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The triple option: an in-depth look

(Photo: Courtney Pedroza/WCSN)

The triple-option has been around for almost seven decades and it is still one of the most effective offenses in college football. While very few schools run traditional triple-option attacks (the service academies and Georgia Tech being the most notable) that does not mean it has faded away. On the contrary, triple-option concepts can be found in the offenses of some of college football’s best programs today.

Urban Meyer’s shotgun spread triple-option that incorporated a west-coast style passing game helped lead Florida to two BCS National Championships and has lead Ohio State to a 25-2 record in the last two-plus seasons. Auburn nearly repeated Florida’s success, winning one BCS title in two attempts with Gus Malzahn’s warp-speed spread option. And who can forget the video-game-like numbers Oregon has put up using an elaborate system of multiple types of option plays?

Nevada made a quantum leap in option football with the introduction of the pistol formation. Although the formation went unnoticed for the first few years, everyone paid attention when Nevada became the first team in NCAA history to have three 1,000 yard rushers in 2009, running the option out of the pistol. Since then, the pistol has been adopted by almost every team in college football and the NFL.

Bob Davie hates facing the triple-option after his years at Notre Dame facing the service academies. Yet Davie has combined the pistol formation with a traditional triple-option offense, similar to the one used by Army, Navy and Air Force, as he attempts to rebuild the New Mexico Lobos. Although it is not obvious by looking at wins and losses, Davie’s system appears to be working. Last season the Lobos averaged over 308 yards rushing and 32 points per game. In their season opening loss to UTEP, New Mexico rushed for 410 yards and averaged nearly eight yards per carry.

This attack could put a lot of stress on the Arizona State Sun Devils’ defense when they face the Lobos in Albuquerque on Saturday. The Sun Devil defense lost nine starters from last year’s unit and are still looking for the right combination of players following their season opening win against Weber State. Head coach Todd Graham said he was not pleased with his defensive front’s lack of pressure on Weber State quarterback Billy Green.

Preparing for New Mexico’s option attack presents a new set of challenges for Graham and the Sun Devils. Graham noted at practice on Wednesday New Mexico’s greatest strength was their team speed at the skill positions. One mistake on defense could lead to a big play, as is what usually happens against most offenses, however option attacks have an ability to force mistakes that do not usually happen.

“The triple-option is the great equalizer of athletic ability,” Graham said on Wednesday, “and it can really, really make you look bad. All you got to do is leave one guy uncovered.”

What is it about triple-option offenses that frustrates defenses and defensive coaches like Graham or Davie? The short answer is: basically everything.

The Fast Break

The triple-option is similar to the two-on-one fast break in basketball. On a fast break, the ball handler dribbles up the court and forces the defender to make a decision. If the defender attacks the ball, the handler will pass it to his open teammate. If the defender hangs back to defend the pass, the handler will drive for a layup.

In option football, this can happen as many as three times. The first time, the ball handler- the quarterback- is stationary and reads a certain defender who is left unblocked, usually the defensive end or outside linebacker. If the end or backer attacks the quarterback, the ball is handed to the fullback (aka dive back). If the defender attacks the dive back, the quarterback can pull the ball and run to the edge.

In a normal read-option situation that’s it. However, in a triple-option, a slot back (aka pitch back) who usually comes in motion before the snap follows the quarterback. If the quarterback keeps the ball on the first read, his next read is of the linebacker or safety he sees next. The quarterback can keep the ball or pitch it depending on what the defender does.

With these reads and the fact no one knows where the ball is going, including the quarterback until the split-second he decides, it is hard for the defense to key in on a specific player or play. If the fullback has three straight 15 yard gains and the defense decides to bring an all-out blitz to stop him, the quarterback will simply keep it and could be in the endzone before the defense realizes it tackled the wrong guy.

Cuts and Angles

Defensive linemen hate facing the triple-option because of the blocking used. Traditional  triple-option teams like Georgia Tech and Navy use cut blocks, or blocks below the waist, to block. In most offenses, the linemen get up out of their stance to block. In the triple-option, linemen go low. It is a dangerous play, taking the legs out from under a defender while he is trying to get up out of a stance, but it is effective.

