CLEMSON — Eric Mac Lain, the former All-ACC Clemson offensive lineman, was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday night with several former teammates when he noticed Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles was on the move.
Then it clicked.
“I saw Foles walking over to the right tackle and I was like, ‘They’re about to throw it to him. They’re about to throw it to him,” Mac Lain said. “And then they did — and it was just absolutely taking me right back to when we did it at Clemson with Tajh (Boyd) and (DeAndre) Hopkins.”
Deja vu at its finest.
Sunday night, when Foles and the Eagles dethroned Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, 41-33, it was a trick play bound for Philadelphia history that helped define the outcome and swing the momentum. The play, which came 38 seconds before halftime, was an idea head coach Doug Pederson copied from the Chicago Bears, via Clemson.
It called for Foles to split right, giving way to running back Corey Clement to take the snap.
Clement then flipped the ball to tight end Trey Burton. Burton threw the fourth-and-goal pass to Foles, who sold the play by standing still for a split second after the snap. Foles ran a route into the corner of the end zone for an easy touchdown.
Foles became the first player in NFL history to both throw and catch a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl. The TD gave the Eagles a 10-point lead at halftime.
The play, Eagles players would later tell reporters, was called “Philly Special” and the Eagles admitted they got it from the 2016 Chicago Bears. But the Bears originally snagged it from Clemson — appropriately naming it the “Clemson Special.”
Perhaps in part thanks to Clemson, the Eagles have their first Super Bowl in program history.
“I’m a Gamecock,” Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery, who scored an earlier Philadelphia touchdown (and never lost to Clemson), told reporters at the Super Bowl. “But Clemson had run it that way.”
The Eagles can credit Chad Morris.
Back in 2012, when Morris was the offensive coordinator under Dabo Swinney, the Tigers ran the play with running back Andre Ellington, Boyd and Hopkins against Georgia Tech for a 2-point conversion. In the works for months — Mac Lain thinks Morris even had it up his sleeve as early as 2011 — Clemson sat on it, waiting for the perfect time to use it.
That time came Oct. 6, 2012, when Clemson was up five points on the Yellow Jackets and looking to create some distance. Like Clement, Ellington took the direct snap as a running back. He then flipped the ball to Hopkins, who threw a pass to an uncovered Boyd in the corner of the end zone, putting Clemson ahead seven. The Tigers won that game 47-31.
“It was a trick play that we practiced every week waiting on the right time to call it,” said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, who was the wide receivers coach at the time. “We had a lot of confidence it would work, but only wanted to use it when we really needed it. It was a scoring battle versus Georgia Tech that year and it came through for us when we needed it the most. Since then, it has been run multiple times at the high school/college and NFL level.
“I would guess the Eagles have had that in their back pocket all year for that kind of moment.”
When Foles caught the pass Sunday night, Mac Lain joked that the Philadelphia quarterback had an easier catch to make than Boyd, who had to make an athletic play on Hopkins’ throw. Boyd, the Clemson great, received a text message from now-Arkansas coach Morris 30 seconds after the Eagles executed the play Sunday night. When the Clemson ran the play, the Tigers called it "Detroit."
"(Morris) said 'How about Detroit, my man?'" Boyd said. "At that particular point (in 2012), in that moment, it worked out crystal clear. Perfect. But I dropped it a few times in practice, I’m not even going to lie. My hands were very suspect in that regard."
Moving forward, Mac Lain said he would not be surprised if the Houston Texans use another version of it for Hopkins and former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson in the future.
That the NFL is starting to tear a page out of college football’s book is a win for the sport, both Mac Lain and Boyd agreed.
“I think it’s great, No. 1 for Clemson’s brand and just the fact that we do kind of have that national attention and people are paying attention to what we do and the schemes that we run and different plays that we execute,” Mac Lain said.
"It was cool, but I’ve kind of got mixed emotions about it because every NFL team looks down on the college game as if it’s just a dumbed-down version of football. And then when they run it, now they look like geniuses," Boyd added. "Well, we’ve been doing this all along. This ain’t that new right here."