“The game is won on two things: turnovers and explosive plays. If you call four or five of them a game, and hit on half of them, that’s two explosives. Which is just a couple more closer to winning the game,” said Bell, who loads up four or five trick plays before each game and will do it again as he shapes his strategy for Saturday’s game at Indiana.
Maryland Coach DJ Durkin had credited the bold play-calling for jump-starting his team’s win 28-17 win over Michigan State last week, which began when Bell dialed up an early flea-flicker that caught the Spartans completely off guard. Senior quarterback Perry Hills tossed a lateral pass to wide receiver DJ Moore in the flat, in what appeared to be a routine quick-throw. But Moore held off on cutting up field, instead waiting for freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison to sneak behind the secondary.
His throw to a wide-open Harrison went about five yards too long, but it had sent a message that Bell was willing to use anything at his disposal. Later in the quarter, after Harrison had scored the game’s first touchdown on an eight-yard run, Durkin green-lighted a two-point conversion attempt under special teams coordinator Pete Lembo. The call was to use a “swinging gate” formation — which splits the formation on both ends of the goal line — and quarterback Caleb Rowe made a simple option pitch to fullback Kenny Goins Jr. to make it 8-0 in the first quarter. It resembled a play call in the team’s 50-7 win over Purdue earlier this month, when Rowe lined up in the same formation and tossed a quick two-point conversion throw to Goins after the team had scored its first touchdown in that game.
“The first time we did it, it was surprising. I didn’t really think we were going to do it. But once we did it the first time, I was like, ‘Yeah, they’re really serious about this,” Goins said.
Bell dipped back into his archive to pull out another wacky idea later in the first half against Michigan State, using Hills and Rowe on the field at the same time. The play didn’t go as planned — Hills threw to Rowe on a lateral, but nobody was open and the play resulted in a holding penalty. But that call illustrated Durkin’s point that each player on his team has a unique role. Rowe, once thought to be a contender for the starting quarterback job, has been buried on the depth chart but has played a hand in converting multiple two-point conversions. The play also captured part of Bell’s philosophy of taking big risks in order to receive big rewards. Each gadget play that he has called this season, including a 21-yard pass from Moore to Hills to set up a touchdown in a win over Florida International, is practiced each week as if it a nondescript passing or running play.
Whether Bell calls those plays depends on the rhythm of his offense. He took responsibility for the offense’s struggles in consecutive losses to Penn State and Minnesota earlier this month, when Maryland rushed for a total of 300 yards and was outscored 69-24. The production in both games was also undermined by turnovers and penalties, and — aside from a 66-yard touchdown off a screen pass to Ty Johnson against Penn State — explosive plays were difficult to come by. That changed against Michigan State, when Hills returned after missing the previous six quarters to a shoulder injury and helped facilitate Bell’s bold game plan, particularly on first downs.
“Really, it’s not about calling the trick play,” Bell said. “It’s about, do you feel comfortable running the next down? We did because we thought we had a good plan in the run game. There were some possession throws that we could create for Perry. So on first down, you kind of just let it fly.”
While the trick plays underscore a greater theme in Maryland’s team-wide emphasis on boldness and energy, those elements can also be found on a smaller scale within Bell’s offense. Aside from tempo, the system is predicated on using space and misdirection. Those fundamental concepts help open up the possibilities. The offense, which is fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (32.1 points per game) and sixth in total offense (410.4 yards) has been far from perfect, Bell has said. But it has never been predictable, either, and the trick plays are considered an important part of the scheme.
“It’s a big part, because we can execute them. We do it in practice, we execute them, and they look good,” said Johnson, who rushed for 115 yards last week. “We never ran anything like that last year or when I was in high school. … I think it gives a big surprise to defenses. We can run it. We can pass it. And then we can act like we’re running, and then toss it down the field to someone. It’s very effective.”