The play is called “Knee.”
For it to work, the quarterback must deliver an award-winning acting performance. He must become a thespian on the football field, a master in deception and deceit. Justin McMillan deserves all of the Oscars. He did it.
As Tulane’s quarterback, he orchestrated this ruse. Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Tom Hanks, they’d all be proud. Maybe even Brad Pitt, who used to own a house in New Orleans not far from where these theatrics unfolded.
The score between Tulane and Houston was locked at 31 with 18 seconds left. The Green Wave, with possession on its own 29-yard line, did not play for overtime—it only looked that way. The Wave lined up in the victory formation, 10 players bunched together with a running back deep as a precaution, prepared to kneel the ball. Then the thespian went to work. McMillan executed two fakes in a span of less than a couple of seconds. He feigned the act of taking a knee, and then he sold a quarterback sweep to the outside, even turning his back to the defense to fool them into thinking he had the ball.
What they didn’t see is that after his fake kneel, McMillan stealthily dropped the ball into tailback Amare Jones’s lap. Jones ran the opposite direction for 18 yards. On the very next play, McMillan fired a 53-yard game-winning touchdown pass to receiver Jalen McClesky to cap one of the wildest endings we’ll see this season.
Final score: Tulane 38, Houston 31.
Best Supporting Actor: Justin McMillan.
“We’ve always had that play in our back pocket,” says McMillan, who transferred from LSU last summer and is now 8-2 as Tulane’s starter. “As we practiced it in practice, you’re thinking, ‘This s—t ain’t ever going to work.’
“The name of the play is Knee. Just… Knee. Knee,” he pauses. “I was walking up there to the line real slow like. I was selling it. I was keeping everything normal. I kept my body low and head low. I put the ball in Amare’s lap, like a little league play, and then kept my back to the defense.”
If you haven’t seen the play, well, what the heck are you waiting for?
It is glorious, one of the better designed and executed trickerations you’ll see in college football. Will Hall, the first-year Tulane offensive coordinator, is the man behind it. Hall, 39, is a Mississippi-bred boy who played high school ball for one of the most successful prep coaches in the state’s history. Bobby Hall won more than 300 games and four state championships in Mississippi. As a young reporter fresh out of college in 2008, I stumbled upon a 53-year-old Bobby Hall bench pressing 350 pounds in a high school weight room. I turned around, briskly walked out and never returned to that weight room again. In no real surprise, he’s produced a football-crazed son. “I don’t think I’ve met a coach that loves football more than him,” McMillan says.
Will Hall had successful stints as a Division II head coach prior to stops on the offensive staff at Louisiana and Memphis before joining head coach Willie Fritz at Tulane. “Heck of a playcall by Coach Hall,” Fritz says in an interview in the wee hours of Friday morning while basking in the victory with his staff from a New Orleans watering hole. “A lot of time people get into that formation and they expect you to take the knee. It’s a sweep. If the edge player is not playing good discipline, you can run for a big gain.”
Houston defensive end David Anenih bit on McMillan’s fake and so did the linebackers. While McMillan played out his sweep to the right, Jones, with the ball hidden against his belly, stood frozen in the backfield, his offensive line in front of him selling the kneel-down portion of the fake.
They all stood mostly straight up before springing into action. Fellow running back Darius Bradwell and left guard Christian Montano turned into lead blockers. Before the carry, Jones had five rushes for 23 yards. He picked 18 on the play, positioning the Green Wave near midfield for the game-winner. Players practiced “Kneel” at least “20 times” since spring, Fritz says, but they hadn’t done it in the last three weeks, McMillan says. What made this even more incredible is that Jones did it all with a broken nose. Before the play, trainers had packed cotton material up each nostril to prevent bleeding. “His nose is at least fractured,” McMillan says. “He had a snot rocket. Shot both of them out.”
As for the final play, the goal was to get at least 13 yards to set up a game-winning field goal, Fritz says. Houston played a prevent defense with three deep safeties, and McMillan had three options: a crossing route, a deep post and an 18-yard dig route. The first two patterns cleared out the defense and the dig became open just for a split second. “You give me a slight window…” McMillan says. “I was prepared to just gun it. You’ve got to have ice in your veins. What I least expected happened.” Two converging defensive backs knocked into one another and McClesky out-ran a third to the end zone. “He’s got great speed,” says Fritz.
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That’s how you go 71 yards on two plays in 15 seconds. Overshadowed by the late-game heroics is (1) the meaning of the win, and (2) a rousing second-half comeback. The victory is significant in the American Athletic Conference West division race, as Houston and Tulane were projected as favorites. At one point early in the second quarter, Fritz’s team trailed 28-7. The Green Wave outscored Dana Holgorsen’s crew 31-3 the rest of the way. They had three players rush for more than 70 yards, including McMillan’s 15 carries and 91 yards. He went 7-for-20 through the air. “One of the worst first halves I’ve played. I was wound up. That’s the one game I lost last year was Houston,” McMillan says. “Before the game, I had a couple calls from back home telling me I better win. I take it on the chin. For this city, I wanted to make a statement. I’m from Dallas. I don’t want to lose to a Houston team.”
McMillan transferred to TU after three years as a reserve in Baton Rouge, graduating from LSU last summer to gain immediate eligibility elsewhere and then taking over mid-season as Tulane’s go-to guy. Maybe that year-and-a-half under Les Miles paid off after all. Miles’s acting skills are well-known in Louisiana. The now-Kansas head coach has appeared in four feature films and a half-dozen commercials. And now maybe a new football-affiliated thespian has emerged in the Bayou State: McMillan. He couldn’t have done it alone of course. He needed his teammates, confidence from his head coach and the gutsy call from his offensive coordinator.
“We are doing the play ‘Knee.’ It’s not a drill. You’re not taking a knee,” Hall told his offense in a sideline huddle before the play.
“People’s eyes got kind of big,” McMillan recalls. “The ref even thought I was taking the knee. Before the play, I looked at Amare. I was like, ‘Back up, we’re taking a knee. Give me some space.’ I couldn’t tell the refs we weren’t kneeling.”
He was acting right up until the snap—and afterward too.