goal against Minnesota, with T.J. Hockenson catching a sandlot-style snap on the overloaded right side and chugging 4 yards for a touchdown.
There was Michigan State scoring on a double reverse and a Michigan receiver throwing to a tight end. And there was Rutgers failed attempt at chicanery against Illinois when a backward pass to an offensive lineman sailed high and would have been a fumble if it hadnt rolled out of bounds. Oh, well. Rutgers threw an interception on the next play.
Past weeks have seen Illinois use a receiver pass off a reverse to take a brief lead against Penn State, Michigan State score against Indiana on an option pitch to its kicker and Purdue complete a long pass on a flea-flicker against Nebraska.
It was the play Iowa calls “Herky” that had fans talking.
Ferentz joked after the Hawkeyes 48-31 win that all his assistants wanted to run the fake field goal and that he was the lone dissenting voice until he relented.
“I was just trying to add to the stereotype. Ive kind of been typecast I think over the last 19 years,” Ferentz said this week.
Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods added “Herky” to the list of potential plays against Minnesota. The Hawkeyes led 14-7 and had fourth-and-goal at the 4 when Ferentz green-lighted it.
“We felt like that was a perfect spot for it,” he said, noting his staff believed the play was good for a maximum of 5 to 7 yards.
Iowa overloaded the right side with seven blockers in whats called as a “muddle.” Typically, those players would retreat to their conventional spots before the snap for a field-goal try. This time, they didnt. Long snapper Jackson Subbert, on the left hash, sent a left-handed snap sideways to Hockenson, who was just inside the right hash. Hockenson ran right and beat the Gophers to the pylon.
Subbert said he rehearsed the play in the locker room before the game and misfired on some of his snaps.
“Probably lucky I wasnt in the locker room when they were doing that,” Ferentz said. “Some of the guys commented after the game, If you had seen that, you might not have gone on with it. Most important, it looked good in practice. Its something weve had in our pocket for a while.”
Gophers coach PJ Fleck said he didnt call timeout because he was confident in his defenders, who had been prepped for that situation in practice.
“We didnt set the edge well enough and next thing you know they scored,” Fleck said. “Muddles are something a lot of teams do in terms of how they line up and then go back to the field goal. Rarely do you see it from the field goal to the muddle. If you do, usually then its a fake. From the 4 yard line, its a great call. They executed it better than we defended it.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has long had a penchant for trickery, his most famous call being the “Little Giants” fake field goal that beat Notre Dame in double overtime in 2010 . This year quarterback Brian Lewerke, who also serves as holder, took off running on a fake field goal play called “Rocks” and pitched to kicker Matt Coghlin to finish a 6-yard touchdown in a 35-21 win over Indiana.
“Youve got to catch people off guard,” Dantonio said. “So you really dont want to tell people when youre going to do those things, really. Sometimes its after a big play and sometimes its not. Sometimes its in the middle of a series. Sometimes its not. I think its sort of just rolling the dice a little bit.”
Someone who loves trick plays as much or more than Dantonio is Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who vowed before the season to run at least 50 of them this season.
“You want to make sure you have enough,” Brohm said. “You want to make sure you dont do too much. But it is important you give yourself a chance to win, and we definitely want to err on the side of being creative.”