Though its glory days as a featured scheme in college football have long passed, the triple option offense is still a great equalizer, and Arizona State found that out the hard way in a 35-21 victory over the Cal Poly Mustangs on Saturday night.
Despite hailing from the FCS ranks, the Mustangs entered the fourth quarter of Saturday’s contest deadlocked at 21 in a battle with the Sun Devils thanks to a pesky, run-heavy attack that wore down ASU’s defensive front.
After leading the FCS in rushing yards in each of the past two seasons, Cal Poly put its punishing approach on display in a fashion that sucked energy and life out of the Sun Devil defense.
“I thought the biggest thing tonight was we didn’t play very well defensively,” Graham said. “We gave up too many rushing yards, they sustained drives that I don’t know how many minutes they had, but I was shocked when I looked at the stats and I saw the rushing yards. They had 330 yards of total offense, I thought it was 5,000. It was the most stressful, those games stress me out more than any games.”
Of the Mustangs’ 62 offensive plays, 58 were run plays compared with just four passing attempts. The unconventional approach worked against the Sun Devils’, who entered Saturday’s contest as heavy favorites despite dropping an opening week matchup with Texas A&M. Facing a triple option team comes with the expectation that the more physical side will win each repetition, and in the second and third quarters, the Mustangs out-hustled and outworked the Sun Devils at the line of scrimmage.
While Cal Poly racked up just 50 yards on 16 first quarter rushes, the Mustangs attempted to gash the Sun Devils’ with the primary option of the triple option scheme, the dive back, as the game wore on. Led by sophomore fullback Joe Protheroe, Cal Poly engineered a pair of second quarter touchdown drives including an eight-play, 64-yard scoring drive that exclusively featured dive plays.
“That triple option is obviously difficult and we’ve played it before, we just didn’t handle the cut blocking,” Graham said. “They were cutting us down up front, and we started off pretty good, but then people stopped taking their assignments. We’ve got to be disciplined against the dive, then the quarterback to the pitch, and we cannot get our ends to close to the dive.”
In the third quarter, Cal Poly continued to exhaust the ASU front, which lost junior defensive tackle Viliami Latu to an injury in the first half. Playing a tackle short, ASU put the onus on sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood and redshirt senior defensive tackle Demetrius Cherry to play the remainder of the game on the interior of the defensive line.
ASU’s defensive depth became a pressing issue as the Sun Devil offense failed to put together consistent scoring drives, which allowed the Mustangs to keep their upset hopes alive. After losing Latu, redshirt junior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso, sophomore safety Armand Perry and redshirt senior Devil backer Antonio Longino also needed medical attention during the course of the game.
The Sun Devils’ struggled with injuries throughout the game, but Longino said it wasn’t the Mustangs’ physicality that took its toll on the Sun Devils. Instead, Longino expressed frustration with the cut blocks taking place along the offensive line.
“They aren’t really that physical, that’s why they’re cut blocking. They’re not that physical, but they do hurt your legs, I can tell you that.”
Graham echoed Longino’s sentiments, saying he wished cut blocking was outlawed altogether in the game of football.
“It’s hard to prepare in a week for that,” Graham said. “I’m a no vote for ever doing that again in the preseason. All the cut blocking, you see how many ankles, we’ve got about four or five guys on crutches after the game. I wish they would outlaw that. I think it’s, I wish they just couldn’t do it.”
The triple option is often employed by teams that lack the ideal size and speed to run more conventional schemes, and cut blocking is a tactic utilized by linemen who might otherwise be overmatched. Together, the triple option and cut blocks created a nightmare for ASU, which joined the ranks of power conference teams who struggled against competition they were expected to dominate.
“Bottom line is, I was sitting in my room today watching Gus (Malzahn), my buddy Gus, go into overtime against Jacksonville State, and I was thinking, man this isn’t something I want to do,” Graham said in reference to Malzahn’s Auburn team. “So it was pretty stressful.”
After notching 124 rushing yards in the second quarter, the Mustangs tacked on 83 yards on the ground in the third quarter which helped Cal Poly even the score at 21 heading into the final 15 minutes.
ASU’s inability to stop Cal Poly’s running game stemmed from the challenges it had in shutting down the dive back, as the Mustangs veered from their typical approach to take advantage of a hole they found in ASU’s scheme.
Instead of relying on returning 1,000-yard rushers in redshirt senior quarterback Chris Brown and redshirt junior slotback Kori Garcia, Cal Poly called upon Protheroe and redshirt sophomore fullback Jared Mohamed to shoulder the load. Brown and Garcia combined for just 55 rushing yards, compared to a combined total of 205 yards for the fullbacks who saw the majority of their carries come on dive plays.
“It’s smash mouth football,” redshirt senior safety Jordan Simone said. “They’re going to try to run down the field, you know, it’s physical vs. physical and the man that defeats the other man is going to win. At the end of the day, that’s what football is, and when you play defense at Arizona State, you play physical.”
Simone led ASU with 12 tackles on the evening, which is a sign the Mustangs broke through to the second and third level of ASU’s defense more frequently than the Sun Devils would have hoped. Against the triple option, defenses have their best success when defensive linemen and linebackers are pushing the offensive line backward, and ASU wasn’t able to control the point of attack during the middle quarters against Cal Poly.
ASU’s effort left much to be desired for its players and coaching staff, and even though the Sun Devils are happy to move on from Cal Poly, they will face a similar challenge against New Mexico on Friday night.
For the second straight season, the Sun Devils will square off with the Lobos, another team that operates a triple option attack, and they will have to do so on short rest. The Sun Devils have one fewer day to prepare, but Simone believes ASU can rebound and ready itself for another run-heavy opponent by committing to playing a more physical game.
“The person that out-physicals the other person is going to win, and whether we have one day, or six days, or eight days, it doesn’t matter, we’re going to be prepared because these coaches do a great job of getting us prepared every week,” Simone said. “We’re really excited to watch the film and learn.”
ASU limited the Lobos to just 207 yards on a 3.7 yards per carry average last year, but the Sun Devils will need to find an answer on the interior for this year’s matchup now that Cal Poly has exposed one of ASU’s weaknesses on film.
With a battle-tested and bruised defensive front, ASU has limited time to correct its mistakes and ensure it doesn’t keep Friday night’s outcome in limbo as long as it did against Cal Poly on Saturday.
“All that matters is you’re 1-0 in games like that,” Graham said. “They’re obviously catastrophic if they go the other way, but if you go and win them, they make you better. I’m proud of how our guys responded in the second half.”