Among the most popular sets for Southern – and the one we’ll review today – is a 20 personnel grouping (two backs, no tight ends) with the backs stacked to the right of quarterback Favian Upshaw. A typical strong side run formation, the Eagles can also easily throw out of the look with twin receivers to the right and a single wideout aligned far left. This look aims to put pressure on the basic 3-3-5 set by having five players (the receivers, plus the two backs and the QB) as potential ball carriers against corner Terrell Chestnut, spur K.J. Dillon, sam linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and end Noble Nwachukwu.
Add in the right guard and tackle, and that’s a possible seven on four match-up, five when WVU brings the free safety down or slides mike ‘backer Jared Barber. The set-up gives GSU the primary options of a power keeper with Upshaw, or a direct hand to Matt Breida with fullback/motioning tight end blocking from either L.A. Ramsby (5-1,, 210 lbs.) or Jeff Ward (6-0, 255 lbs.), respectively. In this diagramed play, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson had Ward at the blocking back spot, lined up in front of Breida, but that still makes the grouping essentially a 20 because Ward won’t operate as a tight end.
The Eagles can also utilize their option game, with Upshaw and Breida both attacking the perimeter, and the quick hitter with Breida blasting up inside behind Ward. There are other choices. A fake or real handoff to Breida, coming across Upshaw and trying to find an alley in the zone blocking scheme between nose Kyle Rose and end Christian Brown, or a keeper off that fake where Upshaw attacks the same right side behind Ward and blocking from the wideouts.
The prototypical play action threat is also present, which will cause Chestnut to man his passing assignment first, and could force Dillon to hesitate as well depending upon his assignment of a receiver, or any of the backs on the play. With the myriad of possibilities, it’s little wonder the formation is a favorite of head coach Willie Fritz, who used the formation multiple times in the second half comeback against Georgia Tech that rallied the Eagles from down 35-10 at the break to a 38-35 lead late in the fourth quarter. One score, from inside the five-yard line after a long throw off a similar look, came on a straight handoff to Brieda that got GSU within 35-24.
How to counter all the options? Read the keys. The initial second following the snap tells much, from the first steps of the backs and Upshaw to how the line fires off, and which players they initially block, and which ones they try and let slip past on the backside to instead engage linebackers at the second level. There’s more to it than that – though nothing Gibson wanted given away – but suffice it to say that read progression is as imperative as any other aspect, including playing sound, assignment football. If Upshaw and Beida break the same way, it’s basic option football on the perimeter in an attempt to gain a numbers advantage.
If Breida breaks across Upshaw for a potential handoff, it could mean a keeper to the right or a run to the left, where Georgia Southern is hoping Rose and Barber got caught up in the wash of the initial strong side look, and can’t recover in time. That would give the Eagles, still with a numbers disadvantage, enough time for perhaps a shorter gain against Brown and weakside linebacker Shaq Petteway.
Defensively, watch Barber to see how he’s slicing into the formation to gain good inside-out pursuit. Check the play of Kwiatkoski to see if he’s heads up against Ward, and if he can gain outside leverage on the play while Barber moves in from the inside. Upshaw will also drop and throw out off the set, so eye Chestnut to ensure he’s playing pass first, then, arguably the player with the most dynamics to handle, Dillon to see what his assignment could be, from Upshaw to the pitch man in Breida.
Has West Virginia plugged the gaps? Can GSU block Rose one-on-one, or does the senior force a double-team, a key aspect Gibson and defensive line coach Bruce Tall know will make stopping the triple option much easier. The more players Rose can occupy at the line, the fewer there are to chop down ‘backers at the next level, a Georgia Southern trait out of the zone blocking style. The Eagles don’t cut the line initially, like Navy or other traditional veer-based option teams. Instead, they begin chopping on the second level, when linebackers are trying to scrape down the line to take gaps and reach the ball.
Where does free safety Darvon Askew-Henry line-up? Is he playing closer to the box, or providing coverage or help over the top? It’ll be the sophomore’s 14th start in as many career games, but this could be his biggest challenge to date in terms of reading and reacting to the flow of play. At the right corner, has Daryl Worley got his eyes stuck in the backfield, with his ma-to-man assignment getting free? Or has the corner been able to lock up that side of the field on the snap, forcing Upshaw to look elsewhere, where there’s likely more help from linebackers and Askew-Henry.
And how, exactly, is West Virginia aligned? The basic diagram of the play was from a base set, the linebackers behind the nose and ends, and the spur and bandits just outside the sam and mike slots. But one can bet the linebackers will align a bit more to the strong side. Where is Dillon? Is Nwachukwu playing a five technique on the outside shoulder of the tackle, or is he in a four, or manning the B gap? How does Rose attack?
And all of that is just in one play. There’s a lot to watch on both sides in the match-up, especially the adjustments both coaching staffs make after a few series as Georgia Southern reacts to how West Virginia is playing them, and the Mountaineers begin to use their plethora of games played to make adjustments on the fly – an issue Tall says is made far easier by the sheer experience of starting three linebackers, a nose tackle and a corner that are fifth year seniors.
West Virginia’s starting unit, in fact, has amassed a combined 328 games played with 170 starts. That’s an average of 29.8 games played and 15.5 starts, meaning an average defensive starter has more than two full seasons of games played, and a full season-plus of starts – averages nearly unheard of at the collegiate level. Georgia Southern, conversely, has just four players that have more than a dozen career starts with five having six or fewer.