Have you ever stopped to think of where the term “Hail Mary” came from in football?
The term first became popular after a December 28, 1975 NFL playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings when Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach analyzed his game-winning, 50-yard touchdown pass by telling the media, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary” (a prayer from his Roman Catholic background).
In football, Hail Mary is a term used to represent a player letting the ball go and hoping for a miracle, knowing he’ll need a little extra help to make that pass a successful one.
Hail Mary passes aren’t rare. We probably see a few a week when teams have the ball from a long distance away with only seconds remaining in either half and teams are looking for extra points or the winning score. But the extremely low completion percentage of those passes is what gives the play its name.
One successful Hail Mary is special. Two in one game just seconds a part is borderline impossible. But in the SEC, the limits of possibility seem to be tested all the time. In this case, it was Georgia and Tennessee hitting back-to-back Hail Marys to swap leads.
Though these two plays have the same definition, their successes were for different reasons. In today’s Scheme or Skill, we’ll break down which was which, and how much of a miracle each one really was.
Georgia’s miracle not only got a little help from above, but also down below.
For some reason, Tennessee decided to play tight press coverage with a crowded box while up by four with 19 seconds left. It wasn’t a bad formation, but the execution of it makes you scratch your head. If you play tight coverage, you have to get pressure, especially when you know receivers are just going deep. But instead of a blitz from the linebackers, the Vols had them drop only a couple feet into coverage to worry about the running back and tight end, who were not threats in this situation.
By doing this, they voluntarily gave Georgia’s wide receivers one-one-one matchups. When the inside receiver ran a post route toward the middle, the safety had to help over the top, which gave the outside man, Riley Ridley, space.
If the linebackers started at the first-down marker and dropped back in the middle, the free safety would have been able to help on the sideline, and this touchdown may have never happened.
For that, I have to label this play a scheme play. The ability from quarterback Jacob Eason to step up in the pocket and deliver that ball perfectly in stride to Ridley is NFL-esque. However, Georgia’s play-calling and exploitation of UT’s odd defensive setup is what got Ridley open. Without that, it wouldn’t have mattered how perfect the throw was.
The setup to Tennessee’s Hail Mary pass looked much different in the pre-snap stage.
All but one defensive back was playing in off coverage, with four defenders to the left of the image standing on the goal line. This was all-out prevent coverage. Tennessee didn’t do anything special on this play. They put three wide receivers on the side they were going to throw the ball and one receiver on the opposite side just to keep the defense honest.
They hiked the ball, the offensive line bought the time, and Josh Dobbs said his Hail Mary.
It was answered.
This play has to be label a skill play because the play-calling was as simple as can be: go deep. Dobbs put it right where it needed to go and Jauan Jennings made a catch Vols fans won’t soon forget.