There's a trick to calling trick plays.
It's not just the design of the foolery or how it's executed. It's when you call them. And of course, they're brilliant when they work and head-scratchers when they blow up.
Take a pair of fake punts on Saturday as an example. In Iowa City, Michigan State called for one from its own 37-yard line in the fourth quarter while leading Iowa 20-14. Mark Dantonio named the play "Hey Diddle Diddle" because punter Mike Sadler would run up the middle. Sadler actually veered right, but he gained 25 yards and set up a key field goal.
“We just sort of felt, if the moment was right, we’d do it,” Dantonio told reporters after the game. “I just wanted to make sure our players know, they’re at risk on the football field."
Urban Meyer has always been a risk-taker, and most of his decisions in the past year and a half have paid off for Ohio State. But one backfired at Northwestern on Saturday and could have proved costly.
Meyer put the fake punt on from his own 32 in the second quarter, but punter Cameron Johnston came up well short of the sticks. Northwestern used the field position to kick a field goal and go up 20-13. The Buckeyes coach later said calling for the fake at that time was an error, but that won't change his mindset.
“That's who we are," he said. "We're going to run a fake punt again. I tell our players all the time: We're an aggressive team, we do what we've got to do to win games."
Sometimes you live by the trick play, sometimes you die by it. Dantonio has a history of using comically named gadget plays, but his halfback pass idea at Notre Dame earlier this year proved disastrous as it was picked off, costing the Spartans momentum in a close game. Nebraska botched a fake punt against UCLA when it tried to have a 300-pound defensive lineman rumble for a first down. Wisconsin executed a brilliant fake punt at Arizona State in Week 3 when linebacker Chris Borland passed for a first down.
When pulled off, trick plays can give a team a huge boost. When they fail, they can leave a coach with egg on his face. The trick is knowing when and where to call them.
Take that and rewind it back ...
Team of the week: With nods to Michigan State (which pulled out a big road win at Iowa) and Indiana (which snapped a 16-game losing streak versus Penn State) this honor belongs to Ohio State for a second consecutive week. Going to Northwestern was the Buckeyes' biggest challenge of the season, and they found themselves trailing for the first time since the second quarter of last year's season finale versus Michigan. They used their powerful offensive line to battle back and got a few key stops on defense in the fourth quarter for their 18th consecutive victory. Ohio State is halfway to an undefeated regular season with a highly advantageous schedule remaining.
Worst hangover: No matter how its season was going, Penn State could always count on one thing: beating Indiana. The Nittany Lions had never lost to the Hoosiers in 16 tries. So when the Hoosiers not only ended the streak but put an exclamation point on it by taking a 42-17 fourth-quarter lead and winning by 20, that raised a giant red flag over Penn State's season. This week's sold-out, white-out home game against Michigan looked like a great way for Lions fans to celebrate the reduction of their NCAA sanctions. Now, it could be a deflating reminder of the cost of those sanctions.
Big Man on Campus (offense): Heading into the Northwestern game, Meyer said of Carlos Hyde, "We're going to ride that horse." And boy did the Buckeyes ever climb aboard their workhorse tailback. Hyde ran for 168 yards and three touchdowns, the last one coming when he had the presence of mind to reach the ball across the plane on third down while falling backwards to save Ohio State's winning streak. Hyde ran like a guy who knew football was almost taken away from him after his poor decision this summer, and he became emotional when talking about it afterward.
Big Man on Campus (defense): In our Friday Q&A, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard expressed his frustration with not having an interception through the first five weeks while saying he was very close. Dennard then went out and picked off two passes at Iowa, one in the first quarter and one in the fourth. The Hawkeyes were forced to try to beat Dennard through the air because they couldn't run the ball (see below).
Big Man on Campus (special teams): Michigan State freshman kicker Michael Geiger missed his first field goal attempt against Iowa from 36 yards. That had to bring back bad memories for Spartans fans, because key missed field goals were an overlooked factor in last year's 6-6 regular season. But Geiger then made his next four tries, from 27, 35, 49 and 40 yards. Given the state of Michigan State's offense, it probably needs a reliable kicker more than most teams. That's why Geiger was an important recruit, and why Spartans fans should be happy that the Geiger counter is dialed in right now.
Best play: Kenny Bell's one-handed catch on his way to a 37-yard touchdown put Illinois away for good and gave Bell a secure spot on Nebraska's season highlight film. Teammate Ameer Abdullah's 43-yard touchdown run off an option pitch might have been the day's second-best play.
A spot of bother: Did Kain Colter and Northwestern get victimized by a bad spot on the quarterback's fourth-and-1 rushing attempt late in the game? Possibly. But when you mess up the center exchange and then fall into a pile of bodies, it's hard to get the benefit of the doubt, and replays were not conclusive.
The bigger question might be whether the Wildcats got a little too conservative on that drive as they trailed 34-30. Just about all night, they had torn through Ohio State's pass defense, including a 67-yard completion to Rashad Lawrence on the previous possession that set up a touchdown. Pat Fitzgerald likely wanted to burn some clock and put his team in position to win the game with a touchdown and not have his defense go back on the field. Still, after opening the drive with a 9-yard completion, the Wildcats ran the ball on their next five plays. The final four runs gained only 8 yards, and Colter came up an inch short of the first down at the Buckeyes' 34.
Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info)
Michigan State now leads the country in rushing defense, allowing just 50.4 yards per game. The Spartans held Iowa, which came to Saturday's game averaging 244 yards per game on the ground, to just 23 rushing yards. Since the start of 2011, Michigan State has held 20 opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing, including all five games in 2013.
One reason for Ohio State's success has been its field position advantage, thanks to a strong punting game. The Buckeyes' opponents have started their possessions after a punt, on average, at the 18-yard line. That's second-best in the nation behind Houston.
Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Michigan's Blake Countess are tied for the national lead with four interceptions each. Countess' 149 interception return yards are most in the FBS, and Jean-Baptiste's 134 ranks third.
Indiana's strong passing attack isn't just a dink-and-dunk routine. The Hoosiers are averaging 14.66 yards per pass completion, best in the Big Ten and No. 14 in the FBS. Of those completions, 61.9 percent of them have gone for at least 10 yards.
Bill O'Brien has hardly kept the reins on true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He is attempting 36.4 passes a game, most in the Big Ten and No. 17 nationally. Hackenberg attempted 55 passes Saturday against Indiana.
Who has played the toughest schedule so far? According to one stat, it's Indiana. The Hoosiers' FBS opponents' winning percentage is 85.4 percent, second highest in the nation behind Washington. The weakest schedule, using that measurement, is Michigan State, whose FBS opponents' winning percentage is just 41.3 percent.
Michigan has scored either a touchdown or a field goal on 81.3 percent of its drives inside the opponent's 40-yard line, tops in the league and No. 7 nationally. The Wolverines are also No. 3 in the FBS in red zone touchdown efficiency, reaching the end zone 81.8 percent of the time they break the opponent's 20-yard line.