Aztecs Employ Trick Play to Stay Undefeated … But Where Did it Come From?

San Diego State's bold play call has a long, somewhat secret history

This year the NCAA made a rule change to avoid overly long overtime games. If a game reaches a third overtime each team gets one shot at a 2-point conversion. On Saturday night the Aztecs and Utes were the first ones to experience it.

The very first play ever called in this format might go down as the greatest call in its history.

SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski went to a trick play made famous by the Eagles in their Super Bowl LII win over the Patriots now commonly referred to as the Philly Special.

The quarterback leaves the shotgun to act like he's communicating something he sees in the defense. The ball is snapped to the running back, who tosses to a wide receiver coming the other way, who throws to the quarterback that has (hopefully) slipped away unnoticed.

This kind of wrinkle is way out of character for an Aztecs team that prides itself on fundamentally sound football but it's been in the playbook since spring of 2020, during Hecklinski's first practice ever with the Aztecs.

"We have six to eight 2-point plays and that was the very first thing we did in our very first practice when I first got here," says Hecklinski.

At the time this development was not met with enthusiasm from head coach Brady Hoke.

"I look out there and they're running the Philly Special and I'm going, why are you running this? We've got so much offense to put in," says Hoke.

Over the next 18 months they would only run it twice live in practice, but Hecklinski knew they'd need something special at some point so he kept drilling it home.

"We walk through those plays twice," says Hecklinski. "We walk through them on Friday afternoon and on Saturday morning. And that's every Friday and Saturday."

That's a long time to wait and keep practicing something you're not using but the players (in this case running back Greg Bell tossing to wide receiver Jesse Matthews throwing the game-winner to quarterback Lucas Johnson) ran it to perfection.

"You never know. It's that one moment," says Hecklinski. "It's that one moment that you can win a game and every little detail matters in that play for us to be able to win the game."

As we know, the NFL is a copycat league. If one team does something well others will put their spin on it. What we saw San Diego State run was not really even the Philly Special.

"That version of it is not what Philadelphia ran. It's actually what the Lions ran about three years ago with Matthew Stafford."

The Eagles are not even the originators of it. The first time it was recorded on tape is believed to be 2012 when Clemson used the trick play on a 2-point conversion in a close game with Georgia Tech when current Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins threw the pass to QB Tahj Boyd.

Clemson's offensive coordinator at the time was Chad Morris. He was getting credit for designing the play until someone asked him about its inspiration. Morris said he didn't come up with the design. He got it off a napkin.

No, seriously.

Morris says a high school coach in South Carolina named Hunter Spivey concocted the play, which he called Detroit. One day the two met and got to talking. Spivey drew the play on a napkin, which Morris took to Clemson with him and showed to the entire world.

A decade later it helped the Aztecs upset another Pac-12 school and stay undefeated, adding another layer to the legacy of a special play that's carved out its own piece of football history.

The Aztecs host Towson on Saturday with a chance to go to 4-0. Hopefully won't need another play like this to win. But, if they do, it's nice to know they have some in the bag of tricks.

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