Georgia Southern’s vaunted triple option, one that rolled up 528 yards – 283 on the ground – against a Georgia Tech defense used to defending similar schemes, has the Mountaineers talking discipline and assignment football. It’s the same taglines used whenever defensive approaches are matched against a non-spread option-style team. So to really drive home the point, the WVU coaches are considering taking the ball out of practice when certain run fits are applied.
That buries the tendency to worry about where the ball might be, and translates the focus onto an individual defensive assignment when facing the run game.
“If you’ve got the quarterback, take the quarterback. If you’ve got the pitch man, take the pitch man. If you have a gap, cover that gap,” said safeties coach Joe DeForest, whose hybrid players at bandit and spur will be critical in supporting the front six and making plays in space against a team that loves to gain the perimeter. “Smoke and mirrors. There are so many things they can do, we have guys assigned to A,B and C. Let’s don’t let all that motion and ‘Where’s the ball?’ worry us. Just do what we tell you to do. If they go to pitch it and don’t, good. It was because you were there.”
West Virginia is trying to get a better feel for new GSU starting quarterback Favian Upshaw, thrust into the top role when Kevin Ellison faced academic suspension for the first two games. Upshaw completed 19 of 27 passes for 285 yards and a pair of scores last year (176.1 passer rating) while rushing for 385 yards on 40 carries – an average of 9.6 per carry. The redshirt junior will make his first collegiate start on Sept. 5, which will also be his first in four years.
The man tasked with emulating Upshaw is WVU reserve quarterback David Sills. At 6-3, 198 pounds, the athletic Sills is West Virginia’s best option – no pun intended – at mimicking Upshaw’s ability to run while mixing in a threat to throw that saw the Florida International transfer hit on six of 12 passes against Tech.
“We said this when we saw the game on the schedule, that it was going to be the hardest of the year for our kids to be disciplined,” DeForest said. “And especially with the first game of the year being amped up, we hope they don’t go crazy and just want to make plays. We want to do our assignments. It’s better to play this in game one as opposed to two or three where you have fewer days to get ready.”
One shouldn’t confuse Georgia Tech’s under center option with that of Southern, a shotgun-style attack that operates out of the pistol, created by Chris Ault at Nevada in 2005. The versatility of pistol, with the quarterback four yards off the line, aids GSU as it accompanies the set not with one back, as Nevada traditionally did, but at times with multiples and the ability to hit a defense with the dive, keeper or pitch to the back or receiver on an end around/option as ball carriers pick an opening in the zone blocking.
It also doesn’t resemble Navy, a more power-oriented style that often used immediate cut blocks off the snap to take defensive linemen out of the play. Georgia Southern instead wants to get players moving in one direction, then cut them during pursuit back to the ball.
“They will do it on the backside plays when they are trying to stretch it,” WVU defensive line coach Bruce Tall said. “Because they are not under center, they are not hitting it as quick on the cut blocks. But there are certain plays they will try and slice you pretty good. … You see spreads throughout the year, but this is different. It’s the system. I’m sure you want certain players in there, but it’s always the system. That’s how they built it.”
Another surprising facet of Georgia Southern is their ability to avoid turnovers. Despite the numerous pitches, the Eagles gave up possession just 12 times (lost eight of 20 fumbles, 4 INTs) last year during a 9-3 season in which they went 8-0 in Sun Belt play to win the conference during their initial foray at the FBS level. Two of three GSU losses were by a combined five points to Power Five foes in NC State and Georgia Tech. Navy beat Southern 52-19.
“It’s unique,” Tall said. “It’s the only team you’ll see this year with that kind of style. They are well-coached and they can clearly do the assignments correctly. They know how to win down there. My last year at Charlotte, we saw some of those teams like the Citadel and Georgia Southern.”
But what Tall lacked at Charlotte, besides the raw speed and talent level of West Virginia, was its experience. The Mountaineers start redshirt seniors at nose tackle, all three linebacker positions and one cornerback slot. Karl Joseph is a senior at free safety. Daryl Worley is a junior corner. And flanking Kyle Rose at nose are a pair of redshirt junior ends in Christian Brown and Noble Nwachukwu. That, and the movement and ability to play in space should provide some security for coordinator Tony Gibson, even against a team that returns the top Sun Belt back in Matt Breida; the junior led the league with 123.8 yards per game last season and an average of 8.7 yards per carry with 17 scores.
“Hey, they gotta prepare for the 3-3-5, which is unique,” Tall said. “They have their work cut out for them as well. It works both ways. I’m sure they’d rather see a three down (3-4) or four down, 4-3 style. We can see things and we have guys who really can run well, so we want to take advantage of what we can do. We have kids that understand how you can make fixes. Sometimes you have to do things by experiment, too. You can draw it up all you want, but sometimes the things that look good on the boards might not work as well when you get on the field. You have to be able to adapt, and when you have older kids you can do that.”