Anatomy of a Hail Mary Shows It's Part Luck, but Part Defensive Breakdown Too

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterSeptember 30, 2013

January 02, 2012; Orlando, FL, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (1) catches the hail mary pass for a touchdown at the end of the first half of the 2012 Capital One Bowl against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at the Florida Citrus Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

The Hail Mary is one of football's greatest joys, a heave downfield to waiting receivers in a last-ditch effort to put points on the board. Hail Marys are low-percentage tosses, but when they work, the jubilation from the successful team is electric.

To be successful, a Hail Mary is generally equal parts defensive failures and a little "right place at the right time" good luck. Certainly, a quarterback with a strong arm is a must, as is a group of receivers working to get the best shot at the ball, but the Hail Mary is still one of the few plays where defense still has the advantage.

Although many folks believe any desperation pass to end a half is a Hail Mary, the truth is that every team has its actual Hail Mary look. It's a play designed to get a group of receivers into the end zone. Players look to tip the ball while others catch the ball off the tip.

Jameis Winston's big play against Boston College was certainly a prayer tossed up by the young quarterback to end the half.

However, it was not a Hail Mary, as many keep labeling the play. Winston's success came on a scramble drill. Safety Spenser Rositano gets caught flat-footed, allowing Kenny Shaw to get open for the touchdown heave.

Shaw started the play running a deep out to the sideline, while fellow receiver Rashad Greene runs a hitch to occupy the corner. What transpires next is a scramble drill, as Winston breaks tackles. Shaw takes his sideline route upfield, the safety gets exposed in one-on-one coverage as he follows scramble drill protocol, and Winston finds Shaw open down the field and delivers.

Winston's scramble drill let Shaw get upfield against Rositano
Winston's scramble drill let Shaw get upfield against Rositano

Great play for Florida State, big toss by Winston and a game-changer that ultimately helped the Seminoles regain the lead, which they would not relinquish.

But, not a Hail Mary.

Hail Marys start with a plan. After all, there is a reason teams practice the last-ditch effort. For the quarterback, the plan is to buy time for his receivers to get downfield. The receivers have to get set up down the field as they await the quarterback's toss.

For Michigan State, the tight end Dion Sims is the big body up front, set to leap and either make the catch or tip the ball to keep it alive. Keith Nichol, a former quarterback turned wide receiver, is there to field the front catch, and B.J. Cunningham is in the back for the rear tip.

That is a traditional Hail Mary setup. Here's where the defensive failures and dose of good luck come into play.

In the case of the Michigan State Hail Mary, Nichol is not the "luck" for the Spartans; the receiver did his job by design. Rather, the luck is Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin's receiver specifically in the game for this play, mistiming his jump and not thwarting the play by knocking the ball down.

Wisconsin holds tight end Sims, stopping him from going to high-point the ball. The Badgers also knock the ball away from Cunningham, stopping the touchdown.

Unfortunately, the special player inserted for his ability, in theory, to judge the football's trajectory misjudges the ball. The defensive failure costs Wisconsin the game.

The same holds true for the South Carolina's Hail Mary in the Capital One Bowl.

Here, the Gamecocks have a similar setup to Michigan State's big play. Alshon Jeffery is in prime position to jump or play the back ball, while tight end Rory Anderson sets up to leap as well. Ace Sanders, the shortest of the three targets, is ready to grab the ricochet.

Connor Shaw launches the ball as far as he can, leaving his players just short on the end zone. But much like Michigan State, thanks to a little luck and a defensive miscue, the Gamecocks score. Defensively, Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard, 2011's Defensive Back of the Year in the Big Ten, fails to secure the tackle, allowing Jeffery to go from the 4-yard line to the end zone for the score.

As for the luck portion of the equation, Jeffery creates his own by pushing Nebraska's Yusef Wade in the back, freeing himself up to grab the ball by high-pointing it instead of waiting to play the tip for Anderson. He was lucky not to get called for the push-off, but again the luck and defensive mistake combine to create a successful play.

In 2010, the Auburn Tigers use the same setup as Michigan State and South Carolina. Cam Newton buys time by rolling to his right, then launches the ball down the field hoping for the best. Darvin Adams is in the back, hoping to catch a tip, while Terrell Zachary plays the leaper position and Kodi Burns races to catch a forward tip.

On this play, the luck for Auburn really comes in the form of the defensive failure and an easy deflection to grab. In an end-of-half scenario, the Gamecocks have defensive backs covering air and players falling down. The icing on the cake is DeVonte Holloman tipping the ball up and back, instead of straight down and either forward or out of bounds.

Adams easily pulls in the touchdown as Stephon Gilmore falls at his feet and D.J. Swearinger runs himself out of the play.

That is the Hail Mary. Teams practice it in camp, they work on it during the week, and they go into the possibility of throwing a Hail Mary with a plan.

Defenses also practice the Hail Mary, including working in receivers, tight ends and specific personnel to stop the worst from happening.

Usually, the defense wins, which is why successful Hail Mary passes are celebrated in tremendous fashion. The plays tend to just be long incomplete passes or meaningless interceptions to end the half.

But, when everything comes together, when the defense fails and a little luck prevails, the Hail Mary pass can make college football magic happen.