CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The triple-option is a unique offense in college football, and most teams fear the potential of playing against it once a year. On Saturday, North Carolina will face the triple-option for the second time this month when it plays FCS-opponent The Citadel.
The Bulldogs (10, 8-0 SoCon) have run the unorthodox offense to perfection this season, leading the FCS with 359.9 rushing yards per game. Their trip to Chapel Hill will be The Citadel’s first chance to test their rushing-attack against an FBS-opponent this season.
The Tar Heels are confident about their ability to stop the flexbone formation because of a bit of recency bias – UNC beat Georgia Tech, the nation’s most notorious triple-option team, 48-20 two weeks ago. Head coach Larry Fedora’s team gave up 374 rushing yards to the Yellow Jackets, which doesn’t look as bad when you realize Georgia Tech ran the ball 59 times (6.3 yards per rush).
Junior defensive tackle Nazair Jones said it’s easier having already prepared for the triple-option two weeks ago.
“It’s comforting because we just saw it, it’s kind of recent,” he said. “We don’t have to create a whole new mindset, but just recall stuff from two weeks ago.”
Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik says that the Bulldogs are very similar to the Yellow Jackets, but they still have to adjust for slight differences that the typical onlooker wouldn’t notice.
“To the naked eye, it will be a lot of similar formations, it will be a lot of similar run plays and pass plays,” Chizik said. “If you’ve seen Georgia Tech enough, it will resemble that offense quite a bit. There a little bit of intricate differences here and there that the naked eye won’t see, but we do.”
The biggest difference between GT and The Citadel are the team’s approach to their passing game, according to senior defensive end Mikey Bart. He acknowledged that GT quarterback Justin Thomas is much more of a threat from the air than Bulldogs quarterback Dominique Allen.
“They’re about 90 percent the same,” Bart said. “They run about one or two more plays that Georgia Tech doesn’t, and they don’t really pass the ball at all. (Georgia Tech’s) Justin Thomas, you know, he’s a triple-option guy first but he can really sling it. (The Citadel's) quarterback is good, too, but he's not the pocket passer that Justin was. We’re going to have to stop the run and then worry about the pass.”
Allen averages 8.8 passing attempts per game.
While The Citadel doesn't thrive in the passing game, the Bulldogs do succeed on runs to the edge. If they have any hope of keeping up with the Tar Heels, they will need to run the ball towards to the perimeter – that was the type of run that Duke quarterback Daniel Jones torched UNC with in last week’s loss to the Blue Devils.
Senior cornerback Des Lawrence said defending on the edges all comes down to discipline.
“Just like any other triple-option team if they can get to the edge that benefits them,” Lawrence said. “That’s where they get most of their yardage. We have to be disciplined so that if they get to the edge we can make those tackles.”
While the Tar Heels feel prepared for the triple-option, they aren’t exactly thrilled to be going up against it again. Bart said it'd be preferred to use a non-conference game week against a Power-5 conference school with a normal offensive scheme.
“It is something that’s irregular, it’s not something that’s the norm,” Bart said. “It would have been nice to play against maybe like a Minnesota or something like that up north; a team we’ve never played before. It would have been cool, but you know it’s just how it worked out.”
Bart assured that Tar Heels will still take the Bulldogs seriously, citing their defensive performance against James Madison earlier this season as motivation – the Tar Heels gave up 209 rushing yards to the Dukes.
“We are going to be locked in 24/7,” he said. “You already saw what JMU did to us and they’re an FCS team like The Citadel so we can’t take anybody lightly. You’ve got to respect everybody.”