For the second consecutive week, the Arizona State Sun Devils will play host to a team featuring a triple option offensive scheme, the New Mexico Lobos. Saturday’s matchup with New Mexico marks the fourth time in three-plus seasons under Todd Graham ASU will defend a triple-option offense, and after facing Cal Poly last weekend, it’s safe to say the Sun Devils know what to expect. This is especially true because they played at New Mexico a year ago, winning 58-23.
Even though they’re taking on a Mountain West conference opponent they hold a size and speed advantage against, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re excited about facing another offense predicated on running the football and forcing defenses to master assignments and responsibilities.
In fact, at Monday’s press conference, Graham lamented having to play back-to-back triple option opponents, stating he wasn’t sure how well prepared his defense would be for facing more conventional schemes come conference play.
Still, there are lessons to be learned from defending the option that could provide foundations for the necessary awareness and communication it takes for defensive players to gel together, and ASU knows it needs to capitalize on these opportunities.
The Sun Devils surrendered 330 rushing yards against Cal Poly, and often times lacked the ability to stop the Mustangs’ primary option, the dive back, on interior running plays. This was a point of emphasis for ASU players and coaches heading into Saturday’s game, and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson credited Cal Poly’s ability to exploit one of the Sun Devils’ weaknesses.
“Everything we talked about going into the game, we struggled stopping the dive,” Patterson said. “Early in the game, we made some adjustments, then they started attacking us on the perimeter so you’ve got to give them all the credit, they played well and executed at a very high level.”
On two of the three occasions ASU has defended the triple option, against Navy in 2012 and against Cal Poly this year, the Sun Devils have allowed more than 300 rushing yards. The other time of course was in Albuquerque last September, when the Sun Devils allowed just 207 yards on an average of 3.6 yards per carry.
What was the difference for the Sun Devils last year? In all likelihood, it starts with the way the Lobos run their triple option scheme. Not all teams that run the spread offense run it in the exact same manner, and the same goes for teams that run the triple option.
While Navy and Cal Poly operate under veer and midline veer principles, the Lobos employ a zone blocking scheme, which Patterson says is more of a perimeter-based attack.
“When you have people in a three-point stance, almost a four-point stance, the fullback is three yards from the football running the inside veer, midline veer, it’s so quick-hitting and before you know it it’s a three-yard gain, four-yard gain,” Patterson said. “Now, everything is out of the gun (shotgun), which obviously, defensively we’re built for. Because there’s triple option principles even in our system offensively so to me, it’s more of a perimeter attack. If you look at most of their big plays, that’s where it comes, out on the perimeter when they get the ball, with the quarterback pitching the football.”
Aside from the Lobos’ willingness to attack the edge, Patterson alluded to a significant difference in the way New Mexico runs its offense. Instead of lining up under center, Lobos’ redshirt sophomore quarterback Lamar Jordan aligns in shotgun formation, often with a back or even two backs flanking him.
This alignment can slow the development of option running plays, which eliminates a component of the veer and midline veer ASU defenders loathe: cut blocks.
“They (Cal Poly) were trying to cut you off and get as many yards as they can, as opposed to New Mexico, which is running out of shotgun,” sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood said. “So they do a lot of zone left and zone right, they don’t do a lot of midline veer like Cal Poly.”
There are pros and cons for triple option teams to run zone schemes, but one of the advantages the Lobos find more frequently than teams like Cal Poly and Navy is an ability for offensive linemen to get to the second level and make downfield blocks. Instead of taking themselves out of a play temporarily with a cut block at the line of scrimmage, linemen are looking to make combination blocks and work toward the linebacker level to spring longer gains for ball carriers.
In assessing New Mexico’s blocking scheme, ASU players and coaches agree the Lobos create more challenges for their opponents when their perimeter run game is working well. Freshman defensive end Joseph Wicker said the shotgun and pistol alignment for the quarterback makes dissecting the option more difficult, and he said he’s drawing on his experience defending the option in high school to help his preparation process.
“It’s pretty hard to know what they’re doing, there’s a trickery to it, and you’ve just go to stay in your assignment,” Wicker said. “I played against the option in high school so it’s not really anything new, but it’s different in college.”
New Mexico’s approach to running the triple option also differs from veer teams in the way the Lobos’ offensive line aligns pre-snap. A team like Cal Poly will spread its linemen out further across the line of scrimmage to create wider splits that allow for better angles on cut blocks, while the Lobos will use more traditional splits used by other teams that have zone principles in their rushing attack.
“What happens is, when you get those wide splits out of the veer teams, it just creates angles to where, it’s just hard, it’s a tough deal,” Patterson said. “Their (New Mexico) spacing is different because they are out of the gun, they can’t have those wide splits because they’re not as quick-hitting as the true veer teams so I don’t see it (cut blocks) being an issue.”
Cal Poly elected to rush 58 times on 62 offensive plays against the Sun Devils, which is a breakdown that will likely shift to a slightly more balanced approach when New Mexico travels to Tempe on Friday.
In two games this season, the Lobos have passed on 29 percent of their offensive plays, and they have enjoyed mild success in opening up vertical routes. Junior wide receiver Dameon Gamblin will test the ASU secondary, as his 131 receiving yards against Tulsa marked the most by a Lobo in three-plus seasons under head coach Bob Davie.
With Jordan’s ability to scramble and a more dangerous threat in the passing game than ASU saw last year against New Mexico, the Sun Devil secondary will have a much more difficult time remaining disciplined against a team that at least possesses the threat of a downfield passing game.
