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Florida State's fake punt could change college football

by Berry Tramel Modified: January 7, 2014 at 9:35 am •  Published: January 7, 2014

The SEC’s reign is over. Florida State beat Auburn 34-31 in the Big Bowl on Monday night, and the SEC’s streak of seven straight national championships ended.

A new streak begins  —  the states of Florida or Alabama have won six straight national titles  —  but college football can deal with that later. One dragon at a time.

But here’s how close Auburn came to winning the SEC’s eighth straight title (and the state of Alabama’s fifth straight). When Florida State lined up on a 4th-and-4 play from its 40-yard line with 3:52 left to play in the second quarter, trailing 21-3, its chances of winning the game had dropped to 8.8 percent. So says researchers who figure such things. An open Rashad Greene had just dropped a Jameis Winston pass, and the Seminoles dejectedly sent out the punt unit.

You know the rest. Jimbo Fisher dialed up a fake punt  —  and a good one. The ball was snapped to blocking back Dan Hicks, who moved to his right. Meanwhile, wideout Karlos WIlliams, who had been in the slot, began circling around left. Hicks nonchalantly tossed the ball to Williams, who zipped around for a reverse.

I’m sure there have been a ton of reverses on fake punts throughout football history. But I’ve never seen one. Fake punts usually require quick attack. A north/south mentality. Running around end, especially with the second ballhandler of the play, would seem to take too much time.

But Florida State caught Auburn. The Tigers weren’t ready for it. And Patrick Lymon, the Auburn defender opposite Williams, didn’t follow him all the way  —  when Hicks and Williams crossed, Lymon momentarily halted, wondering if Hicks was coming his way.

So the play worked. Williams had running room. And made seven yards. That’s right. In the open field, with a quality runner, the Seminoles made the first down by three yards.

That’s how close Florida State came to losing in the first half. If the Seminoles had punted, their chances of victory would have dropped slightly. If the Seminoles had been stuffed on the fake punt, their chances of victory would have dropped dramatically. Auburn’s offense was in a rhythm. The Tigers likely would have scored to pad that 18-point lead.

Yet the game completely turned around. Florida State marched to a touchdown with 1:28 left in the first half, which meant the Auburn lead was just 21-10.

Thanks to the fake punt.

We know a little something about fakes around here. OU turned around the Bedlam game with Bob Stoops’ fake field goal.

Fake punts actually are more explosive than fake field goals, because they are potentially seven-point plays. A fake field goal  —  except extremely long kicks that don’t have a high success rate  —  is usually a four-point play.

The day is coming when fakes are more common. Study after study show that teams ought to punt less on fourth down, either keeping your offense on the field and going for it, or pulling off a fake.

Successful fakes are more than just field position flips. More than just the three or seven points they could produce. Successful fakes are momentum-changers. They change the feel of the coliseum. The feel of the sidelines. They fortify, they embolden, the teams that pull them off. Or heck, the teams that stop them.

“We had lost momentum,” Fisher said. “I knew with five minutes to go, if they got it back and scored, the game could be over right there before half. I knew we had the ball coming out the second half. And we’re here to win this thing. I thought that’s what we had to do to gain the momentum of the game back, and it worked, and we got it, went down, got the drive, got back in the ballgame.

“Hopefully that’s what changed the momentum of the game and got our confidence back.”

After the game, Alabama coach Nick Saban told Fisher, “That was the call of the game. You gotta be bold sometimes. You guys needed something, you guys went down and scored.  That made a big difference from a momentum standpoint.”

If Auburn stops that fake punt, the Tigers  run off the Rose Bowl turf believing they were invincible. Mighty Florida State had to resort to a fake punt, just to try to reach midfield.

That was a fail-and-lose play. Auburn wins the game if that fake punt doesn’t produce a first down. Success didn’t guarantee Florida State victory, but it raised the meter a little.

Maybe the success of Stoops and Fisher and whoever else has hit the jackpot on fakes, will change the culture of fakes. What if someone developed an alternative offense, out of punt formation? Nothing too elaborate, but some offensive options with quality ballhandlers. But leaving the chance to just snap the ball to the punter and kick it away.

All of a sudden, punt return units are different. The return man is a little closer to the line of scrimmage. The line isn’t blocking for a return or rushing for a block. It’s got one eye on the ball and where in the heck it’s  going.

Who knows? Football changes. Football morphs. At one point in time, no one thought an offense should ever spread out. Now you’re nuts if you don’t.

Jimbo Fisher might have changed football. Desperate times call for desperate measures.


by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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