During a win against Ohio in Week 2, Purdue pulled off one of the more enjoyable trick plays of recent times: a wide-receiver reverse flea-flicker touchdown pass:
Boiler up to somethin pic.twitter.com/9nOctDbgXW— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 9, 2017
Boilermakers QB David Blough got the snap and handed the ball to running back D.J. Knox, who then tossed it back to receiver Jackson Anthrop. The quarterback, Blough, floated backward a few yards. When he got the ball back, he threw to a tight end, Cole Herdman, who had no defenders in his zip code. Touchdown.
That’s how this is supposed to work.
Auburn messed it up and — beware — took an obscure penalty.
During Clemson’s win over Auburn the same week, Auburn got hit with one of the more unusual intentional grounding flags you’ll ever see, after this play:
There are a few possible reasons this play didn’t work for Auburn, while it did work for Purdue. The first is that Auburn was playing Clemson, and Purdue was playing Ohio. Another is that Purdue ran it to the wide side of the field, so it had more space. The plays aren’t identical, but they’re trying to do the same thing in the same way: catch the defense off guard twice on the same play, setting up a deep shot.
Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham took the snap and handed of to running back Kamryn Pettway, who then gave the ball to a reversing receiver, Eli Stove. Stidham dropped back a few yards and took a flea-flicker pitch from Stove. But Clemson applied good pressure, and Stidham chucked the ball into the Clemson sideline, away from trouble.
Auburn was penalized for intentional grounding and had to back up 15 yards, from Clemson’s 43 to Auburn’s 42. The ESPN commentators, and some Auburn fans, thought it was a curious call. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn looked unhappy on the sideline.
Usually, intentional grounding penalties only get called if the quarterback is still inside the tackle box, which extends five yards laterally from the center. By rule, the tackle box disintegrates when the ball leaves it, and the ball had clearly left it on this play. Plus, Stidham threw from well outside where it used to be. But Auburn had a problem.
The call on Auburn was correct, and it brings up a point about this play.
Here’s the rulebook exception that prevents QBs from getting flagged for grounding if they’ve thrown the ball away after leaving the pocket. Bolding’s mine:
It is not a foul if the passer is or has been outside the tackle box and throws the ball so that it crosses or lands beyond the neutral zone or neutral zone extended ... This applies only to the player who controls the snap or the resulting backward pass and does not relinquish possession to another player before throwing the forward pass.
The problem for Stidham is that last bit. As soon as he’d pitched the ball to Pettway, he’d “relinquished possession.” The “tackle box” exception in the rulebook thus vanished, and Stidham had to throw the ball toward a receiver no matter what. While it seems that you could try this play and just throw the ball away with no problem if it fails, thus hacking the rules, you really can’t do that.
This clause doesn’t often come up, but it’s the same rule that means a running back can’t take a pitch and then just chuck the ball away if he’s surrounded in the backfield. The tackle box exception is designed to shelter quarterbacks who take the snap and don’t give it to anybody else. Once the ball changes hands, that protection’s gone.
The same’s true on this close cousin, a back-pass to a QB that UConn used to hit up Virginia for a 60-yard touchdown in Week 3:
So, this play’s awesome. But it’s got its risks.
If it doesn’t work, your quarterback’s going to be way behind the line of scrimmage with a bunch of defenders bearing down on him. And he won’t be able to throw it away.