North Texas explains the (amazingly elaborate) FAKE FAIR CATCH touchdown trick

You have probably already seen the 90-yard punt return touchdown North Texas put on Arkansas on Saturday, en route to a 44-17 destruction of the Razorbacks. And you will probably smile when you watch it right now for the 36th time, because it is that wild.

You also might have questions about how the hell it happened. Same.

So SB Nation talked Saturday night with the two people most involved in the play’s existence: UNT special teams coordinator Marty Biagi and punt returner Keegan Brewer.

This is the story of how the play went from idea to epic success story, explained by both.

Brewer didn’t go rogue and try it on his own. The Mean Green had been working on this schoolyard trick since fall camp.

The play required weeks of practice. And just to get that far, it needed buy-in from the return man. That’s not a given on a play that requires the returner to stand like a statue while oncoming coverage men charge toward him.

“You can’t just put that in on a Wednesday and then go, ‘Hey! Trust me!’” Biagi says.

So the coordinator told the returner in August, “Hey, we’re gonna start practicing this during fall camp, and I need you to trust me.”

“And Keegan looked me square in the eyes and said, ‘Coach, let’s practice it until you know it’ll work.’ So instead of just practicing that once, my big thing is: don’t practice it till you get it right,” Biagi says. “Practice it till you can’t get it wrong.”

In film study, the Mean Green saw something that intrigued them about the way Arkansas covered punts.

Biagi didn’t say what specifically Arkansas did that convinced him to install the fake for this game. But it involved how the Hogs tended to finish their coverages.

“Make sure we’re watching everything at the beginning of the play, at the end,” Biagi says. “It was just something we felt like this week, that it was the right opportunity to pull out.”

That it would be this play, the Hogs’ second punt of the afternoon, wasn’t decided on until later. The first Arkansas punt of the day had gone out of bounds.

Biagi told Brewer seconds beforehand that it was time.

“He said, ‘Keegan, we’re running it.’ I said, ‘All right, let’s do it then.’”

The play wasn’t just a play. It was a whole stage-managed production, with dozens* of people making sure it came off smoothly.

Let’s start with Brewer, whose job was the simplest of all: catch the punt, play dead like he’d just made a successful fair catch, and then run like hell when the coast was clear. “When you know, go,” Biagi had told him.

Brewer’s blockers had a much more complicated set of tasks. First, Biagi’s staff instructed them to jam and block Arkansas’ coverage guys immediately at the line. That’s not an uncommon task, though some return units let gunners run free and funnel them in particular directions. On this play, the sustained blocking accomplishes two things:

  1. Distraction. The longer Arkansas’ players were engaged with blockers, the less likely they’d be to get eyes on Brewer and figure out the ruse. “They kept the blocks on enough for [Arkansas] to not see that I didn’t fair-catch it,” Brewer says.
  2. Speed control. Denying the coverage a chance to gain a full head of steam made the play safer for Brewer, who was basically a sitting duck after catching the punt.

The goal isn’t to hold them up forever, though. Eventually, would-be tacklers have to get close enough to make it believable that a fair catch would’ve been called, and the farther upfield they get, the easier it is to slip behind them. UNT’s blockers had to do it just right as keys to both the lie and their teammate’s safety.

* It wasn’t just the 11 players on the field. Keep reading.

Brewer clutched the ball tightly so he wouldn’t fumble in case someone hit him. And he assumed a slightly defensive posture, where he’d protect himself if he were hit.

That’s all the answer to the question: Wasn’t North Texas putting Brewer in extraordinary danger?

And wasn’t Brewer scared?

“I was, definitely,” he says. “But the punt that they kicked wasn’t a high one, so it wasn’t one where I’d be totally scared, where they’d just be surrounding me. So as soon as I caught it, I had a little bit of time to protect myself, which I was a little scared [about] before the play. But after that, once I had the ball, it was good.”

The play nearly collapsed before it got going, because one inquisitive Arkansas player almost figured it out.

Here, we’re talking about this guy: No. 31, Grant Morgan.

“The guy right in front of me was actually talking to me,” Brewer says.

“Why aren’t they blowing the whistle?” Brewer heard Morgan ask him.

