Defending the triple option attack

Coming into Arizona State’s week two matchup against the Lobos in Albuquerque, there’s been much discussion revolving around New Mexico’s triple-option offense . As head coach Todd Graham said in Monday’s press conference, it takes discipline and assignment-sound football to stop a triple-option attack, where the offense uses misdirection and a variety of fakes to get the defense out of position.

The last time the Sun Devils played an option style offense was against Navy in the Craft Fight Hunger Bowl two years ago. There’s not one player on the ASU first team defense that played in that game, and as a whole, the unit is very young with only two starting seniors.

With that amount of youth in the starting eleven, the discipline needed to stay assignment-sound against a triple-option team comes into question. Yet, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson isn’t all that worried.

“I think that’s why coach builds the team the way he does,” Patterson said. “If you’re disciplined in everything you do, then obviously that’s going to carry over to the field no matter what style of offense you’re playing. I don’t think we need to be all that concerned because that’s how we build our program. All we are doing is asking our guys to key what they’re supposed to key and fit what they’re supposed to fit.

“Option football is so assignment sound, you have to play team defense. You can have ten guys do what they are supposed to do, and when one guy doesn’t get it right against any given offense, things will break down. All offenses today have some form of triple threat.”

Although the Lobos fell 31-24 to UTEP in the season opener, they showed just how effective their running game can be, gaining 410 yards on the ground on 52 carries.

Quarterback Cole Gautsche rushed for 184 yards and two scores in week one, but will not start against the Devils because of a hamstring injury sustained late in the game against UTEP. With Gautsche out, the Devils will be able to focus more on the Lobos’ skill positions.

“The one guy that you obviously have to be aware of is (wide receiver) Carlos Wiggins,” Patterson said. “The strength of their offense is definitely the skill people, they all have great speed.”

New Mexico’s style of the triple-option is a bit more modern compared to that of a Navy. The Lobos show multiple looks out of under center, pistol and shotgun formations, where Navy is primary under center.

Despite the differences, Patterson said the concepts of the offense are essentially the same.

To give an idea of the variety of looks that the Lobos show, below are screenshots of some of the different formation styles Arizona State is likely going to see at some point on Saturday.

A more traditional triple-option with the quarterback under center, two wings and a tail back about four yards directly behind center.

A pistol approach to the triple option.

An I-formation look from a pistol set.

With the amount of players in the backfield on any given play, the Lobos demand attention inside the “box.” More often than not, the Sun Devils will have eight players near and around the line of scrimmage. That leaves three on the back end tasked with covering the wide receivers, or filling in on run support if the ball carrier gets to the second level.

“Any time you play an option style team, you put stress on your secondary,” Patterson said. “It’s not necessarily just the corners and not necessarily just the safeties; it’s a combination of everyone involved. And it depends on what you mean by stress – is it stressed because of what you’re asking them to do with the pass, or because of asking them to help out in run support? It just changes from formation to formation and play to play.”

Special teams seeking improvement

Patterson on the continued woes of the special teams unit: “We are going to do a better job this week kicking the football. I was very pleased with kickoff coverage, except for the first kick on Thursday. Even with that debacle, we still held them to 19 yards or less on average. Matt Haack was disappointed that he didn’t kick the ball well, but he’s going to do better and start gaining confidence.”

For a couple of years now, the Devils have been lacking explosiveness in the return game. Patterson expects that aspect of ASU’s game to change in the next coming weeks.

“We really didn’t get an opportunity to return one because the kicks were so deep in the end zone last week. I know for a fact that in fall camp we showed the most progress in our return game, so hopefully we will get a chance to show that this week.”

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