Against Nebraska, Colorado tried a flea flicker from its own end zone. That alone is crazy.
Even crazier: it worked.
GAME. CHANGER.— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) September 7, 2019
Just want the doctor ordered.
This is something that’d almost never happened before 2019, at least not in a big-time college or pro game anyone seems to recall: a successful flea flicker spanning the full length of the field.
Trying a flea flicker underneath your own goalposts is bananas. Having your running back turn around and throw the ball backward into your own end zone, where your quarterback must have time to then throw the ball forward? That’s an extreme, well, safety risk.
The flea flicker is one of football’s classic schoolyard tricks. The coach most commonly credited with originating it is Illinois’ Bob Zuppke around 1927, and tons of teams have tried it since, but almost always at a safe distance from the offense’s end zone. There are obvious reasons.
Watch a rushed RG3 force a pick into triple coverage, demonstrating one of those obvious reasons not to try a flea flicker from your own end zone (of course the Hue Jackson Browns tried it):
Even from the middle of the field, things can go horribly awry, whether because the defense plays the pass well or the offense can’t make the necessary transfers in the backfield. You wouldn’t risk this happening anywhere near your own end zone:
We asked about 100,000 people on Twitter if anyone had ever seen a flea flicker work at Colorado’s distance. Nobody offered anything. The longest we could find was an 89-yarder from UNC’s Marquise Williams to Ryan Switzer in 2015:
Pretty awesome, but not full-field. UNC’s QB didn’t have to catch the ball in his own end zone before throwing it.
So on a major college or NFL stage, it’s possible no one ever had ever thrown a flea flicker for a TD from there before. We’ll update later on if needed.
Can we really call Colorado’s flea flicker the best in recorded history?
Anyone who says any particular football thing has never happened is saying so at their own risk. The college level alone has had hundreds of thousands of games, so the chances of seeing something truly unprecedented are slim at this point.
But even if there’d ever been a flea flicker a yard or two longer than this one, did that unknown flea flicker also turn a rivalry game on its head and help the underdog win?
So, sure, let’s say Colorado just pulled off the best flea flicker ever.
The flea flicker, like any trick play, is all about noticing context.
A naked bootleg only works if the offense bets a weak-side edge defender will keep cheating away from his run fit. A fake fair catch only works if punt coverage is lax at finishing plays. A surprise onside kick only works if the receiving team’s up men keep leaving a lot of open space.
A flea flicker only works if defensive backs bite on the handoff and let a receiver run past them. It’s the same goal as play action, except on steroids.
Hours before the trick, CU began setting it up.
“We had [the flea flicker] in our arsenal, but going into the game, I didn’t think I would use it, because I thought they would give us a different presentation,” Buffaloes OC Jay Johnson says. “But earlier in the game, we were in that formation, and they did give us the right look for it.”
On the Buffs’ first drive, they lined up in of a formation with a running back and two tight ends, and then ran to the right. n that play, Nebraska’s defense committed to stopping the run, leaving the middle of the field fairly open when a play-side safety darted up to stop the run. It doesn’t appear the same situation presented itself again until later:
The Huskers’ defense then played well for three quarters. The score was 17-7 when the Buffs took the ball at their own four-yard line with 14:36 to play.
In Colorado’s situation, it would seem crazy to try a flea flicker. So Colorado tried a flea flicker.
“I was probably playing against the odds a little bit,” Johnson says. “I don’t even know.”
Since the Buffs had been paying attention to Nebraska’s defense back in the first quarter, they kept in mind the trick play they’d been working on all week. Both the field position and the Huskers’ coverage suggested Nebraska was “gonna be heavy in there for the run,” Johnson says.
So on the first play out of a TV timeout, the Buffs ran the thing. The coordinator gave QB Steven Montez “a ton of autonomy” to check out of the flea flicker if it didn’t look like it would work, but Montez liked what he saw.
All football plays are complicated, but relatively speaking, this one isn’t.
Is there a bunch of intricate teaching points when it comes to a flea flicker?
“Heck, I don’t know,” Johnson says. “There probably is. The running back has to sell it, and then he has to put his foot in the ground and make the pitch back to the quarterback good.”
That, and the offensive line has to not let anyone kill the running back while he stops and turns.
The eventual receiver, K.D. Nixon, has an important job, one that comes well before catching the ball. He has to briefly make it look like he’s run-blocking, in order to hold the secondary in place just long enough for him to eclipse the first DB to realize what’s going on.
“The guy that sold it was K.D., because we motioned him in like he was coming to block the safety, and kind of stuttered and then went,” Johnson says. “That’s kind of the general protocol when you run that. He’s the one that kind of set it up and did a great job.”
Nixon squared his hips to make it look like he was about to crack back #19, Marquel Dismuke, the Nebraska safety who was keying run, then blitzing Montez after the backward pitch. That made #5, Cam Taylor-Britt, a corner effectively playing safety, stand still for a beat too long:
Taylor-Britt became the guy Nixon passed on his way into the end zone. Otherwise, the middle of the field was open, just like it had been in the first quarter.
If a trick is set up right, it all comes down to execution.
Here, anything less could’ve meant a nearly game-ending safety, with the Huskers taking a 19-7 lead and the ball with 14 minutes to go.
If anything, Nebraska brought more pressure on the run than CU expected, but the play worked anyway.
“I felt good about it,” Johnson says. “I didn’t think I would get blitzed, from what they had been doing. So from that perspective, it was safe. But even if they did, we had ways, or our structure of our deal was able to pick up the blitz. But obviously the pass concept looked a bit good if they blitzed, ‘cause then it would’ve been different in the back end.”
The play cut Nebraska’s lead to 17-14, and the teams traded scores as the game evolved into mayhem and overtime. The Buffs won in overtime, sealing the 17-point comeback and four-point upset.
The turning point was Colorado trying one of the boldest play calls imaginable.
“Sometimes, when you get down there backed up, you like to take a shot, see if you can swing the field from a field position perspective,” Johnson says.
Boulder is Johnson’s 11th stop in a 26-year college coaching career. He coached high school before that. He’d never before come across a flea flicker of this distance, either.