Morgan peeked at the video board behind Brewer. The returner silently stared ahead.

“I just sat there and waited,” he says. “It wasn’t too hard.”

“You’ve got to play it all the way through,” Arkansas coach Chad Morris said afterward. “You’ve got to play through the whistle. That was my message.”

Back to the other guys on the field for North Texas. As the play progressed, they had to peel off toward their own sideline.

That part was important. The return would have to go along the North Texas sideline. The Mean Green knew Arkansas’ players would jog to their own sideline once they were satisfied Brewer had fair-caught the ball.

So while it was in the air, a horde of UNT blockers, who’d just let their assignments come off their blocks, started to shift. By the time Brewer got moving to his left, an armored escort of eight teammates would be waiting.

“And then after that, it was just kind of ‘build a wall,’” Biagi says.

This is where North Texas’ entire staff — assistants, GAs, strength coaches — had to play a critical role.

“It’s almost like a movie scene,” Biagi says, with so many people involved.

The staff on the sidelines had to make sure nobody in a white jersey got faked out, too. If UNT’s offensive players thought the play was dead, they could’ve blown the whole thing.

“You talk about a big operation,” Biagi says. “You’ve gotta have all hands on deck, because you’ve gotta have the sideline coaches, the strength staff doing a great job keeping everybody off the field, ‘cause normally what happens is the offense is ready to take the field, run on, and get everyone fired up.”

If anyone does that mid-play, it’s a penalty.

One other group might have had a role to play: the officials.

North Texas could have alerted them not to instinctively whistle the play dead when Brewer was at his standstill. It’s common for teams to communicate with refs about specific odd situations in advance.

“I’m not allowed to tell you that, if you don’t mind,” Biagi says.

The other thing Biagi didn’t say: if the returner on the play has an option read other than just to fair-catch it for real. Given the numbers, that’d have to be a creative option.

UNT isn’t the first team in history to run a fake fair catch. But it it might be a while before the next one. (Or not.)

Maybe the most famous prior example: Florida State’s Terrell Buckley did it to Syracuse in 1989, stalling for a moment before bursting through the Orange:

Football’s so big that no one can say with confidence when the last attempt was before UNT’s. But the Mean Green were the first in a long while to do it successfully at their level. Now, everyone in the sport has seen the tape, which should — should — make it unrepeatable for a while. But it might not.

“I guess it’s like anything,” Biagi says. “You’ve gotta know and do great film study. It’s kind of like everything goes around and travels full circle. Maybe somebody’ll try it, and maybe somebody won’t try it for 50 years, after I’m long gone.”

But North Texas doesn’t have any reason to swear it off permanently.

“You never know,” Brewer says. “It could happen again. But I’m not really sure when.”

Comments

Every time I watch this...

It looks like his left hand is instinctively going up to signal Fair Catch before he realizes "oh, don’t call for that" and he pulls his arm down before it gets above his shoulder. I think I’ve seen that called for "invalid fair catch signal" before, so it’s awesome that it didn’t get called. I wonder what it looked like from the end zone camera vs the one on the 50. Good on the refs for not screwing that up, though.

I don’t see it (though I think I see where someone else might see it), and neither guy brought this up in rundowns of the play, but I think that’d be part of the benefit of talking the play over with the refs beforehand (allegedly).

Gotcha

It could also be something where they ask what’s "legal" for this situation, and he’s trained on what hand motions he can do.

Fake Fair Catch

I remember UConn did this, but a little differently.

The returner waived his arm, but not above the shoulder (or whatever) so it wasn’t a fair catch call.

There's a specific rule preventing this.

An "invalid fair catch signal" is a dead-ball penalty where the ball is placed at the spot of the catch. That is, basically the same result as a fair catch. There may have been a period when this wasn’t the case, and doubtless guys have gotten away with ambiguous motions that perhaps should have been called. I’ve seen several times where guys tried, for example, the "I wasn’t doing a fair catch, I was waiving off my teammates" swim move and the refs have called the invalid signal penalty. I think that’s actually reasonably frequent, it’s just often not explained via the mic, so (especially on TV) you just assume it was a fair catch (and/or, that for some reason the guys that tackled him weren’t penalized).

