With only a yard to go, give or take a foot, it looks as if a quarterback could take a snap from center, fall forward and get a first down almost every time.
If only it were that easy. Because it’s not, it has become common for teams to line up in shotgun formation on short-yardage plays, forgoing the possibility of a quarterback sneak for the ability to use the entire playbook.
It gives a defense more to think about while the offense gets to stick with what it does best.
The sneak, conservative coaches’ favorite short-yardage play for decades, is not even in the playbook for some shotgun teams.
It may seem counterintuitive to take four steps back to move one step forward — and it can drive fans crazy when it doesn’t work — but coaches don’t see it that way.
— David Shaw, Stanford coach
“It was so taboo not too long ago to even attempt to do that,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Nowadays so many teams just live in the shotgun. I think it’s less taboo now.
“Outside of probably about four or five teams in college football and a couple of teams in the NFL, the quarterback sneak is diminishing before our eyes.”
Stanford is one of those teams keeping the quarterback sneak alive. The Cardinal play with the quarterback under center a lot more than most of the Pac-12’s spread teams.
Teams such as Utah.
The Utes have been using a spread offense for several years, but they are all in these days. Coach Kyle Whittingham said his team had a small package of plays it would run from under center, but they’ve gotten rid of it.
“We’re one of those spread teams that just does everything out from under center,” he said. “You see shotgun teams or spread teams that try to get under center on rare occasions, often times there’s center-quarterback exchange issues because they’re not used to doing it.”
Whittingham said the Utes are fine with giving up the quarterback sneak to keep their offense consistent and simple.
Against USC last Saturday, Utah had first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 12 seconds left and trailing 21-17. A tailback run from the shotgun gained nothing on first down. On second, quarterback Travis Wilson took the snap about 4 1/2 yards behind the line with a running back to his right, two receivers split wide, another in motion and a tight end. Wilson rolled right and threw what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown pass to Kaelin Clay.
Clemson ran a fourth-and-1 play in overtime against Florida State earlier this season out of the shotgun and its tailback was stuffed for no gain. That drew some criticism, but really a hand off out of the shotgun is not much different than one from under center.
“On most run plays the quarterback takes the snap from center and retreats to hand the ball off anyway,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “So I think the exchange point whether you’re in shotgun or under center is pretty much the same spot in the backfield, about 4 1/2 yards.”
Still, as a former defensive coordinator, Whittingham definitely see the benefits of the quarterback sneak — and doesn’t necessarily mind it fading away.
“I think a quarterback sneak is tough to stop when it’s fourth-and-less-than-a-yard,” he said.
Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth said when he sees an opponent line up in shotgun with only inches to go, he’s happy.
“They’re taking that ball further away from where it’s got to end up,” he said.
Toth said the spread teams that are toughest to stop in short-yardage situations have power running quarterbacks, such as Kansas State when it had Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein.
With Klein in the backfield, along with a tailback, Kansas State would have two running options, or another blocker, along with receivers on the outside that still needed to be covered.
“What it does is it puts a lot of stress on my corners,” said Toth, who faced Klein when Toth was with Texas A&M in the Big 12. “I’ve got to isolate them on the perimeter to stop two-back run.”
The problem for spread teams when they go under center on short-yardage plays is often they telegraph what’s coming.
“You know when they are under center they are going to run quarterback sneak,” Toth said.
Many quarterback sneaks are run these days with offenses hurrying to the line of scrimmage, trying to catch the defense before it stacks the middle.
Penn State used that sneak with Christian Hackenberg effectively a couple times Saturday during its late game-tying drive against Ohio State.
On the other hand, Mississippi, which runs most of its offense out of the shotgun, was stuffed trying to rush a sneak by Bo Wallace on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter of a loss to LSU.
The other problem with the quarterback sneak is, as easy as it looks when it works, it’s not so simple to execute.
“That snap causes more fumbles,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
Mora said UCLA’s spread offense has used the sneak about five times this season, but you might not see it again.
“The last time we used it, it didn’t work,” he said, “so I might have thrown it out.”