“It’s a little bit different,” ASU defensive backs coach Chris Ball said of New Mexico’s offense compared to Cal Poly’s. “They’ve got a little bit more of a vertical passing game. They don’t have the same inside plays, most of it is zone, it’s a little bit different than what we saw last week. We just have to keep progressing toward the future, because once we get to Pac-12 play, we’ll be away from this stuff, so we’ll have to do our stuff.”
One adjustment ASU made this week as a result of an injury to sophomore safety Armand Perry was looking at true freshman Kareem Orr at the field safety position. Orr possesses strong cover skills, but like Perry, the coaching staff is high on his ability to step up in the box and make plays against the run.
Orr thinks playing safety helps him fit into ASU’s defensive game plan for New Mexico’s triple option, because he enjoys the physicality of coming up to stop the run and knows the Lobos intend to get the ball to playmakers on the perimeter.
“Really, because they are a triple option team we have a good scheme coming into this game for what they have,” Orr said. “We’ve got to come down for some parts during the game and we like to hit. Safeties like to hit so we ready for it.”
In last year’s game, one of the driving factors in the lopsided 58-23 final was ASU’s ability to dominate at the line of scrimmage and create turnovers. The Sun Devils offset three running plays of at least 20-yard first quarter by forcing two turnovers in the Lobos’ backfield.
After failing to notch a takeaway against Cal Poly, the Sun Devils have renewed their commitment to getting off the ball fast in an effort to disrupt the Lobos’ mesh point.
Smallwood says by beating New Mexico’s offensive linemen at the snap, ASU won’t have to worry about the types of blocks they face or the deception in the backfield, and can instead focus solely on making plays.
“With the triple option, it’s more just getting off on the ball,” Smallwood said. “That’s a great way to defeat a lot of blocks, and I feel like we do that, but we need to improve on getting off on the ball and not thinking so much. We run a lot of scheme, a lot of players think about the scheme, and we need to train our mind just to get off on the ball and everything else will take care of itself.”
Finding Offensive Rhythm
In the first two weeks of the season, ASU has struggled to hit on explosive plays, sustain drives and maintain the offensive tempo the program has become accustomed to under fourth-year offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.
This week, the Sun Devils are hoping a New Mexico team that allowed more than 400 rushing yards to ASU in last year’s meeting and 600 yards of total offense to Tulsa on Saturday will provide an opportunity to find rhythm.
Norvell believes one of the main issues with ASU’s offense this season is a lack of continuity. In a span of 10 days, three different offensive linemen have missed game or practice reps due to injuries, while sophomore running back Kalen Ballage and redshirt junior running back De’Chavon Hayes expected to miss Friday’s game.
ASU has attempted to adopt a “next man up” mentality, but there’s only so much that can be done in a span of two weeks in terms of making sure all the moving parts and pieces are on the same page.
“The mentality is that the next man has to be ready,” Norvell said. “Does it present challenges when guys go down? Most definitely, especially when it’s multiple guys at one position and you have to move things around and look at how you’re dispersing the touches, the reps, making sure that you’re keeping guys fresh, still being able to play at a fast tempo but that’s what coaching is about.”
Senior wide receiver D.J. Foster had a career performance against New Mexico a season ago, racking up 216 rushing yards en route to finishing with 270 all-purpose yards.
After switching to receiver this offseason to free up a crowded backfield and aid a receiving unit in need of star power, Foster finds himself practicing at running back once again thanks to Ballage’s illness and Hayes’s injury.
Foster insists he’s willing to help the team in any capacity he can, but he stressed how difficult it’s been for the Sun Devil receivers to find timing and rhythm with redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici this fall.
“We’ve just got to find our chemistry, get out here and keep practicing hard and get our timing down with Mike (Bercovici) and make sure that Mike is protected as long as possible and keep our rhythm and tempo going in practice,” Foster said.
One receiver still working to foster a relationship with Bercovici is junior Tim White, who raced out to a fast start in fall camp before missing significant time with a left hand injury.
White found himself back in action on Saturday against Cal Poly, but didn’t make his presence felt until late in the fourth quarter. A 59-yard scamper around the edge, a 19-yard reception that included a devastating spin move, and a four-yard touchdown reception demonstrated the potential White has flashed, and Bercovici said he believes White will become a reliable playmaker for ASU this season.
In looking ahead to the New Mexico game, White says ASU’s receivers must win their individual battles to achieve success.
“Just a lot of one-on-one’s that we are going to have to win, man coverage and blitzes,” White said when asked about expectations for the game.
There’s no doubt a New Mexico defense ASU broke down last season represents a grand opportunity for the Sun Devil offense to make a statement heading into conference play.
So far, ASU has underwhelmed, and against Cal Poly, the Sun Devils failed to meet their own expectations in terms of red zone efficiency. On two occasions, ASU had the ball inside the Cal Poly 10-yard line, and both times ASU’s offense failed to come away with points.
Through two games, the Lobos have allowed opponents to score touchdowns on just 25 percent of red zone possessions, and though statistics are often skewed early in the season, ASU knows the importance of snagging six points and putting away a middle-tier opponent after struggling with Cal Poly on Saturday.
There are a number of kinks ASU is hoping to work out this week, and Bercovici said he’s excited to see the offense continue to try to establish an identity. After showing glimpses of potential last week, it’s up to the Sun Devils to meet the expectations they’ve set for themselves in their final nonconference tune up.
“Like I said, we want to play fast,” Bercovici said. “We want to play 90 snaps a game. We don't have to trick everybody. Because when we get rolling, we get rolling, and I think we showed that on Saturday night is that we have play making abilities to get ten yards a carry. As a quarterback and the offensive line, you love that. The big plays will happen once we start establishing the identity and get teams on their heels.”