Really cool play. UConn did this in 2007 as well.

What UConn did was an illegal play

And the head official of the Big East had to apologize for the call early the next week, as the UConn player made an invalid fair catch signal, which by rule, stops the play upon the catch. This play by UNT above is perfectly legal. No invalid catch sign.

Kudos to the refs because

Ryan Switzer did this. ACC refs blew it dead. He fooled them too.

2nd tine he tried it, they flagged him. Lol.

Because refs will be quick to throw a flag for anything remotely resembling unnecessary roughness or late hits,

this type of shyte should be illegal.

In the old days, when football was football, I would have approved.

I'm with you, honestly.

Morgan was in a no-win situation. All of his instincts were right, but he wasn’t allowed to finish the play because modern day rules are so anti-tackling.

"Get Off My Lawn" Guy here needs to STFU.

He's right

It would have been a 15 yard penalty if one of the Arkansas players lit up the returner while he was just standing there for a few seconds. Trick plays to take advantage of situations when a player is protected from contact shouldn’t be allowed. "Just play to the whistle" doesn’t apply when the ballcarrier is imitating a situation where he isn’t allowed to be touched.

Particularly where there's a significant risk of ejection, not just a yardage penalty.

Even without an ejection, a mistake like that can get you pulled off the coverage team, and for some guys the coverage team is the most significant playing time they’re getting.

I have no idea how you’d outlaw it, but agreed

Morris says the lesson is to play until the whistle, but someone is going to fair-catch, the whistle won’t get blown, the gunner will destroy the return man and flags will or won’t fly. Someone will be upset either way. I’m for protecting the return man who did wave, so I’m okay with putting this under the giving yourself up clause. Probably won’t happen until someone does it to Alabama.

I think you just make a rule where the play is blown dead when the returner has given himself up.

Like how they’ll blow a play dead on kick returns where the returner catches the ball in the end zone but hasn’t actually kneeled yet but obviously isn’t intending to run it out.

Counterpoint: this was awesome.

Is not the Fair Catch rule intended to increase safety on kickoffs?

But this encourages tacklers to launch themselves at the catcher. One late whistle or wish-washy fair catch signal, and a poor schmuck is going to have his rib cage caved in.

We laugh now, but this is bad precedent.

this is ridiculous

The fair catch is to give the receiver a chance to not get pasted. If they fake it, they’re just going to endanger themselves over and over for the rest of the season when defenders aren’t willing to take the chance that its fake.

Guys, I get what you’re saying and safety is key, but it’s not like Morgan had to destroy the guy. They were both kinda just standing there so all he has to do is walk up and like, bear hug him so he can’t move. That’s forward progress stopped, enough I would think that the refs would whistle it dead, right? Or heck just walk up and grab the ball out…

And if he'd signalled for a fair catch, that bear hug would be a 15 yard penalty.

Ok, but ...

… 15 yd. Flag >> gittin burned 4 t.d.!!!!!

Did he give himself up?

In the NFL if DB intercepts the ball but doesn’t move the refs blow it dead claiming he is "giving himself up". I am sort of surprised that didn’t happen in this case. The ball is caught but he doesn’t make a move for some time. I would have expected the ref to blow the ball dead as the player was "giving himself up".

Cute play, but it deserves less credit than it has received.

The only ways to "give yourself up" under NCAA rules are to signal for a fair catch, kneel, slide feet first, or quit trying to make forward progress while being tackled.

I’m not aware of any scenario where a college ref would say a player has "given himself up" while the player has not signaled for a fair catch, has not been contacted by any member of the opposing team, and has made no attempt to go down or get out of bounds.

Kickoffs where a player catches the ball in the end zone

Fault and Risk

I like these plays, because the returner is at such a huge risk — and if he gets slammed, then it’s his own dang fault. Conversely, if he gets away with it, then the kicking team clearly has to bear the burden. It’s sneaky and it’s quirky, and it’s just another lesson to players to play from whistle to whistle on every play.

There’s definitely a chance the returner will be called for an invalid signal, but those tend toward indecisive signaling rather than incomplete signaling.

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