Ask Jake Waters what he knew about the pop pass before he arrived at Kansas State and the senior quarterback responds with one word: “Nothing.”
Running back Charles Jones shrugs at the same question. “I had never seen it before.”
Their reactions seem strange, considering the Wildcats have used the pop pass so often and with so much success that it is gaining popularity across college football, even spreading to the NFL. A week ago, the Seattle Seahawks scored with the pop pass against the Green Bay Packers.
“I don’t know if they got it from us or what,” Waters said. “I doubt that, but I have definitely seen it take off, and it is definitely cool to say, ‘Hey, that looks an awful lot like the play we run.’”
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In time, the pop pass could join the option and the zone read as offensive staples. It will take another step toward mainstream Thursday when No. 19 K-State plays host to No. 5 Auburn in front of a national TV audience. The Wildcats used the pop pass more than anyone last season, and the Tigers executed it to perfection for a pivotal touchdown in a victory over Alabama.
Perhaps for the first time, opposing teams will run the pop pass in the same game.
For now, casual football fans likely require an explanation. The pop pass, an acronym for play-option pass, is a young play that adds a throwing element to the standard zone read. The quarterback analyzes the defense and chooses between a handoff to the running back or a keeper. The pop pass gives the quarterback a third option — fake the handoff and the keeper, then throw.
“With the traditional triple option you had a pitch guy,” explained Auburn coach Gus Malzahn during the SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday. “Well, this is just the triple option part of it, and the third option is the pop pass … That’s kind of where the game’s going right now with the quarterbacks that can successfully run a zone-read type concept. It’s just one more little wrinkle that you can use off it.”
The play is best utilized by dual-threat quarterbacks that pose a running threat. When properly executed, the quarterback will force defensive backs and linebackers into a split-second decision. Move up to stop the run or stay back to cover the pass? Either way, the quarterback has the advantage.
The most successful pop pass plays occur when a defender abandons his coverage assignment and goes after the quarterback, leaving a receiver open downfield. K-State fullback Glenn Gronkowski reaped the benefits of confused linebackers last season, getting open to catch five passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Zach Trujillo was also a fan of the pop pass, grabbing five passes for 111 yards and one touchdown.
“Last year was so successful,” Waters said. “We gained so many yards off it and grew with it. Then we found wrinkles to add to it and found ways to change it up and make it look like different plays and really put guys on defense in a bind. It’s definitely an integral part of our offense.”
Added Jones: “We are a run-first team. To add a play-option pass and force the linebacker to speed up and have either Glenn open in the flat or somebody open deep, that keeps every defense honest.”
Variations of the pop pass have been around since Tim Tebow started to throw jump passes at Florida, and beyond. K-State used it with former running back Daniel Thomas out of the wildcat formation and with former quarterback Collin Klein.
It remains in Snyder’s playbook.
“It is something we have been invested in for an awful long period of time,” Snyder said. “There are a lot of ways to do it, but it is a significant part of our offense.”
Still, the play had nothing more than a cult following last year.
K-State linebacker Jonathan Truman says he has never defended the play in a game.
“But we have seen it quite a bit throughout camp and we have some things we can do to combat it,” Truman said. “I think we are a little more used to it than other teams, going up against our offense in practice.”
The Wildcats will see the pop pass against Auburn, the team that boosted the play’s popularity when quarterback Nick Marshall hit Sammie Coates for a crucial touchdown against Alabama last year. The play caught Alabama off guard and helped Auburn win, beginning a run to the BCS championship game.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was apparently watching, because the reigning Super Bowl champions channeled Auburn when they needed points in the first NFL game of the season last week. Trailing 7-3, quarterback Russell Wilson faked a handoff to running back Marshawn Lynch and sprinted forward as if he was running the zone read. But, instead of trying to juke past oncoming defenders, Wilson flipped the ball to an open Ricardo Lockette for an easy touchdown.
Afterward, Carroll credited Auburn coach Gus Malzahn for the call, telling Peter King of Sports Illustrated, “That’s a great play. I kept telling (our offense this summer) it’ll work. It’ll work.”
He could have just as easily thanked Snyder.
“Anytime anyone has success doing something,” Malzahn said, “other teams will also try to do it.”
The play will get another close up on Thursday, when two of its biggest innovators go head-to-head.
One thing is for sure: K-State’s next wave of recruits will know about the pop pass before they step on campus.
“I can run it and I can pass it,” Waters said. “Just like a zone-read play, you can do a whole bunch with it. It took off last year and we are finding ways to add to it.”