Anatomy of a Hail Mary

You don’t want to have to throw a Hail Mary pass.  In fact, calling a Hail Mary means that literally everything else in your playbook is useless at this point, and you might as well just throw the ball up and pray (hence the name).  You are out of time and still trailing.   You have to score now.  You are too far away for any of your regular plays.  Even in this moment of desperation there are some things that can be done to make the Hail Mary a little more likely to be answered.

Get close enough.  Most teams don’t have a quarterback who can throw the ball the length of the field.  Some can throw around 70 yards, but 60 yards of distance is a safe bet for a college quarterback.  To get the ball to the end zone, you are going to need to be around your own 40, and the closer you get the better your chances are.

Throw to the end zone.  To the end zone, not out of the end zone is the proper place to throw the ball.  If you throw the ball out of the back of the end zone, it doesn’t matter if your player catches it; it’s useless.  If you throw the ball short of the end zone, then even in the unlikely event your receiver catches the ball, he still must overcome a host of defenders to get to the end zone.  Adding degrees of difficulty for your receivers isn’t the way to succeed here.

Give your QB time.  Your quarterback has to have a strong enough arm to throw to the end zone, and your receivers have to have enough time to get to the end zone.  To allow that to happen, your quarterback needs about 4 seconds to run around, load up and heave the prayer toward the goal line.  A strong defensive rush frustrates these musts, so block the rushers.  Roll the pocket if you need to, but give the quarterback time to throw the ball downfield.

Get lucky.  Some people like to send someone from the backside short or try to have as many receivers in the end zone as possible, but there’s no strategy at this point.  You need to have the ball come down in the right spot and have a receiver with the presence of mind to get the ball.  You also need defensive backs to make a mistake.  If multiple defensive backs know where the ball is going and they are already standing there, they can usually knock the ball down.


It’s rare that a Hail Mary works, so it is worth breaking down how it worked when it does.  On Saturday, BYU beat Nebraska in Lincoln behind a last second Hail Mary.  The first think BYU did was get into position.  They were trying to get close enough for a field goal, but they didn’t make it.  Instead they lined up on the Nebraska 42 yard line for their throw.

The second thing the Cougars did to increase their chances was protect their quarterback.  BYU had 7 blockers available against on 3 defenders for Nebraska.  The result was plenty of time for quarterback Tanner Mangum to throw the ball

Screen Grab Credit: ESPN, BTN

Screen Grab Credit: ESPN, BTN

Magnum threw the ball to the end zone, but just barely.  It was caught on the goal line, and the receiver was immediately tackled.

BYU also got lucky.  Look at the two receivers who didn’t catch the ball.  They had no chance to make a play.  It wasn’t that they were in bad position; they were in the end zone where they were supposed to be; they were unlucky.  But one BYU receiver wasn’t unlucky, and one is enough.

The Cougars did all the little things they were supposed to in order to give themselves a chance to win.  Even then the odds were against them, but sometimes the long shot wins, like Saturday in Lincoln.

About Billy Koehler

Billy Koehler is the founder of and a contributing writer at He has been covering college football since 2006. You can follow him on twitter @billykoehler.
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