Angles are also a key in blocking for the triple-option. The offense has chosen to leave a defender unblocked (the end or linebacker on the first read) so that is one less person to worry about blocking. While the guards and tackle opposite the side the play is being run to block one way, the tackle on the play side blocks another, leaving the end or linebacker alone, and creating a double team.

The center can either cut block, double team, or stand up and become lead blocker for the dive back. Wide receivers and slot backs not involved in the read portion of the play are become blockers downfield on corners and safeties, usually.

Blocking for the option can also be tough for defenses because the offense can run the same play four times in a row, but block differently each time. A team can gain six yards on one play, run the exact same play on the next down and gain 56 yards simply by adjusting one blocking assignment.

The Fourth Option

Earlier in this article it was mentioned that the quarterback can make up to three reads on a triple-option play. The first two reads give him three options: Hand the ball off, pitch it or keep it (hence the name).

The third read gives the quarterback a fourth option. Yes. The triple-option can have four options. While most people will say this is impossible, they are forgetting one thing: Option teams can still throw the ball if they want.

The triple-option can lull defenses to sleep fairly easily because despite the different formations, it is essentially the same play over and over again. Right up until it’s not.

Running the ball every down, even on third and long, causes the defense, particularly in secondary, to creep up towards the line of scrimmage pre-snap. On one hand, this is a smart idea because the closer a safety or corner is to the line, the quicker they can provide run support.

Wide receivers are blockers on most option plays but every once in awhile, they can fake a block and get behind the defense. If the receiver gets open downfield, and the quarterback sees him, it can lead to a huge pass play. If the receiver is covered, the quarterback can still make his usual reads and decide whether to hand off, pitch or keep.

Triple-option teams rarely throw the ball, if ever, but the passing game is a huge weapon for them. In 2009, Demaryius Thomas recorded 1,154 yards on just 46 catches. That’s an average of about 25 yards per catch. Triple-option teams can throw the ball. They just pick their spots.

How ASU Can Stop It

The triple-option is dangerous but it is not unbeatable. Coaches and players always use the terms discipline and “assignment football.” Todd Graham mentioned this in his press conference on Wednesday stressing that the smallest error can lead to a big play.

Defensive end and devil backer coach Paul Randolph echoed Graham’s point on Wednesday, saying players need to understand and execute their responsibility whether it is to cover the dive or the pitch or the pass. Randolph said the players were focused and doing a good job with their preparation.

Depth could also be key for the Sun Devils. New Mexico’s fast-paced attack is designed to wear out a defense so multiple players will play at each position to keep guys fresh in the fourth quarter.

All of these things will help the Sun Devils win but they do not guarantee a victory. Inexperience is ASU’s weakness. The Sun Devils faced Navy in the 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl but this is almost an entirely different defensive unit. The devil backer position is unsettled with the departure of Carl Bradford and that position could be critical to stopping the triple-option.

With the devil backer being a hybrid of defensive lineman and linebacker, New Mexico could key in on that position and use it as the primary read for its plays. It is important for whoever is lined up at devil backer to be not get caught in the blocking scheme of New Mexico and try to create pressure in the backfield while also containing the play. It is a tough job but Randolph did not seem worried saying he was excited to see all three guys – Antonio Longino, Edmund Boateng and De’Marieya Nelson – take on the challenge.

The secondary is also a question mark with the cornerback positions not established. New Mexico’s big play ability will challenge the secondary’s ability to cover the run and pass, sometimes on the same play.

Bottom Line

The best way for the Sun Devils to win is for the offense to score early and often. A big lead against a triple-option team can take them away from their game plan of running the ball almost every play.

If the Sun Devils do this and force some turnovers, which they surprisingly did not do against Weber State, then they are sure to win. Even if the Sun Devils win- which they are favored to do by 25 points- how the defense plays will either answer a lot of questions before conference play starts, or raise more.

You can follow Matt Harden on Twitter @MattHarden_

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