When I played soccer growing up, I eventually settled into life as a defender. But the more time I spent defending, the less comfortable I got on the attack. Sometimes discomfort grew into downright panic. Once, implausibly, I found myself one on one with the opposing goalkeeper, and despite being perfectly capable in that sort of situation during training, my brain started shrieking things like “How do I work this?” and “Where is that large automobile” and then I stepped on my own foot and fell down in a thoroughly shamed heap.
I think that this sort of perplexed seizing-up is the only thing that can even begin to explain what’s going on with Illinois punter Blake Hayes on this play:
First of all, well done to Nebraska for universally biting on this. The lemming-like* charge down the field without a punt actually taking place is actually the opposing side of the coin from of what I described earlier: you see a play and execute on it enough times and your body will do exactly what it’s meant to without any input from reality. Almost to a man, Nebraska’s coverage team found themselves tossed backwards by sheer mental inertia. It’s awesome.
*Lemmings don’t actually do this, as far as I know, but I like my shorthands.
Second, lmao. Blake Hayes, what on earth are you doing? Like a certain idiot sportswriter bearing down on goal, he had no plan and no way to even make a decision. Should he go left? Should he go right? For several seconds, and with 30 yards of empty space ahead of him, he tries to do both, which works about as well as you’d expect.
Then, horror! For he is about to be tackled by a ghost!
Standing on the 33, with six yards to go for a first down and no Huskers within the same zip code, Hayes breaks left. When you first see the video, it almost looks like he’s suffering from some sort of glitch, as though we’re living in a simulated world and they sort of half-assed building the Nebraska-Illinois game in November 2020 (which would be fair enough).
But the more you watch, the clearer it gets. You can see what’s happening: Hayes looks up, locks eyes with Levi Falck, who is almost 20 yards away, and decides to shake him off with perhaps the most ill-timed juke in the history of college football. It doesn’t matter, of course. Falck and his teammates can’t get anywhere near Hayes whatever he does, and he lands the first down easily.
Part of the confusion might have come from the fact that this wasn’t called as a fake punt at all. Hayes simply saw every Nebraska player bar Phalen Sanford running away, and went for it on his own:
I didn’t actually get the green light, so I might be in trouble on that. I’m just thankful I got the first down because if I didn’t, it might be a different story … My first thought was to hold onto it, like I did last week and try to get the coverage downfield. I don’t know, it;’s a bit of a blur, to be honest. I started running one way and then ran to the left. I actually thought about punting it. That’s kind of why I took that juke step [ed: the first one, where he jukes right] with no one around me. Then I kind of realized I was past the line of scrimmage. I just tried to find the down marker and head for the sidelines.
Fake punts are always cool, but I think the fact that Hayes clearly has no idea what he’s doing makes this one especially great. Despite agitating for a chance at a fake punt — perhaps because he agitated for a chance at a fake — he seems completely unprepared for what might become of him when one actually seems to be working. And so he scampers about almost at random, a frightened squirrel holding a precious, precious acorn, hoping not to get eaten by wolves.