To Bruce Fowler, however, it's a nightmare. The Vanderbilt defensive coordinator has one measly week to prepare his troops to practice playing assignment football and picking up reads. For the last week the defensive coaches have been trying to prepare Vanderbilt's veteran defense for every possible variation Johnson might pull from his sleeve.
First the good news: it's an offense that Fowler and head coach Bobby Johnson have seen many times over the years. The two Johnsons faced off against each other often when both coached in the Southern Conference (Bobby at Furman, Paul at Georgia Southern), and several of their titanic duels have gone down in SoCon lore.
The bad news? One week is never really enough to prepare one's players to face the nefarious Navy attack. Last year in Vandy's Homecoming game in Nashville, Navy ran the triple-option to near-perfection, averaging nearly 6 yards per offensive play and dominating the time of possession in rolling to a 37-27 victory.
"Our philosophy has always been if you can get better at stopping something in a week than we can in 26 weeks of running it, you were going to beat us anyways," Paul Johnson says. "That's what we do. We're going to do it, and we will try and hit you with play-action if you put a lot of guys up there to stop it."
Vanderbilt (0-2) gets one more chance to do just that Saturday at 12:30 CT when it meets the U.S. Naval Academy (3-0) at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, Md. (104.5 The Zone).
"It's really tough, because they do it all the time," said Vandy's Bobby Johnson of the Mids' precise offense. "They wake up doing it. They do it to perfection. They've seen every kind of defense, every kind of adjustment that you can ever see against it. They just sort of adjust their rules.
"As for us, we've got to change major portions of our defense, and try to get people doing things that they haven't done yet this year. It's extremely tough, and that's why [the Navy offense] is such a good system."
Johnson also said the 2004 Navy team is probably better than the one that upset Vandy in Nashville last year.
"They have a new quarterback this year, but they haven't gone down a bit at the quarterback position. Everybody is a little more athletic, and I think their line is better."
Last year's loss to Navy left a bitter taste in the mouths of Vanderbilt's Homecoming crowd. The Mids' juggernaut offense picked up a whopping 29 first downs and 342 yards rushing, and held the ball for over 37 of the game's 60 minutes.
Not surprisingly, Navy currently ranks sixth in the nation in rushing with 310 yards per game. Through three games the Mids are also throwing for 130 yards per game.
Chris Candeto, the quarterback who led Navy to an 8-5 record and a win over Vandy last year, is gone, So Vanderbilt should have a big advantage there, right? Wrong. At Navy, it's all about Paul Johnson's system, baby, and much less about who's running it.
Starting QB Aaron Polanco, a senior, backed up Candeto for two years and is finally getting his chance. How's this for stats: he's averaging 103 rushing yards per game, while completing 69% of his passes. He's earned rave reviews for his artful execution of the tricky offense in the first three games, but perhaps his most important stat is that his team is 3-0 with him as a starter.
Navy lines up in a number of different formations, but the most striking is the split-T, in which a pair of wingbacks or "slots" line up just behind and outside the guards. You'll see starting slots Eric Roberts and Frank Divis serve as lead blockers on sweep plays to their side, or as ball carriers on plays going to the other side. Just about the time Navy has lulled the defense to sleep with a series of running plays, you'll see one of the two slots slip downfield and come open for the play-action pass.
Navy's starting offensive line averages only about 6-3, 275 pounds across the front. Too small to be effective, right? Once again, Navy compensates for a lack of size with quickness, deception, and a nasty, entirely legal cut-block technique designed to take a defensive lineman's feet out from under him. Penetration by defensive linemen is sometimes effective, but the constant threat of the quick-hitter by the fullback makes such penetration a risky proposition.
In the pure triple-option the quarterback's three options are (1) hand to the fullback on a dive; (2) pitch back to a trailing back on a sweep; or (3) throw a play-action pass. The quarterback, who can also keep the ball himself for a run, reads the defense as the play develops to determine which option has the best chance of being successful.
But as Vandy fans witnessed last year, that's just the beginning of the Paul Johnson offense. The Midshipmen run out of a variety of formations and have a seemingly endless array of ways to fool a defense on who has the ball and where the play is going.
The key to defending the option is playing "assignment football," where players are assigned to each aspect of the option. Each player, from the linemen to the linebackers to the defensive backs, takes one man. It's all coordinated, and if one man fails to execute his assignment, the result is usually a big play.
A cagey defensive coordinator can alter assignments from play to play to try to confuse a triple-option offense. For example, middle linebacker Otis Washington could be assigned to shadow Polanco or to support the defensive tackles on the dive. If that's the case, the responsibility of the pitch man might fall to outside linebackers Herdley Harrison and Moses Osemwegie.
If Washington is playing the dive and the outside linebackers and defensive ends are guarding the quarterback, then the safety would be responsible for the pitch man. Another variation would be the safety setting his sights on Polanco with the outside linebackers guarding the pitch. It varies on every play, depending on the call sent in by Fowler.
It's probably not realistic to think you can stop the attack for a whole game, but the key is to keep the quarterback guessing enough to slow down the attack and break its momentum.
If Vanderbilt has an advantage in this game, it's when the Commodores have the football. The Mids' stop corps is undersized, and hasn't yet faced a quarterback the caliber of Jay Cutler. Vandy rolled up 378 yards on Navy last year in a losing effort.
Much like the Commodores of 1999-2001 under Woody Widenhofer, Navy employs a 3-4 scheme to offset and disguise its lack of beef up front. Nose quard Babatunde Akingbemi weighs 282, but Navy doesn't possess another defensive lineman weighing over 250 pounds. Inside linebackers Lane Jackson (5-11, 217) and Bobby McClarin (5-11, 225) are the leading tacklers, along with free safety Josh Smith (6-2, 201).
Saturday's game, just like last year's game, should be a game of limited possessions. Bobby Johnson and the offense must know that every offensive possession is absolutely precious, and that each one must somehow produce points.
In last year's game Vanderbilt came back from a 14-0 deficit to take a 17-14 halftime lead. Navy went ahead 27-20 on a field goal, but with seven minutes left Vanderbilt was still in good shape to come back and win. On the ensuing kickoff, however, Navy tried a short, high kick, which was fielded in the air by an upback. Had he merely raised his hand to signal a fair catch, Vandy would have been poised for a game-tying drive; but he didn't, and was plowed over by a Mid and fumbled. A possession was lost, and after the turnover Navy was able to score again on a short but time-eating drive.
What's the lesson? You've got to play smart, turnover-free ball against these Mids. They play a rigidly disciplined and fierce brand of football, and they're poised to capitalize on any kind of mental mistake. Last year Navy had only five second-half possessions, and they scored on all five.
The keys to victory? (1) On offense, make the most of every possession. (2) On defense, play heads-up, mistake-free assignment football. (3) Win the first quarter; Navy outscored its opponents 123-30 in the first frame last year, including 14-3 vs. Vandy. Fall behind early, and Vandy is likely (pardon the pun) sunk; by the same token, build a big lead early, and you force Navy out of what it does so well.
Sounds simple, right? But against a Paul Johnson-coached team, it's so, so hard to do.
Navy's (in white) unique triple-option offense kept Vanderbilt's defense off balance for most of the afternoon on Oct. 11, 2003 (note the double-slot formation with two ends split wide). Navy won the game, 37-27.