Oklahoma didn’t have a great showing versus Notre Dame, but they did show one cool play: a fake screen and downfield pass, complete with pulling lineman in the fourth quarter, which directly led to an Oklahoma score that tied the game up at 13-13 (after which the wheels promptly fell off for OU).
On the play, Oklahoma lined up in a four wide set, and sent the runningback in motion to the left, to draw attention from the defense. You can see Manti T’eo heading that way just after the snap. The outside receiver to the right runs his screen path: two steps up, retrace your steps down the stem and back to the quarterback. Meanwhile the right guard also does his screen action: pass set and then release flat down the line of scrimmage. The rest of the linemen, however, pass protect (Notre Dame did not show a blitz, and if they did it would have made some sense for OU to check out of the play), and the other three receivers release downfield.
The outside receiver to the screen side, Jalen Saunders, releases outside as if he is blocking the screen, then runs straight downfield. Once he hits a depth of 8-12 yards he can adjust his route. If the defense is totally faked out with no safety in the picture, he’d just continue down the seam. As it was, the safety was still over the top, so he flattened his route into more of a post or dig, and caught the ball behind the fooled linebackers for a big catch and run. (Go to 1:44:10 if it doesn’t load there automatically.)
This is not the first time I’ve seen this specific play, nor this breed of fake-screen combined with a downfield route. I saw Houston, under Kevin Sumlin back in 2009, run this exact play. In that play, the defense was so fooled the receiver simply kept his route vertical for a touchdown, whereas Saunders flattened it under the safety in this example.
More generally, teams have begun increasing using these “pop” screens with success. I call them “pop” screens because they are like a traditional play-action “pop” pass — a fake to suck up the linebackers and to throw behind them. The only difference between this and traditional play-action is the fake is for a type of pass play rather than a run, but if you think about it’s no different than the fake draw, which is itself a counter to dropback passing. Moreover, it can be extremely effective because the guys who are really selling the fake is not so much the quarterback or receiver but the linemen: if a linebacker sees the offensive guard pulling flat to block for a screen, everything he’s been taught tells him to trigger and go blow up the screen. Instead, he gives up the pass play behind him.
These plays have a rich history. LaVell Edwards at BYU used to run a version of his Y-Cross play where his line blocked a screen pass to the left for his halfback, “H”, and the quarterback read the weakside linebacker: If the linebacker came up for the screen, the quarterback threw it to the tight-end on the deep cross; if the linebacker dropped for the cross, he dropped it off to the halfback for the screen with blockers in front. As is typically the case with football, no matter how good your idea is, there’s a good chance someone thought of it before you did.