Preparing For The Triple Option
From 1992 to 1994, I was a defensive graduate assistant coach at Vanderbilt University. Our Defensive Coordinator was a wonderful coach named Carl “Bull” Reese. He taught me a lot about football and was a pleasure to work with. His favorite saying for our defense was “The ball is the issue.” He believed, as I did, that the most important ingredient to playing quality defense was pursuit to the ball and gang tackling when you got there. Imagine how I felt then in 2008 when Coach Davis decided our defense would practice the entire week without a football as we prepared for Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson’s triple option offense.
Playing defense against the triple option is a demanding form of assignment football. On the triple option, the offense has the possibility of three different people carrying the ball every play depending on how the defense reacts. First, the quarterback could hand it to the fullback if the defense doesn’t account for him. He is reading a defender called his “give key.” If that defender doesn’t tackle the fullback, the quarterback will “give” it to him. This is the first option.
The second option is for him to “pull it” from the fullback’s belly if tackled by the “give key” and run it himself. However, after deciding to “pull it” the quarterback must read his “pitch key.” The quarterback approaches this particular defender and forces him to make a decision. If the defender takes the quarterback, then the ball will be pitched to a halfback. If the defender doesn’t take the quarterback, he will keep it and run.
Therefore, on every play the defense must account for 1) the fullback diving up the middle, 2) the quarterback running off tackle, or 3) the halfback receiving the pitch on the perimeter. Defenders can’t diagnose the play and simply run to the ball because the play unfolds as the defenders react. On every play some defenders are assigned to tackle the fullback, some to tackle the quarterback, and some to tackle the halfback. If a defender is not strictly focused on his assignment then this offense can make very talented defenses look foolish.
The triple option compromises a defense’s ability to pursue and gang tackle. On every play two thirds of the defense will not be where the ball is. Therefore there are many unassisted tackles when playing Georgia Tech and one-on-one tackles are a lot easier to break than gang tackles. For a defense as fast and talented as the Tar Heels were in 2008, with the likes of Bruce Carter, Robert Quinn, Quan Sturdivant, and many other NFL caliber players, Coach Davis removed the urge to fly to the ball by removing it in practice. By removing the football, Coach Davis smartly forced our players to focus strictly on their assignments. Those assignments were to tackle the fullback, quarterback, or halfback. For one week out of the year the ball wasn’t the issue.
The number of possessions when playing a team like Georgia Tech is interesting to study. Two weeks ago in the game against State, UNC had 19 possessions. In five ACC games this season the Tar Heels average 14 possessions a game. More possessions often equals more plays and spread offenses thrive on running lots of plays.
Conversely, Maryland had 11 possessions last week in their game against Georgia Tech. In the six ACC games that Tech has played, their opponents average only 11.8 possessions per game. This is because Georgia Tech’s offense tends to milk the clock by remaining on the field for time consuming drives.
One way Tech keeps drives alive is by going for it on fourth down. Twenty times the Yellow Jackets have attempted to covert a fourth down, averaging more than one per half. Interestingly, the other three programs in the country that run the triple option, Army, Navy, and Air Force, have an average of 27.3 fourth down attempts for the season. This stat indicates that anytime a triple option offense crosses the 50-yard line, they are likely to be in four down territory.
It can be frustrating to a play caller when your offense sits on the sideline for eight minute drives. In Georgia Tech’s recent win over Boston College, the Tech offense held the ball for a remarkable 43:35 of the game. For a team like UNC, which wants to build an identity on the number of plays it runs in a game, having 2 or 3 fewer possessions is a real concern.
When I was the Offensive Coordinator for the Chicago Bears, I worked with a man named Rex Norris. Rex was our Defensive Line Coach and had served as the Defensive Coordinator at Oklahoma under Barry Switzer. Those Oklahoma defenses regularly ranked near the top of every statistical category. One of the reasons for those high rankings, Rex told me, was because their defense only had to play 15 to 20 minutes of the game. The Sooner offense, which was the triple option from the wishbone formation, would regularly be on the field for over forty minutes per game.
Another thing that I feel is important when playing Georgia Tech is to play with a lead. Georgia Tech is not the type of team that is built to play catch-up football. It was the only game of the year that Coach Davis would take the ball to begin the game as opposed to deferring until the second half. And if we could get up two scores in the second half and force the Yellow Jackets to pass, then we felt strongly that the game could be ours.
In 2008, UNC won the toss and Cam Sexton took us down the field on the opening drive for a 7-0 lead. In the 4th quarter we were able to increase our lead to 21-0 forcing Tech to throw the ball. We won the game 28-7 in what I think is a solid template for beating Tech. Our disciplined defensive unit forced three turnovers and held twice on fourth down attempts. Offensively, while we did not win the time of possession we did play with a lead the entire game. We had zero turnovers and attempted to covert four fourth down conversions of our own. Obviously, the best way to defend the triple option is for it to remain sidelined. One of our fourth down attempts was a 31 yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks sealing the victory in the 4th quarter.
Each year as I prepared to play Georgia Tech I would think about Dean Smith’s brand of “Four Corners” basketball. I’ll bet fast breaking basketball teams felt similar frustrations when preparing to play Carolina’s brand of ball control, milk the clock style of play. I think Paul Johnson realizes, like Dean Smith, that it’s tough to score when you don’t have the ball.