The story behind the fake punt
November, 12, 2011
By Pedro Moura | ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Kyle Negrete came to the line of scrimmage knowing he might get his first-ever chance to execute a fake punt for the Trojans, but whether he'd punt or run for it all depended on what one of his teammates yelled out once they lined up.
It was midway through the second quarter, with the Trojans facing a 4th-and-9 at their own 45-yard line. USC was up 7-3.
Then fullback Ross Cumming, playing the right guard spot on the Trojans' punt team, picked up the Huskies' front and called for the fake when he saw a ton of potential open area where Negrete would be running.
So Negrete got the snap from Chris Pousson and took off running, sprinting down the left side of the field for a 35-yard gain. He was supposed to slide after he secured the first down, but the former linebacker flattened a Washington defender and ran over to the USC sideline to celebrate with his teammates after the big gain.
Five plays later, USC scored its second touchdown of the game and the rout was on. Negrete's run ended up being the game-changer in an eventual 40-17 Trojans win at the Coliseum.
"It took our energy level from here," said cornerback Nickell Robey, holding his hand in front of his face, "to here," reaching up as far as he could. "As a team, it took us all the way to the top. Our momentum was great."
Here's how it happened: As soon as Matt Barkley's third-down pass to Robert Woods went incomplete, USC head coach Lane Kiffin started thinking about how he was in an ideal situation to call one of the fake punts the Trojans practiced so frequently leading up to this game.
He consulted with special teams coach John Baxter, found he agreed with him, and told the punt team to go for it if they saw Washington not lined up in a punt-block formation.
Cumming's the quarterback of the punt unit, so, a few seconds before the snap, he looked up and saw what he was hoping to see. He got just that and told the other 10 members -- in code, of course -- to prepare for the fake. Tight ends Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Rhett Ellison led the way for Negrete's block by taking out the three Huskies who did rush the line upon the snap, and Negrete wasn't touched until he was halfway down the field.
"You just gotta go with it," Kiffin said after the game. "There wasn't a lot of juice at that point and the ball was getting close to midfield and it was a look that we felt good with, but that's who we are. We believe in our players and we put it on our players to make the plays, and fortunately they executed."
Were the coaches nervous? A failure there would give Washington the ball on the wrong half of the field and put the Huskies in position to take the lead with a few first downs and a successful drive. But they said they were confident in the call that they went and confident it'd be executed to their liking.
"Once you're out there, you either got the right scenario or you don't," Baxter said. "It's just kind of that simple.
"Ultimately it's always the players in the game who make the play."
Much has been made of Baxter's special-teams prowess, and for good reason. Almost every week, USC produces a big play in that facet of the game. But Saturday's was the Trojans' first fake punt attempt in Baxter's two-year tenure.
"We have a lot of these spark plays," said Negrete, a redshirt junior walk-on and the grandson of longtime Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney. "But it was at that moment that it was time for us to call it."
Kiffin's only complaint? Negrete didn't slide. He kept on running and went into a head-on collision with a Husky defender around the 23-yard line. He fell forward to the 20 after the hit.
"He told me (to slide) before the game," Negrete said afterward. "But I told him after that there was no way I was going to slide.
"I haven't seen green grass like that since I was playing back in high school."