The triple option offense has a long history of being a highly effective scheme at the college level when operated with efficiency. Though it has waned in popularity as coaches have moved toward spread offenses based in option principles in recent years, the triple option is still used by a handful of programs, most notably service academies like Air Force, Army and Navy.
Often seen as an equalizer for teams that lack the ideal size or speed to run more mainstream offensive sets, the triple option requires intense preparation from opposing defenses that must devise game plans containing detailed assignments and responsibilities for each player.
Saturday’s contest marks the second time the Sun Devils will defend the triple option in two seasons, as ASU defeated New Mexico and its triple option attack 58-23 last season. ASU will also host New Mexico next weekend, which means the Sun Devils’ defense will face two different styles of triple option opponents in back-to-back games.
Last year, ASU limited New Mexico to just 207 rushing yards and 3.6 yards per carry, which are considerably low totals for a team that averaged more than 300 yards per game on the ground last year and more than six yards per rush.
Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said ASU's staff has extensive experience scheming to defend the triple option, as he grew up in a time and region where the triple option was prevalent throughout all levels of football.
“It’s like anything else, I think the one thing is you have to be disciplined in any style of offense you play anymore because they all have option principles within their system so you have to be disciplined anyway,” Patterson said. “We’re pretty familiar with this style of offense, Coach (Graham) and I both ran these style of offenses in high school and played growing up in the Midwest, it was option football, and veer, and outside veer, and midline veer, so we have a very good understanding of these style of offenses.”
Though the triple option has a number of complicated variations teams that run it have mastered throughout the years, the foundation of the offense comes down to a few basic principles. On most plays, there are three different potential ball carriers, thus creating three options for the offense to attack the defense with.
At the snap of the ball, the quarterback makes an initial read to determine whether to capitalize on the first option. Typically, the primary option is handing the ball to a dive back cutting through the heart of the defense. If the quarterback determines to keep the ball instead of hand off, the quarterback then makes a second read and discerns whether to rush the ball himself toward an outside gap or to pitch the ball to the third potential ball carrier, most commonly referred to by defenses as the pitch back.
To effectively stop Cal Poly’s running game, ASU is placing an emphasis on defending from the inside out, and taking away each potential ball carrier, or option, one-by-one. ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said there’s an expectation for the interior defensive linemen to take away the dive back, or the fullback, and eliminate the Mustangs’ ability to rush up the middle.
“You have to play your assignments, you can’t get cut at the line of scrimmage, you have to take away the fullback if you’re an inside player and you have to play fullback to quarterback,” Shipp said. “It is assignment football.”
The danger of misplaying a responsibility can cause a catastrophic error for a defense defending an option offense, and ASU was able to prevent that type of breakdown from happening last year against New Mexico.
The Lobos’ longest rush went for 25 yards, and when an opponent attempts 57 rushing plays, that’s a fairly strong showing. Redshirt junior defensive end Edmond Boateng said watching film of last year’s contest against New Mexico has helped in preparing for Cal Poly, especially because current Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive lineman Marcus Hardison had a strong showing at defensive end for the Sun Devils.
“Absolutely, I’m actually watching New Mexico film as well as Cal Poly film and I know it’s really going to help me see Marcus Hardison play really well that game and I’m just trying to emulate that and play even better,” Boateng said.
If ASU’s defensive front is able to dominate on the interior and force Cal Poly to explore its second and third options, Boateng’s responsibility as a defensive end heightens.
The quarterback’s ability to read the defensive end is often times the defining, make-or-break, part of the triple option’s success. If an end stays grounded in fundamentals, the defense can limit big gains. But if an end chases after other players’ assignments and doesn’t make key reads, option offenses can torment defenses by attacking that particular read.
“Somebody is focused on the quarterback, somebody is focused on the pitch, somebody is focused on the dive,” Boateng said when breaking down ASU’s defensive responsibilities for this week. “If one is miscued, an open run can go at least 30 yards or 40 yards every time. In my position, I really have quarterback to dive, so I’ve just got to stay focused, get up the field, have my feet constantly moving and once that triple read option happens in the play, stay focused and if the quarterback tries to keep it, I’ve got him and if the dive goes, I stay assigned and focused on the dive.”
