Guerin Emig: Now we’re on to defending the Hail Mary, another marginal topic most seasons but not for a 6-0 Oklahoma team with conference championship and College Football Playoff aspirations still attainable.
NORMAN — The last play Oklahoma defended was Texas’ Hail Mary. Key Lawrence knocked down Quinn Ewers’ 44-yard heave into the end zone and the Sooners held on two Saturdays ago.
The tendency is to think, OK, that’s over with. No more heart-in-your-throat, hands-over-your-eyes moments the rest of the season. I mean, what are the odds?
You think that, and then five days after OU-Texas, Houston beats West Virginia on a Hail Mary. Two days after that, Colorado State does the same to Boise State.
“Teams are closer together and so there’s more games that are close at the end, and that’s why you’re seeing more Hail Marys,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy figured Monday. “You’re gonna see more of them because more teams are playing closer games.”
All I know is there’s enough parity in college football, and enough riding on an OU season that gets dreamier every Saturday, to keep revisiting the margins. Having 11 defenders on the field for a goal-line stand, for example, something Notre Dame did not do against Ohio State Sept. 23 but OU did against Texas on four straight goal-line stops.
Venables acknowledged Notre Dame being a man short was a teaching tool for him. Maybe that helped in the two weeks leading up to the Sooners’ celebrated stand in Dallas. Couldn’t hurt.
Now we’re on to defending the Hail Mary, another marginal topic most seasons but not for a 6-0 team with conference championship and College Football Playoff aspirations still in reach.
“There is a strategy to it,” Venables said Tuesday. “You’ve got guys in that back end who are supposed to be doing certain things. Sometimes they do a good job of it, sometimes not.”
It’s such a unique play that I wonder if coaches lean more on faith than fundamentals in the moment, that instinct and reaction override anything drilled in practice.
“You have to work it,” Venables said, leaning more into fundamentals. “It’s like everything.”
“That’s an area that we watch weekly,” Venables continued. “You’ve got boxers and scrapers (defensive back roles during a Hail Mary) and things like that. There’s a strategy to the rush. There’s a strategy to all of it.
“We actually put those things in front of our players to try to learn from other people as well off video tape. We put guys in that position accordingly. It’s part of your spring, part of your summer. And during the course of the week when you feel like, ‘Hey, this is one of those games,’ you rehearse it a little bit more.”
The Sooners looked like they knew what they were doing to finish the Longhorns.
They rushed five to try to harass Ewers and disrupt Texas’ timing. And while Ewers got his throw off just before defensive end Adepoju Adebawore hit him, Lawrence and safety Billy Bowman leaped above the end zone scrum and contested the throw before receivers AD Mitchell, Jordan Whittington or J’Tavion Sanders could do so.
Lawrence spiked the ball down on impact. He didn’t try to tip it up or sideways, or make the interception.
Or course, the Boise State defensive back swatted the ball down, too, but trailing Colorado State tight end Dallin Holker still made a diving catch while being man-marked. Some things no coach can account for.
Some things he can.
West Virginia surrendered Houson’s Hail Mary not just because their defensive backs didn’t control the end zone, but because coaches rushed three at Cougars quarterback Donovan Smith and had their Smith “spy” too far off the line of scrimmage to disrupt the quarterback or the play.
“I saw the ball in the air and I said, ‘We lost,’” West Virginia head man Neal Brown said postgame. “As soon as I saw the ball go up in the air, I knew it.”
The Mountaineers had a really good thing going, a fifth straight win all but assured, before collapsing on that final play.
The Sooners have the best thing going – still unbeaten with every goal intact. Thus the need to check every box every week, whether it’s having 11 defenders digging in for a goal-line stand or two defensive backs taking control of a Hail Mary.
Gundy says he checks his Hail Mary box every Friday during OSU walk throughs. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have both said they do so every Thursday at Alabama and Georgia.
The Monday after Texas, Venables said OU worked on Hail Mary defense “give or take once every three or four weeks.”
He also said he didn’t like that Ewers had the time he did. He thought his defensive backs in the end zone could have been “a little cleaner.”
“Just takes one time to see, ‘Oh my God, did they do that?’” Venables said that day. “What’s going to be our plan?’”
Now that West Virginia-Houston and Boise State-Colorado State have occurred, OU’s plan should include a weekly Hail Mary rehearsal. Because every game from here on out is, to borrow Venables’ phrase, “one of those games.”