You have probably already seen the 90-yard punt return touchdown North Texas put on Arkansas on Saturday, 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.
So SB Nation talked Saturday night with the two people most involved in the playâs 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.
The play required weeks of practice. And just to get that far, it needed buy-in from the return man. Thatâs not a given on a play that requires the returner to stand like a statue while oncoming coverage men charge toward him.
âYou canât just put that in on a Wednesday and then go, âHey! Trust me!ââ Biagi says.
So the coordinator told the returner in August, âHey, weâre gonna start practicing this during fall camp, and I need you to trust me.â
âAnd Keegan looked me square in the eyes and said, âCoach, letâs practice it until you know itâll work.â So instead of just practicing that once, my big thing is: donât practice it till you get it right,â Biagi says. âPractice it till you canât get it wrong.â
Biagi didnât 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.
âMake sure weâre watching everything at the beginning of the play, at the end,â Biagi says. âIt was just something we felt like this week, that it was the right opportunity to pull out.â
That it would be this play, the Hogsâ second punt of the afternoon, wasnât 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.
âHe said, âKeegan, weâre running it.â I said, âAll right, letâs do it then.ââ
Letâs start with Brewer, whose job was the simplest of all: catch the punt, play dead like heâd just made a successful fair catch, and then run like hell when the coast was clear. âWhen you know, go,â Biagi had told him.
Brewerâs blockers had a much more complicated set of tasks. First, Biagiâs staff instructed them to jam and block Arkansasâ coverage guys immediately at the line. Thatâs 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:
The goal isnât to hold them up forever, though. Eventually, would-be tacklers have to get close enough to make it believable that a fair catch wouldâve been called, and the farther upfield they get, the easier it is to slip behind them. UNTâs blockers had to do it just right as keys to both the lie and their teammateâs safety.
* It wasnât just the 11 players on the field. Keep reading.
Brewer clutched the ball tightly so he wouldnât fumble in case someone hit him. And he assumed a slightly defensive posture, where heâd protect himself if he were hit.
Thatâs all the answer to the question: Wasnât North Texas putting Brewer in extraordinary danger?
And wasnât Brewer scared?
âI was, definitely,â he says. âBut the punt that they kicked wasnât a high one, so it wasnât one where Iâd be totally scared, where theyâd 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.â
Here, weâre talking about this guy: No. 31, Grant Morgan.
âThe guy right in front of me was actually talking to me,â Brewer says.
âWhy arenât they blowing the whistle?â Brewer heard Morgan ask him.
Morgan peeked at the video board behind Brewer. The returner silently stared ahead.
âI just sat there and waited,â he says. âIt wasnât too hard.â
âYouâve got to play it all the way through,â Arkansas coach Chad Morris said afterward. âYouâve got to play through the whistle. That was my message.â
That part was important. The return would have to go along the North Texas sideline. The Mean Green knew Arkansasâ 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, whoâd 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.
âAnd then after that, it was just kind of âbuild a wall,ââ Biagi says.
âItâs almost like a movie scene,â 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 UNTâs offensive players thought the play was dead, they couldâve blown the whole thing.
âYou talk about a big operation,â Biagi says. âYouâve gotta have all hands on deck, because youâve gotta have the sideline coaches, the strength staff doing a great job keeping everybody off the field, âcause normally what happens is the offense is ready to take the field, run on, and get everyone fired up.â
If anyone does that mid-play, itâs a penalty.
North Texas could have alerted them not to instinctively whistle the play dead when Brewer was at his standstill. Itâs common for teams to communicate with refs about specific odd situations in advance.
âIâm not allowed to tell you that, if you donât mind,â Biagi says.
The other thing Biagi didnât say: if the returner on the play has an option read other than just to fair-catch it for real. Given the numbers, thatâd have to be a creative option.
Maybe the most famous prior example: Florida Stateâs Terrell Buckley did it to Syracuse in 1989, stalling for a moment before bursting through the Orange:
Footballâs so big that no one can say with confidence when the last attempt was before UNTâs. 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 â should â make it unrepeatable for a while. But it might not.
âI guess itâs like anything,â Biagi says. âYouâve gotta know and do great film study. Itâs kind of like everything goes around and travels full circle. Maybe somebodyâll try it, and maybe somebody wonât try it for 50 years, after Iâm long gone.â
But North Texas doesnât have any reason to swear it off permanently.
âYou never know,â Brewer says. âIt could happen again. But Iâm not really sure when.â