You have probably seen the 90-yard punt return touchdown North Texas put on Arkansas in Week 3 of 2018, 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 I talked later that 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:
- 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.
- 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: #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.”