Back in 1985, the Utes hired Jim Fassel as the new head coach of their football team. Previously, as the offensive coordinator for Stanford, Fassel had made a name for himself as an offensive wizard – coaching quarterbacks like John Elway to national prominence. His mandate as coach of the Utes was clear – inject some excitement into the (then) stagnant Ute offense. And one of his first steps toward doing this was to institute a unique offensive formation which came to be known as “The Duck” play.
The first time the Duck was used it was called the Daffy Duck formation. Later, a few subtle variations were added in formations called Donald and Daisy Duck. But the basic premise of the Duck was the same for each instance. The idea was to gain an advantage over the defense in short yardage situations by suddenly shifting blockers and eligible receivers to unusual positions spread across a split line of scrimmage.
Judicious use of this formation would cause confusion on opposing defenses, even if they had run up against it previously in the game or seen it on tape. The quarterback seemed vulnerable, but he had several options to which he could throw the ball quickly – especially if the corners decided to blitz. And, if the defenders hung back in coverage, the offensive line could easily bulldoze ahead so the QB could run for the necessary yardage.
The Duck play was used during several games in between 1985 and 1988, and it became so famous (among Ute fans anyway) that the fans started to bring duck calls to the games. On those occasions when the team would move into the formation, a great shout of excitement would arise out of the crowd.
During Jim Fassel’s 5-year tenure at Utah, he compiled 25 wins. Unfortunately, he also compiled 33 losses. His offenses were always ranked among the best in the nation, but his defenses were always among the worst. And so, in 1990, Ron McBride’s smash-mouth style of football was brought in to replace Fassel’s offensive fireworks. And the Duck play was history - - or so it seemed.
In 1993, McBride’s Utes were playing their second consecutive bowl game – the Freedom Bowl, in Anahiem, California. In the first half, they fell behind to the USC Trojans 28-0, and things looked grim. But midway through the third quarter, the Utes came to life to score 19 unanswered points. They scored three touchdowns, but had missed an extra-point, so McBride elected to go for a two-point conversion. The Utes lined up in their traditional one-back set, then suddenly shifted into the Duck formation. The Trojan D didn’t know what to make of this, so they blitzed, allowing QB Mike McCoy to hit a wide-open Jamal Anderson (RB) in the end zone. This brought the Utes within one TD of tying the game. Unfortunately, USC was able to run out the clock to stave off one of the fiercest comebacks in Ute history.
The next season (1994) turned out to be one of the most spectacular in Ute history. And, again, the Duck play had a significant role. By week #7 of that year, the Utes were undefeated at 6-0 and ranked #18 in the national polls. But they were facing their biggest challenge of the season – a trip to Fort Collins, Colorado to face undefeated Colorado State who was ranked at #12 in the polls.
Early in the third quarter of that game, the Utes were trailing 16-17, but they put together a nice drive that resulted in a TD. Deciding to go for two, the Utes once again shifted into the Duck formation (now called their “Anahiem” play). Brent Mussburger and Dick Vermeil were calling the game for ABC, and Mussburger shouted, “What is this?” Thinking quickly, Vermeil said, “Yeah, I think I’ve seen something like this, back in the old Pop Warner days – they called it ‘Formation Zero.’” And once again, the Utes executed the play to perfection, with Mike McCoy hitting a wide-open running back in the end zone.
On their next possession, Colorado State fumbled the ball and Utah recovered. Holding a tenuous 24-17 lead, the Utes drove to the 4-yard line, where they stalled until it was 4th down. In a gamble, McBride decided to go for it, and he once again called the “Anahiem” play. This time, CSU covered the running back, so McCoy flipped the ball to the tight end behind the line of scrimmage on the other side of the field. The TE had two linemen as blockers against one defensive back, so he easily rushed the ball into the end zone.
CSU eventually made the game close, but Utah came out of Fort Collins with a tremendous 45-31 victory. And after that game, the Duck (or Anaheim) play was only used on a few occassions - with mixed results.
When coach Urban Meyer has took over the reigns of the Ute Football program, he implemented an exciting and innovative offense, but he never used the Duck play. In 2005, coach Meyer left for Florida leaving long-time Ute Assistant Kyle Whittingham as the new head coach. Coach Whittingham was an assistant coach back when Utah used the Duck formation against Colorado State. This begs the question: will the Duck play again enter the playbook under coach Whittingham? Who knows, on some fateful day when the Utes are again in need of a quick short-yardage strike, perhaps the coaches will look deep into their history and the Duck play will once again rise to baffle the opposing defense.