Anatomy of a Play: Heater, the Play That Decided the Outback Bowl

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Anatomy of a Play: Heater, the Play That Decided the Outback Bowl
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The 2010 Outback Bowl came down to one play: a fake field goal attempt by Northwestern from the five yard line on fourth and goal in overtime after Auburn scored a field goal to lead 38-35 after their possession.

An added wrinkle was that starting kicker Stefan Demos, who had missed three field goals and had an extra point blocked on the day, was injured following his last attempt (a 37 yarder that bounced off of the right upright) during that same Northwestern overtime possession (a penalty was called on Auburn that kept the drive alive).

Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald was faced with a tough decision with a few options.  He could send out backup kicker Steve Flaherty to try a game-tying, 23-yard field goal, with knowledge that Flaherty has only one kick in his collegiate career, a successful extra point attempt against Towson earlier this season.

He could send the offense back out to go for the win (after it gained just four yards after having first-and-goal at the nine).  Or, he could call up a fake field goal to try and fool Auburn and take advantage of the situation.

He chose the final option, which in the postgame press conference Fitz said took him "a nanosecond" to call.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik knew something was up when Northwestern sent in some different personnel on the field goal unit (backup QB Dan Persa, in particular), and kept his regular defense on the field and called for them to focus on the fake.

Northwestern dialed up the play called "Heater," which was known as "Fastball" under coach Randy Walker.  It is a play that relies on deception and worked successfully for the Wildcats against Wisconsin in 2003 for a first down and Illinois in 2005 for a touchdown (both NU victories).

First, one of the blocking ends, in this case Mark Woodsum, goes into motion around behind the formation.  Most everyone else, including most linemen, stay in a semi-standing position but hold just long enough to allow the snap (the snapper is in a down position). 

The snapped ball is taken under center by a player in the backfield, in this case backup QB Persa, then immediately handed to another backfield player to his left, under his legs, in this case WR Zeke Markshausen.

The initial ballcarrier, Persa, continues to his left along with the player already in motion (Woodsum) as well as the kicker, in this case backup Flaherty.  The intention is to obtain the attention of the defense and draw them to the left side of the formation.

In the meantime, the current ballcarrier, Markshausen, is supposed to stay stationary behind the line for approximately two seconds before bolting to his right, hopefully finding enough room to run for the touchdown.  Now, where did the play go wrong for the Wildcats?

First, the Auburn defense was not fooled and did not follow the decoys to the left side of the formation, leaving them in a position to make a play on Markshausen on the right side.

Second, Markshausen took off to his right almost immediately instead of waiting the prescribed period for the defense to get confused and giving his blockers a chance to get in position.

Finally, the Auburn CB Neiko Thorpe went wide and shed Corey Wootton's block to seal off the outside corner while his teammates flowed towards the play.  That allowed him to force Markshausen out of bounds as Zeke didn't have an opening to cut it back inside.
Right Call?

First of all, few if any fans and commentators can blame Fitz for going for the win on that play.  He had a backup placekicker in the game and even his regular placekicker wasn't his usual self on the day, making the field goal try to tie a gamble in itself.  Northwestern had so many things go in its favor just to be in this position, Fitz was wise to go with the flow and try for the win then and there.

The questionable part, though, was his selection of play.  Auburn knew that Demos was injured and was wary of the personnel on the field and were definitely in a position to defend the fake as a field goal would just tie the game and send it into a second overtime.  That made the fake a lot less effective.

He did make the right call by sending the players out there to snap and run the play as quick as possible after calling it, which at the very least gave it a chance.  Both teams had a timeout remaining and a stoppage in play would have given the defense time to prepare even more.

Also, one of NU's trick plays, "Yankee," was used minutes earlier to score a two point conversion to tie the game in regulation.  NU was forced to do that thanks to a blocked extra point earlier in the game.

NU could have put the offense back on the field for one more play, which may seem wise against a regular defensive set, but they had been rather ineffective in overtime, barely gaining one first down themselves and getting another thanks to a penalty.  On the three previous plays, NU had gained just four yards on an incompletion and two Kafka scrambles.

It's clear that Fitz wanted to go for the win and made a gutsy call that put them within two yards of Northwestern's first bowl victory in 61 years.  Unfortunately, the Wildcats came up just short and despite an entertaining and unscriptable run up to that final play, couldn't come away with that elusive bowl win.

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