If Boateng and fellow defensive end and freshman Joseph Wicker combine to take away Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown’s ability to make plays in space, the onus is on ASU’s linebackers and defensive backs to come up and shut down the final element of the triple option: the pitch back.
Some of the most well-trained option teams are content with averaging four to five yards per rush on the ground, and slowly forcing second and third level defenders to creep up toward the line of scrimmage to take away the perimeter running game.
If this happens, option teams will often resort to play-action passes that include vertical threats designed to catch opponents off guard and put them on their heels.
Junior Spur linebacker Viliami Moeakiola said committing to defending the run and still being able to stay back in pass coverage is one of the most challenging elements of stopping the option, and facing an aggressive offense like Cal Poly is no different.
“Basic football, the d-end having their guys, the linebackers having theirs, and then in the secondary, it’s about not falling asleep,” Moeakiola said. “You can get lulled to sleep with run, run, run and they hit you over the top with a 50-yard pass. So that’s the biggest thing is just staying focused every play, and reminding each player what their job is.”
Even with the success ASU had at stopping all three elements of the triple option against New Mexico a season ago, the Sun Devils aren’t taking anything for granted this week against an FCS opponent. Cal Poly has led the FCS in rushing yards in each of the past two seasons, and the Mustangs return a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Brown and slotback Kori Garcia.
To make matters slightly more challenging, Cal Poly’s version of the triple option has small but significant variations from the scheme New Mexico showed against ASU last year, so the Sun Devils have had to prepare for an option quarterback to start under center, as opposed to in shotgun formation.
“New Mexico was a little different than Cal Poly because Cal Poly is mostly under center, but it’s all just like the same concepts,” sophomore WILL linebacker Christian Sam said. “So we’re just practicing learning it every day.”
Because the Mustangs start under center and have demonstrated a propensity to keep the ball in their quarterback’s hands for much of the past two seasons, ASU is even more focused on taking away the interior options first and forcing Cal Poly to run the ball to the outside. Junior defensive tackle Viliami Latu said ASU will adjust its personnel accordingly, so that it can make the most of the size and strength advantages the defense has at the line of scrimmage.
“This offense has us running more of a stronger kind of front, a heavy front, because they’re running the ball most of the time and you won’t see a lot of passing so we’ll be pretty beat up, up front, but we’ll be alright,” Latu said.
After attempting just 13 passes in last week’s victory over Montana, the Mustangs made it clear their ability to have success on offense hinges on execution in the run game. Cal Poly ran for 330 yards against the Grizzlies, and for the Mustangs to threaten the Sun Devils, they will need a similar force of efficiency.
To combat the Mustangs’ style of play, Moeakiola said ASU must prioritize defensive communication, and can’t afford to have any mental lapses. Moeakiola’s teammates echoed his sentiments, saying each player has a responsibility against the option and it’s of the utmost importance that those players take care of their own business first.
“Communication is vital to this defense, everything that we do,” Moeakiola said. “If one guy is not in their right responsibility, that could be a touchdown, that could be a huge gain so communication is the focal part of this defense so we’re blessed with great leaders out there. Salamo (Fiso) and (Demetrius) Cherry doing their job so they make it easy for us on the back end and the linebackers will do our job.”
Though operating the triple option and stopping the triple option require teams to stay disciplined with assignments and responsibilities, there are so many offensive elements for defensive units to consider on each play. Motion, deception, and key reads are all critical factors in games involving triple option teams, and ASU will be tested in many different regards come Saturday.
After having success against triple option offenses in the past, Patterson knows what this Saturday’s game is about. The second-year defensive coordinator has studied and prepared for the triple option many times before, and he said Saturday’s result depends on his personnel’s ability to play within itself and systematically break down each individual component from the inside out.
“It’s not just about one person on the dive, one person on the quarterback, one person on the pitch, you’ve got to give multiple people to the dive, multiple people to the quarterback and multiple people to the pitch and if not you’re going to have one-on-one open field tackles,” Patterson said. “You miss one tackle, and all of a sudden, now you’ve got big plays so we’ve got to eliminate that from happening by putting more than one person to those particular assignments but it always starts with stopping the dive and stopping the quarterback.”