Even though Missouri was lining up for a field goal attempt, Victor Sesay couldn’t stop himself from being excited.
His excitement came from the fact it wasn’t a normal field goal attempt. The Tigers’ trailed Nebraska 24-21 with less than 12 minutes to play last season. What occurred next became one of the most important plays in recent Missouri history and was anything but conventional.
Faced with a fourth-and-goal from the Cornhuskers’ 14, coach Gary Pinkel and the Tigers elected to fake the field goal and go for a touchdown.
“When they came out to the field and told me it was going to be a fake, there was a juice going through my body where it was just like, ‘Oh man, if he throws me the ball, I’m going to catch this thing, no matter what,’” Sesay said.
The play called for backup quarterback Sonny Riccio to roll out after taking the snap. He had two receivers, tight ends Clint Mathews and Sesay.
“So I walked up to Sonny, and I was like, ‘Sonny, I don’t care who is open, just throw me the ball,’” Sesay said. “He threw a perfect pass, and I caught it.”
The fake resulted in a touchdown catch and completely changed the flow and momentum of a tightly played game. The Tigers, energized with a 28-24 lead, surged ahead, taking a dominating hold of the game. The Cornhuskers, conversely, were equally as demoralized and listless in the final minutes.
That play is an example of how important a trick play, if executed properly, can be to a game.
“It’s a big a switch,” Sesay said. “It’s probably a game-changer or a turn around. It can break a team’s back or give another team extra momentum. Hopefully, when we run it, if we run it, that’ll it’ll give us the extra motivation we need to win.”
As a result, the Tigers, who have used several trick plays this season, devote a significant amount of practice to working on them. Because of this emphasis, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen said he doesn’t call them trick plays, but rather special plays to create more formations and variations in the offense with which opposing defenses must deal.
“We want to have anywhere from two-to-five special plays (per game),” he said. “We won’t consider them trick plays because we work on them all the time. We might go into a game and not run any of them, or we might go into a game and run five of them.
“Generally, we’re going to have anywhere from two-to-five special plays that we pop in. You get as many different ones as you can throughout the season, so they have more things to have to prepare for week in and week out.”
With as influential as the special plays can be, picking the correct spot to use it represents an equally pressing issue.
“Better not call it if it’s going to backfire,” Christensen said. “We’re not going to call things if the percentages are against us. The thing with calling plays in those situations is that they haven’t prepared for those situations, defensively, and that’s the key. Being able to run those plays in a situation, you feel they may not be prepared to defend it.”
Christensen said he estimates his trick-play calls have worked at least 75 percent of the time.
“I can’t think of too many special plays we’ve ran we haven’t had success with,” he said.
Against Colorado this year, the Tigers ran several variations of the “swinging gate” play in short-yardage third and fourth downs. The play calls for the offense to line up in an unconventional manner. For a “swinging gate,” only the quarterback and center stay in the middle of the field while the rest of the offensive line lines up outside the hash marks.
In the third game of the season against Ball State, the Tigers called four, including a variation on the “swinging gate.” They worked with limited success.
“You kind of get in the rhythm of the regular plays and regular timing, and when you see something different, it kind of wakes you up, wakes the team up and gets the guys excited out there to do something different,” quarterback Brad Smith said.
With as much success as the tricks have yielded, Smith said over usage of tricks devalues their novelty.
Even though they spend significant practice on trick plays, players get a little bounce in their step when a trick play gets called. Christensen said the Tigers consistently have a bank of plays to work on during practice.
“It’s like, ‘Here we go. We’ve been working on it. Let’s see if it works,’” wide receiver Sean Coffey said “A trick play can be good because it’s very misleading for the defense.”
The tricks haven’t always worked in the Tigers favor. Against Texas, the Longhorns seamlessly executed a reverse pass from running back Romance Taylor to quarterback Vince Young. It was a 48-yard completion and set up a touchdown in the second quarter.
In the second half, the Tigers attempted a variation of the reverse pass. After Thomson Omboga got the ball on a reverse, he tried to pitch it back to Smith to throw a deep pass. Smith, though, dropped the pitch and was sacked.
Coffey said he vividly remembers the fake field goal and the wide receiver pass from Darius Outlaw to Brad Smith from last year’s Nebraska game. That play, on which Coffey blocked for Smith, worked for a 47-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
The pass to Smith exploited the Cornhuskers’ tendency to relentlessly pursue the ball. The ball went from one side to the other, trapping them on away from the ball carrier.
“It’s just a good thing to see if it works,” Coffey said.