Trick Plays: The Tower Play and Pyramid Defense
Amos Alonzo Stagg argued in 1927 that two themes dominated football's first sixty years. One was the game's gradual shift to valuing touchdowns more than field goals and extra points. (The point values set in 1883 awarded two points per touchdown, four for the kick after touchdown, and five per field goal.) The second theme was that players and coaches consistently innovated, pushing the game in slightly different directions. In some cases, they found loopholes or cheated in ways that gained acceptance and became part of the game. For example, rugby's offside rule prohibited teammates from running in advance of the ball carrier, so some teams had teammates run alongside the ball carrier to interfere with defenders. This warding or interfering tactic gained acceptance before transforming into offside teammates running ahead of the ball carrier. Now referred to as blocking, it became a core element of the game.
Other innovations or trick plays did not gain acceptance because they were ineffective, dangerous, dishonorable, or for any number of different reasons. In many cases, the rule-makers closed those loopholes or otherwise prohibited certain activities. Such closures are a significant reason college football's rule book grew from several pages in 1876 to 236 pages in 2021.
One behavior not prohibited by the rules was a player or players lifting a teammate. The rules banned lifting opponents, which was consistent with blockers being unable to extend their arms while blocking, but lifting a teammate was allowed as long as the teammate was not carrying the ball and the lift did not move the ball towards the goal line. Of course, the primary reason lifting teammates was not banned was that no one had identified a competitive reason why you would want to raise a teammate.
That was the case until 1915, when Marshall hosted West Virginia. Marshall went scoreless in the three games leading up to the West Virginia game and, Sol Metzger, West Virginia's coach, thought so little of Marshall he told a reporter he would "eat his hat" if Marshall scored. Metzger's prediction appeared spot on when his team took a 36-0 lead in the second quarter, but Marshall ran several successful plays in a row to near the West Virginia goal line. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Brad Workman, Marshall's quarterback, then called a trick play. As Workman dropped back to pass, his big tackle, Blondie Taylor, and small end, Dayton "Runt" Carter, ran downfield. (At the time, offensive linemen were allowed downfield on all passing plays.) Once behind the goal line, Runt Carter climbed onto Blondie Taylor's shoulders and caught the pass thrown to him by Workman.
Sometimes called the Skyrocket pass, Marshall's "Tower Play" was its only score that day. Incensed by Marshall's tactic, WVU's Sol Metzger ran up the score, earning another fifty-six points on the way to a 92-6 victory.
The following year, Henry Kendall College, now the University of Tulsa, had a season quite unlike Marshall's. With victories over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Tulsa was undefeated entering the season's final game against Missouri School of Mines (Rolla), having outscored their opponents 450-20. Tulsa was up 34-0 early in the second quarter when they again approached the end zone.
Through the Tulsa season, players goofed around during practice by having their massive 215-pound tackle, "Puny" Blevins, lift their 126-pound end, Virgil Jones, onto his shoulders just as halfback Ivan Groves tossed the ball to Jones. Despite never completing the pass in practice, Tulsa successfully executed the stunt against Rolla, adding six more points to a 117-0 win.
The legends surrounding both tower plays indicate that the rule makers soon made such plays illegal, but a rule change did not occur. Nevertheless, Tulsa's 1916 touchdown appears to have been the last time a teammate lifted an offensive player into the air as part of a planned play. Teams likely chose not to run the tower play because they became increasingly proficient at throwing the ball to receivers running conventional routes, which was more effective than the Tower Play.
While that was the last time an offense reached new heights, defenses chose to send a man or two into the air as well. Fast forward to the 1933 Oregon-Oregon State Civil War game played at Portland's Multnomah Stadium. It is not clear what motivated Oregon State's coach, Lou Stiner, in the second to last game of the season, to try something new. However, it likely was a combination of the interstate rivalry and his good fortune to have Clyde Devine, a 6' 6" center, who, like his teammates, played both ways during the single platoon era.
Oregon State deployed its pyramid defense on each Oregon field goal or extra-point attempt. It consisted of both tackles grabbing one of Devine's legs, and hoisting him into the air at the snap of the ball. Perhaps the pyramid surprised the Oregon kicker since the Devine blocked the Ducks' first attempt on their way to a 13-3 loss to Oregon. Once again, the legend suggests a new rule was put in place the following year, but nothing of the sort seems to have occurred.
That brings us to the 1965 season, when football's kicking game was beginning to change. Throughout football history, almost all kickers used the conventional or straight-ahead technique. Soccer-style kickers popped up now and then, but only a few were better than their traditional counterparts while also possessing the talent to make a roster as a position player. Jim Fraser was one of the few. A Denver Broncos linebacker, punter, and backup kicker, he booted a few sidewinder extra points during the 1962 season when the primary kicker, a running back, became winded after long touchdown runs.
But the real impetus for change was Pete Gogolak, who kicked for Cornell in the early 1960s before joining the Buffalo Bills for the 1964 season. Pete had a younger brother, Charlie, who kicked for Princeton in 1965 when he booted six field goals in a game the week before Princeton played Cornell. So, put yourself in Tom Harp's shoes. As Cornell's head coach, he enjoyed having Pete Gogolak on his team during Pete's junior and senior seasons, but now the soccer shoe was on the other foot. Charlie Gogolak was the upcoming opponent.
We don't know if Harp knew of Oregon State's 1933 pyramid defense, but rather than hoist one tall player to block the kick, Harp doubled down (or up) and had a pair of defensive backs stand on the shoulders of their defensive tackle teammates.
The pyramid defense was intimidating and may have contributed to Gogolak missing his first field goal attempt of the game, a 35-yard yarder. But the pyramid was not all it was stacked up to be since Gogolak made his second attempt from 54 yards and his third attempt from 44 yards, all while staring into the upper and lower teeth of Cornell's defense.
The story and images of Cornell's pyramid defense appeared in every paper a day or two later. One might have expected other teams to copy the pyramid defense, but no one did. Few teams opposed kickers with Gogolak's talent. He also kicked from a two-inch tee, gaining sufficient height to sail over Wilt Chamberlain standing on his own shoulders. More important, while the four players executing the pyramid scheme might cause some misses, they made the defense vulnerable to the offense running or passing the ball against the seven remaining defenders. Moreover, the boys atop the pyramid were subject to dangerous falls if opponents blocked the pyramid.
When the rules committee met in 1966, they legislated against pyramid defenses, adding a rule that prohibited players from placing their feet on a teammate's shoulders before the snap. Since then, additional changes prohibited players from putting their feet on a teammate's back. Later, it became illegal for players who were not within one yard of the line of scrimmage at the snap to leap over blockers. The combination of rule changes leaves nothing up in the air regarding the pyramid defense. It is illegal, The Tower Play, on the other hand, remains legal, but it is unlikely we will ever see it executed again.
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