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Sneaky tactics

USC has made a science of having quarterbacks run the ball in short-yardage situations, even when opponents expect it.

September 16, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

In a system known for collecting scads of screeching, somersaulting yards, the most important play covers six quiet inches.

"Your will against their will," lineman Jeff Byers said.

In a program filled with nationally recognized stars, the most consistent play is run by a guy who is ends-up hidden under a pile.

"The bigger you are, the more you need to get down," offensive line coach Pat Ruel said.

In a USC pro offense marked by tricky terminology, the most enduring play has a two-word title that pulls no punches.

QB Sneak.

"That's what it's called, I'm serious," Byers said. "Somebody just says, 'QB Sneak on one,' it's that simple."

And suffocating.

As the third-ranked Trojans proved again Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, while they shine with the most dazzling of plays, they win with the dirtiest.

Four times quarterback Matt Barkley was asked to carry the ball into the teeth of the Ohio State defense on short-yardage third or fourth down. Four times, he earned a first down.

This happened twice on the game-winning drive, including a fourth-and-one sneak on the Ohio State 28-yard line that had Coach Pete Carroll jumping as Barkley dived.

"That might have been the play of the game," Carroll said.

Since Ruel joined the Trojans five seasons ago, it has been the play of the program.

"You know, I don't know why we even call it a 'sneak' anymore," Ruel said with a grin. "We do it so much, I don't think we're sneaking up on anybody."

With Carroll's bold insistence on trying to convert fourth-down plays, the Trojans seemingly use at least one sneak every game.

By the coach's accounts, only once during the last five seasons has the sneak been stopped.

"Matt Leinart slipped in that Rose Bowl against Texas," said Ruel, shaking his head, frowning, the memory still haunting.

Fittingly, perhaps the most famous play in the Carroll era was a quarterback sneak in which Leinart didn't slip.

The game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame in 2005, remember? The Bush Push?

Ruel would love to take credit for the play, but says he can't.

"That was not supposed to be a quarterback sneak, it was supposed to be a 'clock' play," he said, referring to Leinart's orders to spike the football and stop the clock. "That was a case of two guys just doing it on their own."

Now that time has passed, can Ruel admit that Leinart was clearly pushed into the end zone in violation of the rules?

"I just know if I was back there, I would have pushed him," the coach said with a grin.

It starts with Ruel, a burly, mustache-wearing 35-year line coaching veteran with a booming voice and hearty laugh.

"Coaching the line all these years, I'm all about eyeball to eyeball, muscle to muscle, chin on chin," he said. "The quarterback sneak is the perfect example of all that."

As a former assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, Ruel has worked the play with the likes of Brett Favre and Eli Manning, but it was a harder sell.

"They would do it, but they didn't like it much; they don't like to get caught under those huge piles where all sorts of bad things can happen," he said.

Not only don't the NFL quarterbacks like the sneak, but the head coaches are often fearful of it.

"In the NFL, they don't do it much, because who wants to send a $20-million investment diving into a rugby scrum?" he said. "Here, we don't have that problem."

It has since become such a Trojans trademark, Ruel is one of the few coaches in the country who actually grades quarterback sneaks. He is also one of the few who continually try to perfect it.

"I can't tell you how we do it," he said. "But we do it a little different."

The Trojans work the quarterback sneak so differently, not only is it no longer a sneak, but it's not really about the quarterback.

Said Byers: "It really doesn't matter who is back there, we've had the same success with several of them."

Said Ruel: "My ideal quarterback for the play? Somebody who is 4 foot 4 with stocky legs and a huge butt."

With his line pushing forward in tandem, with the play basically resting on their strength and dexterity, the main asset a Trojans quarterback needs is attitude.

"You hear the other team shouting, 'Watch for the sneak' and you know it's coming, the fight of all fights," Byers said. "Mentally, you have to be ready for it."

Barkley fits that mold. When I recently asked him about sneaks, he laughed in delight.

"I love running that play, getting behind those guys and just following them into the pack," he said.

Barkley loves it so much, Byers said he sounded giddy when he called it twice in Saturday's winning drive.

"He gets into the huddle and he's like, 'All right, another quarterback sneak, let's do it!' " Byers said. "It's nice to hear."

And after it's done?

In a football culture known for chest thumping and sideline bouncing, the success of USC's most important play is judged by guys lying on the field.

"After the sneak ends, you look around, and if you're lying somewhere ahead of where you started, then you know you got the first down," Byers said.

At which point, Hollywood's team has triumphed again on the back of a bunch of grips

Sneaky indeed.


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