Pretty, Stupid, Full of Grace: Appreciating College Football's Hail Mary

From BYU's last-second victory over Nebraska to Doug Flutie's epochal heave, the Hail Mary is one of college football's most beautiful—and inexplicable—plays.

by Michael Weinreb
Sep 10 2015, 3:52pm

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

There it went, as it has thousands of times in the course of more than a century: a football, hanging high in the air and drifting toward the goal line as time expired. This time, it was thrown by a backup quarterback for Brigham Young University named Tanner Mangum, but in years past it has originated from the arm of Jim McMahon or Kirk Cousins or, most famously, an undersized Boston College quarterback named Doug Flutie.

Football is a sport replete with complex schemes that often hinge on simple schoolyard transactions. And so it went for BYU in its season opener against the University of Nebraska. Trailing by a point, too far away to kick a field goal, the Cougars had no choice: three receivers streaked toward the right side of the end zone. Mangum scrambled to his right, away from a cursory three-man Nebraska rush, and, playing against long odds, hurled the ball to a spot where eight Cornhusker defenders prepared to knock it down.

And yet it worked.

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It's not that the Hail Mary works all the time, or even most of the time. On the surface, a low-percentage bomb hurled into a crowd of defenders in a sport that prides itself on sophisticated scheming feels like it should never work. Yet it does, especially at the collegiate level, where there were at least nine successful Hail Marys last season, three in the Pac-12 Conference alone. It appears so uncomplicated to defend—just use a swarm of defenders to surround the receivers in the end zone, just don't screw around and try to make an interception, just knock the damned ball to the turf—but it succeeds because of its simplicity, because it plays off the notion that college football players are works in progress who often make simple mistakes. It succeeds because it is one of those plays that don't occur often enough for defensive coaches to spend their limited practice time on preparations. Even when National Football League teams practice Hail Mary defense, according to former pro defensive back Matt Bowen, they often jog through the motions instead of going at full speed.

How much time does a coach need to devote to a play that dates back, for most of their players, to an elementary school recess? "Probably need to spend more," University of Washington coach Chris Petersen admitted last season. "You see [it] like, every game come up."

And so defensive mistakes are made, which is how Mangum's pass landed in the arms of receiver Mitch Mathews, despite Mathews being flanked by several Nebraska defenders, none of whom could make their way in front of him to knock down the football. "We have spent time on it," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said about the Hail Mary this week. "We can correct how we play that. We were out of position with one player in particular who should have been underneath instead of trailing."

This happens more often than it should. In the chaos of a late-game situation, defensive calls get confused, as they did for the University of Southern California last season. The Trojans led Arizona State University at home, 34-32; the Sun Devils were 46 yards from the USC end zone, and quarterback Mike Bercovici threw a deep ball to receiver Jaelen Strong, and the Trojans were trapped between coverages, according to defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

"We had a guy getting lined up late," Wilcox said afterward. "At the end of it, we wanted to be in a [defense] so you could see the ball thrown and also defend the quick-game sideline throw."

This meant that, somehow, Strong managed to catch the ball without it even being contested—linebacker Hayes Pullard, closest to the play, confessed that he wasn't even supposed to be defending on the goal-line—and this meant that USC, by virtue of its own confusion, wound up playing some of the worst Hail Mary defense of all time.

BYU receiver Mitch Mathews catches a game-winner. --Photo by Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The modern etymology of the Hail Mary can be traced back to the piousness of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who coined the term after a last-second deep ball landed in the arms of Drew Pearson during a NFL divisional playoff game. But the history of the Hail Mary pass goes back further, beyond even the era of the San Francisco 49ers and the "alley-oop" passes from quarterback Y. A. Tittle to receiver R. C. Owens in the late 1950s. Its roots stretch all the way to the origin of the forward pass, and a man named Eddie Cochems, who coached at the University of St. Louis at the time the forward pass was legalized following the 1905 season.

The invention of the forward pass is often attributed to Knute Rockne while he was a receiver at Notre Dame in 1913. In truth, Cochems's team hurled the football all over the field in 1906, including during a 39-0 season-ending victory over Iowa, which ended with St. Louis throwing "a ball for twenty-five yards which was caught on the run and carried across the goal line for a touchdown," according to John Sayle Watterson's comprehensive history of college football.

More than a century later, no one has figured out the perfect way to either prepare for or defend the Hail Mary. Perhaps the three-man front that most coaches play in these situations is at fault, given that it allows a quarterback essentially all the time he needs to make an accurate throw, and that quarterbacks today are stronger, more accurate, and more able to elude the rush than ever. Perhaps Hail Mary situations should be practiced at full speed, at least occasionally, to allow defenders to become accustomed to the chaos they'll undoubtedly face in that moment.

I imagine successful Hail Marys will keep happening regardless, in part because football is an inherently simple game, and in part because luck and fortune and the flukishness of an oblong spheroid taking an odd path can never be entirely avoided. After BYU's Hail Mary succeeded on Saturday, with the ball in the hands of receiver Mitch Mathews, one of Cougars' other receivers got so irrationally exuberant that he ran over and hugged the referee. "Yeah," said Terenn Houk, the receiver in question. "It was pretty stupid."

And yet it was beautiful, too.

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