The last play of the last practice of the week is the same at Arizona and Mississippi State and plenty of other schools around the country: the wing-it-and-pray pass commonly known as the Hail Mary.
One part planning and two parts luck, that desperation heave to the end zone rarely results in a touchdown, the way it did in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday night, when the Wildcats used it to cap a crazy comeback victory. More often the defense gets the stop the way the Bulldogs did at LSU to prevent what would have been a painful loss.
There is a plan in place before the cluttered chaos, when a player can do more wrong than right and still end up being a hero.
MIRACLE IN THE DESERT
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has been directing college football offenses for about 25 years, and has basically been running the same last-gasp-pass play since he started. The name: “Hail Mary. Really creative, huh?” he said.
After wiping out most of a huge deficit in the fourth quarter against California on Saturday night, the Wildcats got themselves in position to run Hail Mary from the Bears’ 47.
The Wildcats practice Hail Mary every Thursday, but Arizona doesn’t run it live against a full and active defense for fear of injury.
“We always catch it and we always celebrate,” Rodriguez said.
Coincidentally, Arizona installed a second version of Hail Mary last Thursday, though Rodriguez went with his old version Saturday night.
Arizona lines up three receivers — all of them at least 6-foot-3 — on one side of the line, in this case the right side, and one receiver on the other. The lone receiver’s job is to run down the middle and draw some attention. The other three are supposed to run to spots near each other in the end zone: one in the back, one in the middle and one in the front. About 3 yards apart.
The quarterback’s job is to buy as much time as possible to give his receivers a chance to get to their spots.
“You’d rather have your wide receivers set in the end zone instead of running in the end zone,” Rodriguez said.
Quarterback Anu Solomon’s next task is to let loose a high-arching throw that hopefully comes down about 5 yards into the end zone. Solomon’s toss was a little deep.
As for his receivers? Things didn’t go as planned.
Austin Hill, who caught the TD pass about 7 yards into the end zone, was supposed to be the receiver at the front. Trey Griffey was toward the back of the end zone, though he was supposed to be the middle man. Cayleb Jones, who never did get close to where the ball came down, was supposed to be in the back.
“It kind of worked out greatly, but I was definitely supposed to be in the front, trying to get a tip,” Hill said. “You see the ball in the air and you realize there are five DBs and three receivers in the area. You know you’re outnumbered but somebody has to catch the ball. I saw the ball and said hey, I’m going to go try to catch this.”
Actually, because Jones never made it to the party, ultimately it was two receivers on three defenders.
Rodriguez said he tells his receivers to try to catch the ball at its highest point, rather than try to tip it. The idea being if the receiver goes up with “strong hands” he’ll get a tip if he doesn’t catch it.
That didn’t happen either. Hill caught the ball at his chest. Final score: Arizona 49, Cal 45.
BULLDOGS HANG ON
Mississippi State could have been Cal. The Bulldogs had most of their huge fourth-quarter lead against LSU whittled away to five points. The Tigers got the ball to Mississippi State’s 46 with time for one more play.
Bulldogs defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said Mississippi State practices against a few different versions of the Hail Mary. He said most teams run either a version of what Arizona used or a formation with two receivers on each side of the field. LSU used the latter.
Collins said Mississippi State’s plan is to have three players lined up on the goal line and to have defenders closer to the line of scrimmage — though not too close — who can at least disrupt the routes of the receivers.
“You always have somebody who knocks the ball down, who’s the jumper,” Collins said. The Bulldogs use 6-foot-5 middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who has a 39-inch vertical leap, as the jumper.
“And then you have rebounders. You always try to set up for rebounders to the back, to each side and underneath,” Collins said. “The other guys who get there, they try to knock the ball down as well.”
The key phrase there is ‘knock the ball down.’ Defenders are instructed to go up for the ball and forcefully try to swat it away. Mississippi State cornerback Will Redmond reached up and intercepted the ball, catching it in front of the pack at the 1. Final: Mississippi State 34, LSU 29.
“We’ll talk to Will about that,” Collins said.
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