Everyone loves a good trick play, and everyone loves underdog sports movies. The 1994 movie Little Giants offers both.
This week, SB Nation is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the movie. In it, the underdog Little Giants face off against Kevin O’Shea’s (played by Ed O’Neill, AKA Jay Pritchett in Modern Family and Al Bundy from Married With Children) heavily favored Cowboys.
In the climax of the movie, the Little Giants have the ball in the game’s final seconds, all tied up at 21. Head coach Danny O’Shea calls “The Annexation of Puerto Rico,” inspired by John Madden’s “Holy Roller” play in Super Bowl XI between the Raiders and Chargers. But since the Little Giants didn’t have a tailback, the play had to be improvised a bit.
Essentially it’s a similar version of the “Fumblerooski,” which has been around long before this movie came out. The quarterback places the ball down right after the snap and keeps running pretending like they have the ball, while another player picks it up and goes the other way. One of the most prominent examples came during the 1984 Orange Bowl, when Nebraska ran it against Miami:
In the movie, you can see the Giants’ QB, Junior, do that here:
If ran correctly, it typically fools the opposing defense. In this play, the Giants fake it to their best player, Icebox, but give it to the Giants’ center, Rudy Zolteck (No. 61):
The Cowboys’ best defender, Spike Hammersmith, is coming for Zolteck, so he flips it back to Junior, who later tosses it over his head to the sneezing mess of a kid (Jake Berman). Berman eventually takes the ball into the end zone for the score and upset victory.
It’s a fun, triumphant moment for the Little Giants, and the movie’s most famous scene.
They haven’t been quite as dramatic, but teams that have used plays like the Annexation of Puerto Rico in real football games.
Let’s run through a few examples to see who was able to use it successfully like the Little Giants and who wasn’t. We’ll go in order from plays most similar to the movie to the least.
In 2011, the Carolina Panthers ran it against the Houston Texans during a Week 15 matchup.
Already up 14-0, Carolina took a 21-0 lead over Houston, using fullback Richie Brockel for the play.
Here’s a look at the formation — you can see Brockel (47) lined up slightly in front of Cam Newton, with two more backs further in the backfield:
On the snap, Newton immediately places the ball under Brockel’s backside, and fake rolls out to the right pretending he has the ball.
It fools Houston’s defense perfectly, and Brockel is able to run untouched into the end zone for the score:
The Panthers would go on win that game, 28-13. Head coach Ron Rivera didn’t hesitate to admit how he got the idea for the call:
Rivera: trick play vs Texans inspired from similar play from "Little Giants" movie called the annexation of Puerto Rico.— Joe Person (@josephperson) December 19, 2011
“When we put that play in, I never thought in a million years that that play was going to work, let alone get a touchdown,” Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell said via the Associated Press after the game:
LaFell said the team walked through the play in practice, but had never run it against a live defense.
”It’s one of those plays where if the timing is right and you call it at the right time it’s about as good as it gets,” Rivera said.
Five years later, O’Neill saw the Panthers’ play for the first time, and he was pretty amazed about it, saying “Oh my god, they actually ran that play”:
O’Neill summed it up best:“That’s great.”
In 2016, Purdue attempted to fool the Penn State defense.
Let’s just say Purdue’s attempt wasn’t all that successful. With the game tied at 7, Purdue was facing second-and-9 from the Penn State 25-yard line. Boilermakers receiver Bilal Marshall secretly handed the ball off to receiver Malik Kimbrough, but Penn State’s defense made the read immediately after Marshall rolled right. Kimbrough was stopped for a loss of 1 on the play:
I mean kudos to Purdue for trying, I guess?
Fresno State pulled off a fumblerooski in 2013.
The Bulldogs took a 28-0 lead over New Mexico with a fumblerooski using receiver Isaiah Burse as the rusher:
In this one, Burse and Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr crouch down behind the line of scrimmage to deceive the defense:
It worked exactly as intended.
Texas Tech used its little guy to beat Texas in 2015.
This one wasn’t exactly the Annexation of Puerto Rico play, but there were similar elements. The Red Raiders scored a 40-yard rushing touchdown by running a trick play with 5’7, 168-pound running back Jakeem Grant with less than three minutes left.
Red Raiders then-head coach Kliff Kingsbury called the play “Little People, Big World”:
The play itself is a Gus Malzahn trick. He’s run it a few times over the course of his career, including with Auburn this year against Texas A&M. The idea is you have your offensive line stand as close together as possible and have your team’s smallest, fastest player hide behind them.
Using one of your smallest players to score a touchdown? We consider that pretty comparable to what the Little Giants did with Jake.
Michigan State called a play named after the movie to beat Notre Dame in 2010.
Sparty head coach Mark Dantonio dialed up some trickery in the final seconds against The Irish.
Trailing by three in overtime, Sparty was faced with a fourth-and-14, needing to score to counter ND’s field goal on its possession. It looked as if kicker Dan Conroy was set to line up for a 46-yard field goal:
But instead, the ball was snapped directly to the holder, MSU punter Aaron Bates. Bates found a wide-open Charlie Gantt, who sauntered into the end zone for the winning TD:
The intended receiver was actually MSU running back Le’Veon Bell (who you can see get tripped up downfield on the right side of the screen), but Gantt was the one open downfield.
“If you look back at some of the reporting, Manti Te’o said, ‘We saw the wing go up and talk to the holder,’” Spartan assistant head coach Mark Staten said of the play via the Detroit Free Press in 2017. “Le’Veon (Bell) was on the field and he did not get the communication. So quickly when he got it, he was like, ‘Wait, that can’t be. It’s fourth-and-14. That can’t be happening.’ So he actually went back (and confirmed it with the holder), so that’s why they tackled him. And the guy who never caught the ball in practice, Charlie, ends up making the catch.”
At the time of the play call, Staten was the one who actually had to convince Dantonio that the play would work:
“Little Giants,” was the call, and Staten, then the coach of tackles and tight ends and the man in charge of the field goal unit, told Dantonio the play would work.
At least, that’s what he hoped.
“When the head coach says, ‘Is it going to work?’ and you’ve got to answer that, ‘Yeah, coach, it’s going to work,’” Staten recalled this week, “and you’re going, ‘Man, it’s fourth-and-14 and I just told him this play’s going to work, so hopefully it does.’”
Although it didn’t resemble “The Annexation of Puerto Rico,” a game-winning trick play is the fitting way to pay homage to the movie.
Not every play listed here was directly inspired by the movie, but the variations of it show the film’s lasting impact.
How awesome is it that a play from a 25-year-old film is still relevant? Thank you for that, Little Giants.