In September 1990, Chicago Tribune columnist Joseph Tybor wrote a featured article about Notre Dame flanker Adrian Jarrell titled “Big Plays Becoming Jarrell’s Trademark.” The article recounts Jarrell’s game-winning touchdown reception in the season opener against Michigan and his improbable reception on the “Immaculate Deflection” the following week in East Lansing. According to Tybor, both of these clutch receptions came on a play known as “Comeback” out of the “Rip” formation in the Irish playbook.
Let’s take a look at the play and formation that earned Jarrell the nicknames “Money” and “Mr. Touchdown.”*
Tybor’s article describes the play “Comeback” in the following manner: “The flanker and end are split to one side. The end is supposed to run a short curl pattern, and, depending on who’s open, [the quarterback] makes his read.”
Whether he knew it or not, Tybor was actually describing the popular route concept known in football circles as “Smash.”
Smash is two-man route concept designed to vertically stretch the cornerback. The outside receiver runs a five to six-yard hitch route while the inside receiver runs a 12-yard corner route. The read is simple. If the cornerback drops to cover the corner route, the quarterback will throw the hitch; if the cornerback plays shallow, the quarterback will throw the corner route.
Although Smash is best known as a Cover 2 beater, it can be effective against most man or zone coverages, particularly when slot the receiver reads the cornerback and adjusts his route accordingly.
“Rip” was a single-back formation with trip receivers to the field and a tight end to the boundary. This type of formation keeps defenses off balance because the passing strength is set to one side of the formation and the running strength is set to the other side. Below is a diagram of the play “Comeback” out of the “Rip” formation from the Michigan game.
Ricky Watters and Adrian Jarrell lined up in the slot while tight end Derek Brown lined up wide to the field. Tight end Irv Smith lined up to the boundary, and fullback Rodney Culver was the lone running back.
Quarterback Rick Mirer likely had two reads on the play. His first read was Jarrell and Brown on the Smash concept. If they were covered, he would look for Smith on the backside drag route.
As you can see in the video, the Wolverines had seven defenders in the box (eight if you count the boundary corner) and did not appear to be pressing the receivers. Mirer faked the hand-off to Culver and rolled to the trips side of the formation. Right tackle Gene McGuire and right guard Tim Ryan pulled toward the playfake which helped hold the backside defenders. Watters set the edge with his block on the playside.
Mirer delivered a strike to Jarrell between safety Tripp Welborne and cornerback Todd Plate for the score. As Mirer explained after the game, “[Jarrell] was supposed to run to the corner of the end zone and find a hole.” Mirer had to make a quick read because Brown, who was not used to playing wide receiver, ran the wrong pattern and nearly led Plate directly into Jarrell’s route.
Although it was not cleanly executed, the play proved to the be the difference. The Irish would hang on to beat the Wolverines 28-24 and remain the top-ranked team in the country.
The Irish traveled to East Lansing the following week and found themselves trailing the Spartans 19-14 late in the fourth quarter. Holtz once again called “Comeback” out of the “Rip” formation. However, he modified the play slightly for the Spartans.
Culver would serve as a lead blocker for Mirer rather than carrying out a playfake. The only receivers running routes on the play were Tony Smith and Jarrell on the Smash. Mirer had max protection with eight blockers and none of the lineman pulled as they had against the Wolverines.
Michigan State had seven defenders near the line of scrimmage and soft coverage in the secondary. As Mirer rolled out, it appears that the Spartans were in Cover 3. The slot defender rotated to cover the flat while the corners and free safety each dropped to cover a deep third. Mirer’s throw hit cornerback Todd Murray squarely in the chest. Jarrell showed good athleticism and concentration by catching the ball off the ricochet and staying in bounds.
Although Jarrell made the catch, Mirer should have thrown to Tony Smith on the hitch based on the coverage. Murray aligned soft and immediately dropped to cover a deep third at the snap. Had Mirer made the correct read, he would have had plenty of time to throw to Smith before the slot defender rotated to the flat to take away the hitch. Nevertheless, Jarrell’s catch set up Culver’s game-winning touchdown with 34 seconds left.
Adrian Jarrell may have only recorded 21 catches in his injury-plagued career, but his two catches on the play “Comeback” out of the “Rip” formation will forever be part of Irish lore. If you are interested in reading about some other memorable plays from the Holtz era, check out this link.
*Special thanks to J.R. in Iowa for getting me a VHS copy of the 1990 Michigan game and Knute School Fool for uploading the clip to Youtube.